Kingsbury Restores Confidence In Tech Fan Base

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Updated: 10/24/2013 8:13 am

From ESPN.com

By Jake Trotter

LUBBOCK, Texas -- The first few days on the job as head coach, Kliff Kingsbury sat in his empty office looking out on to Texas Tech's practice fields.

The 33-year-old knew he should be doing something. He wanted to be doing something.

But what?

"Literally the first two days I got here, I sat in this chair and was like, 'I don't know what to do,'" Kingsbury said. "'I don't know the next move.'"

It was a rare pause for Kingsbury, who is known for moving fast, both in the offense that he runs and his career trajectory. In coaching since just 2008, he's already helped groom the NCAA's all-time passing leader (Case Keenum) and a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) as an assistant to Kevin Sumlin at Houston and Texas A&M.

Kliff Kingsbury
Kliff Kingsbury

But Kingsbury quickly figured out his next step. He set out to build a homegrown coaching staff and restore pride to his alma mater. And at 34, the second-youngest coach in college football has been making all the right moves ever since.

Despite rotating a pair of true freshman quarterbacks, Kingsbury has led a team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 to its first top-10 ranking in five years.

"He's breathed life back into this team," said senior nose guard Kerry Hyder. "Just revitalized everything."

Since Kingsbury took over, the waiting list to purchase suites at Jones AT&T Stadium has ballooned. Donations to the athletic department have skyrocketed. Student attendance has reached record levels.

Texas Tech regent chairman Mickey Long said he couldn't even get through to the ticket office this week to buy basketball passes because of the all the busy signals from fans clamoring for football tickets.

"This is such an exciting time at Texas Tech, I promise you," Long said.

This weekend, the 7-0 Red Raiders will play in their biggest game in almost five years as they travel to Oklahoma for a Big 12 showdown that could hold major conference title implications.

"As important as all of that is, there's a new pride in the Texas Tech family about where we are," said athletic director Kirby Hocutt.

"And where we're going."

Kingsbury has been on the job less than a year. But already he's energized the program. Reunited the fan base.

And brought his brand of swagger back to Texas Tech football.

• • • 

The rumors were everywhere. And finally, they reached all the way back to Hocutt.

His football coach, apparently, wanted out.

Hocutt didn't know it at the time, but Tommy Tuberville had even cleaned out his locker at Lubbock Country Club.

"I kept hearing these rumors of people speculating, 'Was Tommy Tuberville happy at Texas Tech?'" said Hocutt, who arrived at Texas Tech in 2011. "'Was this the place he wanted to be?'"

For the second consecutive year, Texas Tech had cratered in November after an undefeated September. Days after the Red Raiders had fallen to Baylor to end the regular season, Hocutt went to Tuberville.

"I wanted to get confirmation that he had both boots on the ground," Hocutt said.

Tuberville gave Hocutt his commitment to Texas Tech. Meanwhile, he was finalizing his exit strategy. That Saturday during his son's soccer tournament, Hocutt got an unexpected phone call.

Tuberville told him he was heading to Cincinnati.

Hocutt wasn't the only one blindsided. Tuberville's own coaching staff was, too.

Shortly after phoning Hocutt, Tuberville called a staff meeting.

"We didn't think anything of it," said Sonny Cumbie, a former Texas Tech quarterback and graduate assistant under Mike Leach who had been retained as Tuberville's inside receivers coach.

"We had recruits in that weekend, so I figured we'd be talking about recruits and the practice plan for the afternoon."

Instead, Tuberville dropped the bombshell.

Kliff Kingsbury
Kliff Kingsbury

"We were kinda sitting there like, 'What the heck just happened?' Cumbie recalled. "We were shocked."

Hocutt saw it as a short-term setback, but a long-term blessing.

"There was tremendous concern [about] where we were headed as a football program," Hocutt said. "So there was no doubt in my mind this was best for Texas Tech and a great opportunity for us to reunite our fan base and bring everybody back on the same page."

