One of the most influential people in the search for Maryland's new football coach isn't actually part of the athletic department. He sits on the university's board of trustees, but he doesn't work for them on a full-time basis. And yet, he will likely be the man who delivers Maryland its next head coach. That man is Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank.
His involvement in these negotiations usually is mentioned in the articles and reports that are about Mike Leach. But he usually just gets a one-sentence mention as a major booster for the Maryland football team, when in actuality he is so much more than that. To understand what Plank means to the new head coaching search however, we need to understand where he came from.
Plank attended the University of Maryland in the early '90s and joined the football team as a walk-on, ultimately becoming a special teams captain. Which, as you may or may not know, is probably the most popular guy on the team among non-superstars. It's usually the guy who makes the most out of his talent and plays with a chip on his shoulder. Plank wasn't the best player on the team, but he was a fan favorite, which is a great way to build allegiance to a program.
Under Armour was born while Plank was still a Terp. He was tired of having to change his t-shirts during practice when they were soaked with sweat. After he graduated in '96 he tried to find a material that would wick the sweat away from the body, and could withstand hours of intense activity without needing to be changed. Once he found that fabric and started making shirts, there was no looking back.
We already know the story of Under Armour's success. It has become a major part of the athletic-wear market, which had previously been dominated by Nike, Reebok and the like. In the past ten years or so, Under Armour has become huge and Plank has become really, really rich. Like super rich.
One of the major benefactors of that wealth is the Maryland football program. Under Armour, and Plank himself, have become major parts of the Maryland athletic scene. Every Maryland team wears Under Armour at this point, and Plank is a very influential voice from the board of trustees. It's very similar to the relationship Oregon athletics has with Nike, except Maryland tries to keep it to just a handful of football jerseys.
So what does all that mean for Mike Leach, the possible next coach at the University of Maryland? Well, each of those "one sentence mentions" that Plank gets claims that the two have a very good relationship. We can assume this dates back to Leach's time at Texas Tech, which is one of the other NCAA football schools that wears Under Armour jerseys.
Prevailing opinion is that Mike Leach would be a Kevin Plank hire. Or, at the very least, that Maryland is a much more attractive opportunity for Leach given its ties to Plank. Either way he is arguably the largest reason that Leach has been rumored to be the guy picked to coach the Terps after Ralph Friedgen was forced out.
Of course their good relationship is a major reason why, but I also believe the system Leach runs is an important part of this decision. Leach runs the type of offense that garners national attention all by itself. It would be very beneficial for Plank if his school was a major part of the national football lexicon. it's good for him as a Maryland alum, and it's good for his company that backs the school. It doesn't hurt that Leach's offense would help fill the stadium, which would be a welcome site considering Maryland's recent struggles with attendance.
Which brings us to how that position became vacant. During the press conference where they announced that Ralph Friedgen would not be Maryland's next head coach, Athletic Director Kevin Anderson also announced that they would buy his contract out using entirely Athletic Department funds. Even University president Wallace Loh said during the press conference that he didn't know where the money would be coming from. Well, I know a guy who has a bunch of dough and a certain fondness for the Maryland football program. Just saying...
It appears, at least from my outside perspective, that Plank may be pulling the strings on this whole situation. James Franklin's departure to Vanderbilt and Friedgen's contract status made Friedgen expendable, but Plank's fabulous wealth and influence is making hiring Leach a possibility. Plank might be operating behind the scenes, but rest assured that he is the most important character in this play.