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If Illinois AD Mike Thomas wants to make noise, he should pursue Mike Leach

If Illini fans could vote for new coach succeed RZook former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach would wlandslide. | Eric

If Illini fans could vote for a new coach to succeed Ron Zook, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach would win in a landslide. | Eric Gay~AP

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Updated: December 30, 2011 8:22AM

There are a lot of coaching ­vacancies in college football this year. But only one name moves the meter.

Mike Leach. Do a Google search on the former Texas Tech coach, and, presto, all the vacancies pop up with Leach listed as a candidate: Washington State. Kansas. UCLA. Arizona State. Mississippi. Memphis.

And, of course, Illinois.

With the firing Sunday of Ron Zook still so fresh, it’s not clear yet if new athletic director Mike Thomas would want to go the Leach route. Even if Leach agreed to come to ­Illinois, he’s a complex character.

There are risks involved in swinging for the fences.

But if the fans had a vote, it would be a landslide for Leach — admittedly because the other names are, as one source put it, ‘‘no-names.’’

In a sea of usual suspects, Leach is the unusual suspect.

He’s intriguing because he took a college football afterthought, Texas Tech, and built it into a perennial scoring machine that went to 10 consecutive bowl games, one for every year he was in Lubbock. Leach’s Red Raiders run peaked in 2008, when Tech had an 11-1 regular-season record. And the academic marks of his players were on a par with his offensive stats.

Born in California and raised in Cody, Wyo., Leach, 50, also is intriguing for a variety of off-the-field reasons. He didn’t play the game while attending BYU. A Mormon who’s married with four children, he also holds a law degree from Pepperdine and a master’s in sports science from the U.S. Sports Academy.

He has been on the sidelines the last two seasons since being fired. Fascinated by 18th-century pirates, Leach lives in Key West, Fla., and co-hosts a show on Sirius/XM satellite radio. He’s also a serious American history buff.

‘‘He’s going to get a big-time job this year,’’ a source close to Leach said. ‘‘If Illinois called, he’d listen. The Illinois job isn’t as inviting as the Illinois fans think it is, but it’s still a Big Ten school. And to get the fans back, you need a Leach.’’

Leach’s act would be a big departure for fans in central Illinois. But it would be entertaining until the real lure — winning — started happening.

‘‘All these other guys are no-names,’’ the source said. ‘‘Leach would put fannies in the seats right away. And if the new AD is serious about getting a foothold in Chicago, Leach’d be the guy.’’

That’s certainly the goal of Thomas, who said, ‘‘We need to be the king of Chicago,’’ when he succeeded Ron Guenther last August.

Hiring an admirer of Blackbeard, Daniel Boone and Geronimo would be a step in that direction.

If Illinois could outduel UCLA, Arizona State and all the other schools that seem interested in Leach — and persuade defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to keep doing his marvelous work in Champaign — Thomas would have a chance for his Windy City coronation.

There are, of course, red flags from Leach’s time with the Red Raiders. The bizarre incident in which he wound up being fired on Dec. 30, 2009, after disciplining a player, Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James, is one.

That controversy enabled Texas Tech officials to rid themselves of a complex five-year, $12.7 million extension they had given Leach after the 2008 season. Leach still has a wrongful-termination lawsuit pending against the school, as well as a suit against ESPN.

Some wonder if the Worldwide Leader put the kibosh on Leach’s hiring at Maryland when it seemed imminent a year ago. They also wonder if ESPN is still menacing Leach’s career.

So while there’s a lot of good stuff about Leach, there’s a lot of homework to do regarding the other stuff.

The question is, does Thomas take a whack at Leach? Coaches of his caliber aren’t always available to an Illinois.

Or does he play it safe with his first big hire?

We’ll find out soon.

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