The same weekend, Kingsbury, as Texas A&M's offensive coordinator, was in New York City for Johnny Manziel's Heisman coronation. The Tuberville news traveled quickly, and Kingsbury's friends from Lubbock told him to keep his phone on, in case Hocutt called. Kingsbury wasn't sure he would.

But on Sunday, Dec. 9, Kingsbury sat alone watching pro football at Bounce Sporting Club in Manhattan. His phone buzzed with a Lubbock area code. Kingsbury took the phone and dashed outside. Hocutt was on the other end of the line.

"I was so blown away, because I was content with Johnny and where we'd been and what we were going to do there," Kingsbury said. "It was just like, 'Wow.'"

Hocutt would be wowed, too. In a couple of days, the Red Raiders quickly narrowed their search to Kingsbury and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who had ties to Texas from his days coaching high school in the state.

Two days later, Hocutt met with Kingsbury at an airport lounge in Houston.

"You could just tell right away, he's got the swagger and the confidence that you knew this guy is something special," Hocutt said. "It was just fortunate that the opportunity for him and the opportunity for Texas Tech were in alignment with one another. I felt pretty strongly after that visit this could very well be the next head football coach at Texas Tech."

It was a low-risk proposition for Hocutt: Hire a young, energetic coach who had just shepherded a redshirt freshman to a Heisman Trophy. Kingsbury's high-speed offense and sense of style had already made him a cult star as an offensive coordinator. And worse for ailing Tech fans: Their beloved former star quarterback was doing it all with the dreaded Aggies' logo on his chest. Fans overwhelmingly wanted him back in Lubbock.

By Wednesday, word leaked that Texas Tech had settled on Kingsbury. Hundreds of students and alums gathered at the school's Memorial Circle to celebrate.

Days later, the Oakley store in Lubbock's South Plains Mall sold out of the black Frogskin sunglasses that are Kingsbury's trademark on the sidelines.

"I've never experienced that kind of excitement among a fan base," Hocutt said.

"He immediately healed any wounds that existed."

• • • 

Kingsbury grew up in New Braunfels, Texas, about 45 miles south of Austin. He was already at Texas Tech when Leach took over for Spike Dykes in 2000.

Almost overnight, with his "Air Raid" offense, Leach elevated Texas Tech to another level. He helped elevate Kingsbury to another level as a player, too.

That first season under Leach, Kingsbury broke numerous school passing records. As a senior in '02, Kingsbury quarterbacked the Red Raiders to just their third nine-win season in 26 years.

Because of Kingsbury's intelligence and leadership, then-Tech assistant Dana Holgorsen always thought Kingsbury would make a tremendous coach. Just as long as the NFL didn't get in the way.

Kliff Kingsbury, Mike Leach
Kliff Kingsbury, Mike Leach

The New England Patriots selected Kingsbury in the sixth round of the draft. But after an uneventful four years bouncing around pro football, Kingsbury pondered coaching. The son of a high school coach, he had an opportunity to watch Bill Belichick when he spent a year with the New England Patriots. He played for a year for Packers coach Mike McCarthy when he was offensive coordinator in New Orleans.

Holgorsen, who had moved on to offensive coordinator at Houston under Sumlin, offered him that first job as a quality-control coach.

"I saw his leadership ability on the practice field," Holgorsen said. "Knowing his background, knowing what his intelligence level was, which I thought was very high on the field and off the field, being personable, knowing how he interacts with the guys and all that."

That same year, in 2008, Texas Tech reached its summit under Leach. During Houston's open week, Kingsbury traveled to Lubbock to watch the Red Raiders knock off top-ranked Texas on Michael Crabtree's game-winning touchdown grab.

But the following season, the divide between Leach and the Texas Tech administration came to a head. And before the bowl game, Leach was fired.

"Certainly there were some folks upset with the Mike Leach departure," said Tim Culp, a Texas Tech alum and booster, who works in the oil and gas business 120 miles south of Lubbock in Midland, Texas. "And Tuberville, we knew from the get-go it would be a steppingstone job for him."

Over the next three years, the players could feel the divide among the fan base.

