On Monday, just hours before Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach died from complications of a heart attack, a Lubbock, Texas, judge ordered Texas Tech to produce documents and the school’s chief information officer to be deposed, all as part of an increasingly complicated public-records lawsuit.
The order was what Wayne Dolcefino calls a “critical point” in Leach’s long-running effort to restore the damage to his reputation caused by allegations that led to his dismissal as head coach of the Red Raiders. Now, with the coach’s untimely passing, Dolcefino hopes that the legal fight will continue.
As with so much in life—and after it—the decision will likely come down to money.
For the last six years, Dolcefino has served as the proxy plaintiff for Leach, who was fired as Texas Tech’s football coach in 2009 following accusations that he had mistreated an athlete that had complained of having a concussion. That player, Adam James, is the son of former ESPN college football analyst Craig James, who Leach would later unsuccessfully sue, along with ESPN, for defamation.
In firing Leach, Texas Tech alleged that the coach had failed to adhere to the terms of his initial suspension and later refused to fully cooperate with the school’s investigation. Leach subsequently sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination, claiming that he was owed $2.5 million from his contract.
That lawsuit was eventually dismissed on account of Texas’ sovereign immunity statute, which indemnifies the state’s public institutions from liability in most tort claims. But this effectively impenetrable wall did not deter Leach, who, prior to going into coaching, earned a law degree from Pepperdine University.
In 2017, while at Washington State, Leach engaged Dolcefino, a former television reporter turned “investigative” media consultant, to file open-records requests for documents related to his firing. After the university refused to comply, Dolcefino, with Leach’s financial backing, sued Texas Tech, commencing a war that was designed to help Leach recover his money and reputation.
“Sovereign immunity allowed Texas Tech university to cheat him out of $2.5 million,” Dolcefino said. “I am very sad that we could not get his money for him. Obviously, we started years and years after the original litigation, but this should never have been an issue. They should have paid the man what they owed him. There are people today who should be holding their head down.”
A Texas Tech spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The school’s athletic department tweeted out a remembrance Tuesday morning, saying Leach’s legacy at the school “will never be forgotten.”
Earlier this year, Dolcefino intervened in a separate lawsuit against Texas Tech, in Travis County, Texas, which dealt with records related to the school’s handling of Title IX sexual assault complaints.
Because Leach is not technically party to Dolcefino’s litigation, it can continue in spite of the coach’s death. Dolcefino says he would like that to happen—and believes that Leach would also want his comeuppance campaign to carry on. However, Dolcefino acknowledges it falls to the coach’s widow, Sharon Leach, to decide if she will continue footing the mounting legal bills.
“If Mike could tell (us) what to do, he would say, ‘Keep fighting.’ But it is also a question of money and what the end game is. What do we prove at the end of this if Texas Tech doesn’t want to pay him the money.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Dolcefino suggested that he would continue to do his part of the work for free but the litigation has so far cost about $300,000, with legal fees regularly running between $20,000 and $30,000 a month.
“While we certainly expect to continue the pursuit of justice and truth, we are in the process of speaking with Coach Leach’s family and Mr. Dolcefino on how to move forward,” said Michael Hurst, one of the co-counsels. “As we all know, Coach Leach lived and led on his own terms, and we expect to continue to seek righteousness in his name and honor.”
Sharon Leach did not respond to a request for comment sent Tuesday afternoon to Mississippi State’s athletics communications department.
Despite Mike Leach’s insatiate thirst for the Red Raiders’ retribution, Dolcefino says that the coach, who was earning over $5 million a year at Mississippi State, had grown increasingly wary of how much he was shelling out to go after his former employer.
“I know Mike was tired of the costs of trying to get the truth,” said Dolcefino. “It was a lot of money. Anyone who is spending money says, once in a while, ‘It is getting expensive.’ But we were getting close, I think.”
Over the course of the lawsuits, Dolcefino and Leach had remained in constant contact, speaking on the phone as recently as last week. Their latest discussion focused on Thursday’s deposition of Charlotte Bingham, the university attorney charged with leading the school’s investigation into Leach’s conduct. Dolcefino recalled Leach offering suggestions about what kinds of questions the attorneys should ask her.
Bingham, who retired from Texas Tech in 2021, testified that she was not acting in the capacity of a lawyer in the course of gathering factual information about the misconduct allegations made against Leach. Dolcefino viewed this acknowledgment as, itself, a small victory.
Bingham’s testimony followed a lengthy fight—including seven amended notices—by Dolcefino’s side to depose Ronny Wall, the university lawyer in charge of handling public records requests. Days before Wall was deposed on Sep. 23, the Texas Attorney General, who is charged in representing the state’s public universities in lawsuits, filed an emergency petition seeking a protective order that would either limit the questions Wall could be asked in discovery or, alternately, put Wall’s testimony under seal. The judge ruled against the AG.
On Oct. 18, the judge in the Travis County litigation denied Texas Tech’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction.
“It is extremely expensive to litigate these kinds of issues, especially since the attorney general is on their side, not your side,” said Dolcefino. “We have gotten a lot of the records … in a way, we may have gotten all we are going to get.”
As for Leach’s reputation, there might be little else to gain there, as well.
Once regarded as a Bobby Knight-like coaching pariah, Leach’s passing has been greeted by nearly unanimous veneration, with fans, media and fellow coaches extolling him as nothing less than a “national treasure.”
Still, it pains Dolcefino that Leach won’t have been able to witness Texas Tech stand trial, assuming the judge finds there is a fact issue at play.
Said Dolcefino: “Mike would have gotten such gratification, even if he didn’t get the money, to see the university punished in some way.”