By Jason Stanford
Handsome, rich, Christian and Republican, Craig James should have it made as a senate candidate in Texas. He's famous for playing football for Southern Methodist University and later for the New England Patriots. Lately he's gained new celebrity for doing color commentary on Thursday nights for ESPN's college football lineup. A universally known outsider running against lesser-known insiders, Craig James should be as popular in Texas as a pretty girl at closing time.
Not so much. Public Policy Polling just came out of the field with news that only 2 percent of Texas Republicans will vote for him for U.S. Senate. It's early yet, but if Republican political consultant Brian Mayes is correct, 2 percent is about where we should expect him to end up. In the interests of disclosure, I'm working for one of the Democrats in the race, and we aren't concerned with James in the slightest.
"It's not that people in West Texas don't like him," said Mayes. "It's that nobody likes him."
That's not hyperbole. Last year Stefan Hankin of Lincoln Park Strategies threw Craig James into a statewide poll and found that James was less popular in West Texas than Barack Obama.
That popular coach was Mike Leach, who went 84-43 at Texas Tech, holding the school record for wins. The Red Raiders went 5-7 in 2011, worse than any season under Leach.
Mayes is a 1991 graduate of Texas Tech University. Given half a beer and the slightest provocation he'll claim to "bleed black and red," the colors of his beloved Texas Tech Red Raiders. And under Leach, the Red Raiders popularized the spread offense and forced themselves into the national college football discussion.
Then Leach agreed to let James' son join the football team when he wasn't getting the playing time he wanted on the baseball team. Big mistake. James' son -- who became a bit player in his father's psychodrama -- hasn't really panned out at the college level. But using his ESPN credentials, James got onto sidelines during Tech practices and lobbied Leach to play his son. Failing that, Leach's lawyer alleged on The Finebaum Show that James would call the Texas Tech coaches from his ESPN booth during games to demand his son get on thefield.
"Nobody likes the helicopter dad, obviously," said Mayes.
These kinds of dads are well known on Texas football fields. I saw them when my sons, 10 and 8, played flag football. The specter of amped dads screaming, "Go hard!" and, helpfully, "You're playing a football game!" at their 8-year-olds was depressingly common. I saw one dad who "coached" his 6-year-old son so much that he made him cry at halftime. A buddy of mine quit coaching middle school football because of the helicopter dads. The archetype is so well known that the writers of NBC's Friday Night Lights created a character who got Coach Eric Taylor fired for—you guessed it—not starting his son.
Leach stuck to his guns, and why not? His team was going to bowl games and sending players to the NFL every year. You might have heard what happened next. James alleged that Leach made his son practice with a concussion and stand in a darkened shed as punishment. James hired a PR firm to push the administration into firing Leach. The Tech administration, eager to get rid of an increasingly powerful coach due an $800,000 payday in his contract, happily played along.
"The first thing you would do if you were truly concerned with your son is not to call a PR firm," said Mayes.
Leach denied the allegations in a tell-all book. Not surprisingly, everyone's suing everyone. Leach is now coaching at Washington State University, and James is enjoying the freedom that comes with being a 2 percent afterthought.
"I think 2 percent is his ceiling," said Mayes. "No amount of spin or fancy TV ads would make people forget that he did something dishonorable to Mike Leach."
Normally when you're at 2 percent, the problem is that people don't know you. James has the opposite problem. It says something that James recently admitting to taking "an insignificant amount" of money to play college football at SMU takes a backseat to his role in how Leach lost his job. Mitt Romney will take less heat for Bain Capital closing whole factories than Craig James is already facing for how he got one football coach fired.
James' vanity candidacy is a reminder that not all publicity is good publicity. James isn't the pretty girl in the bar. He's the guy who walks into a bar where all the women are friends with his ex.