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A familiar face has returned to Lubbock.
For all the talk about Kliff Kingsbury’s youth, wardrobe and ability to relate to players, there is one other major factor that should contribute to his success: He’s home.
Kingsbury’s birth certificate says he was born in San Antonio, but the five years he spent as a quarterback in Lubbock have made him as West Texas as the dusty wind that whips across the South Plains or the grassroots Flatlanders, who have helped bring the area to life with their songs for 40 years. His return to Texas Tech has created the kind of excitement that used to prevail when he was tossing it around 50 times per game (at least), and the Red Raiders were starting their journey to prominence under Mike Leach.
Lubbock is a different kind of place. It sits hundreds of miles away from its Big 12 Texas brethren, who are clustered — if it’s possible to be clustered in Lone Star country — on the state’s eastern half. If you’re going to win at Tech, you have to understand the culture. You have to embrace the land and the wind, especially the wind. The school doesn’t have the same pedigree as its in-state rivals, and as late as the 1960s there was a proposal to include it in the Texas A&M system. But Tech maintained its independence and moved on. By hiring five assistant coaches with direct ties to the school, Kingsbury has assured that there will be no learning curve for his staff when it comes to selling the school’s identity.
“Texas Tech fans and students have always had a chip on their shoulder, and they take pride in that,” Kingsbury says. “I hired five coaches who played here, and they bring great energy for the school.”
Tech needs that fire. Under former coach Tommy Tuberville, who surprisingly bolted in December to take the Cincinnati job, the program had drifted away from its personality.
“We have to find our identity again,” Kingsbury says. “I don’t know where it went, but it got lost. We have to establish our identity.”
Kingsbury aims to get that back — in every way possible. That he is doing it as a 33-year old head coach has brought him considerable attention. But the bigger story is that he is the absolute right man for the job, no matter what his age, or how many boosters send secret memos to school administrators suggesting marketing strategies that capitalize on his youth. A lot of people have played football at Tech. Only Kingsbury blends a true comprehension of the Tech essence with a sparkling football résumé and a rare ability to connect with college players.
“Age does not equate to experience,” says Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, for whom Kingsbury worked as offensive coordinator in 2011 at Houston and last year in College Station. “It’s the quality of experience that matters.”
Kingsbury’s 11 years after leaving Lubbock have provided a rock-solid football foundation. Although he threw a total of two passes during parts of four NFL seasons, he had the opportunity to learn from people like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England and Mike McCarthy in New Orleans. His apprenticeship under Air Raid savant Dana Holgorsen at Houston was akin to graduate work after three years with Leach in Lubbock. And all he did last year was run an offense that helped Johnny Manziel win the Heisman Trophy for the Aggies. But Kingsbury isn’t just a quarterback guy. Sumlin says he understands how to coach offense and how to direct players successfully.
“He’s got a big-picture view,” Sumlin says. “People talk about growth curves and how quickly everything happened for him, but I can tell you this, once you get to the coordinator level in the SEC, there is a lot of pressure involved. You are the head coach of the offense, and you have to be able to talk to your team in that role.”
Although Kingsbury was in College Station for just one season, he made an impact — well beyond Manziel. When he took the job at Tech, Kingsbury asked Sumlin if he could speak to the team. Kingsbury was honest and emotional, and after he finished speaking, one Aggie stood and applauded. Wide receiver Ryan Swope, who struggled to acclimate to Kingsbury’s attack — after authoring the finest pass-catching year in A&M history in 2011 — was moved. “(Swope) stood up and clapped,” Sumlin says. “Everybody did, and there were some tears shed.”
Including by Kingsbury. He isn’t just a fast-climbing coaching jet, although his trajectory is quite steep. His magic is found in his energy and ability to sell not only Lubbock but also his vision for success, in terms college kids can understand. Players are less inclined to listen to an old-schooler spout platitudes and time-tested recipes for success, even if they work. They want a modern touch — for better or worse — and Kingsbury provides that. He’s demanding and exacting in his approach, but one of the reasons Manziel was so successful last year was that Kingsbury let the quarterback freelance often within the confines of the attack. “He’s a quarterback’s quarterbacks coach,” says Case Keenum, who spent four of his six years at UH (2006-11) with Kingsbury. “He’s more inclined to check to a pass than to a run.”
It’s obvious that Kingsbury remembers well what it was like when he was a Red Raider. The whole staff, which includes only one coach older than 40, isn’t far removed from its playing days.
“Being young, we can relate to the kids, because only eight-to-10 years ago, we were doing the same things they are,” says co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, who played at Tech from 2001-04. “We relate to their struggles as student-athletes. They’re missing their moms and dads, and we can tell them how we dealt with that.”
Kingsbury is somewhat evasive about what kind of attack he’ll employ, but fans of Leach’s system will recognize plenty of similarities. The twists will come from Kingsbury’s time with the Patriots and with McCarthy, as well as his experiences with Holgorsen, a spread mad scientist in his own right. “(Kingsbury) does a pretty good job putting his own twist and slant on the offense,” Keenum says.
Mostly, Kingsbury wants to rediscover the mentality that helped Tech succeed under Leach, who wasn’t a West Texas native, but his “swing your sword” attitude played well with fans. Tuberville didn’t run from the South Plains mindset, but he didn’t embrace it, either.
Kingsbury holds tight to that personality. It doesn’t matter how old he is or what kind of clothes he wears.
“He’s up-to-date enough to wear cool brands of jeans and shoes,” co-offensive coordinator Eric Morris says.
It’s not about that, even if the alums want to market him that way. Kingsbury has returned to Lubbock, eager to rejuvenate the Texas Tech he knows and loves.
Right where he belongs.
Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Big 12 Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 Big 12 season.
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