"You could sense something was missing," Cumbie said. "Our players sense that energy, whether it's negative or positive."

The day Kingsbury was hired, that changed.

"Now it's completely different," Cumbie said. "Everyone is fired up at Texas Tech. They're supporting our players, and our players are feeding off that positive energy.

"There's no doubt Kliff healed it. And that's been a huge thing."

• • • 

Sitting in the same office chair Leach used, Kingsbury might have felt overwhelmed those first couple of days.

But once Cumbie gave him film of the 2013 recruiting class to review, Kingsbury quickly found his groove, back watching football.

One player that had begun to waver after Tuberville had left was Prosper, Texas, 4-star quarterback Davis Webb.

"He was teetering, thinking about visiting TCU that weekend on an official visit," Cumbie said. "One phone call with Kliff, he was like, 'I'm done. I'm a Red Raider.'"

When he wasn't watching recruiting film, Kingsbury was focused on putting together his coaching staff.

Kliff Kingsbury
Kliff Kingsbury

"He was adamant he wanted to hire one of -- if not the -- youngest coaching staffs in the country," Hocutt said.

"It was about relating to the players and recruiting and be able to connect to this generation of young person."

Kingsbury didn't just want young coaches. He wanted ambitious coaches. Better yet, ambitious coaches with ties to Texas Tech.

"It's easy to sell a product you believe in and you lived and loved," Kingsbury said. "And I knew the five that played here at Texas Tech were essentials."

With Cumbie already on board, Kingsbury next snagged Eric Morris, who was coaching inside receivers for Leach at Washington State.

On the other side of the ball, Kingsbury brought in three more college teammates: Mike Smith (co-defensive coordinator/linebackers), Trey Haverty (safeties) and Kevin Curtis (cornerbacks).

"This was the only [college] job I would have taken," said Smith, who was coaching linebackers for the New York Jets. "Tech means so much to me. I think that translates to the players. They see how much this place means to us."

When the rest of the staff was eventually filled out, their average age was still just 35 -- something that's already paying off on the recruiting trail. The Red Raiders are on the verge of putting together their best recruiting class in years.

Kingsbury's contract also grants him "creative license" over uniform design. The Red Raiders have already rolled out several new uniform variations this season, which is popular with players.

"This staff really understands this generation of young people as well as any in the country," Hocutt said.

It didn't take long for the Red Raiders to notice this staff was different, as well. Before the players left campus in May, Kingsbury left them with this memo, cautioning against a summer spent playing video games.

"We advise you to be active over the break as you will need to be ready to work once June rolls around. Sitting at the house playing COD/2K13/Madden against 12 year olds online doesn't suffice as activity even if you claim to 'wreck shop.' #BOOM #ComeAtMe #WreckEm"

"This year, we're worried about winning football games and having fun," said outside linebacker Terrance Bullitt. "Last year it wasn't too much fun for us and the team, and it reflected. The coaches were worried about whether we wearing hats in the building or earrings in the building. Can't wear hats at the training table. Stuff that had nothing to do with football.

"This year, we're having so much fun, and it starts with our head coach."

They're also winning games.

Kingsbury said his personality couldn't be more different from Leach's. But from Leach, Kingsbury said learned the significance of instilling confidence in his players.

"He never thought we were going to ever lose," Kingsbury said. "I'd never been around anything like it."

Gradually, the Red Raiders have taken on the personality of this head coach.

When DeAndre Washington dropped the ball before crossing the goal line against TCU, Kingsbury didn't lose his cool. The play nearly cost Texas Tech the game. But instead of ripping into Washington, Kingsbury went over and gave him a few words of encouragement.

"DeAndre gives 150 percent to this program each and every day, does everything right off the field," Kingsbury said. "What good does it do to yell and scream? That's not my coaching style. The only time I'll really lose it is for disciplinary issues or academic issues."

How Kingsbury handled Washington didn't go unnoticed. When asked about their coach, the incident is one of the first things several players brought up.

"Being a player, you're already gonna feel down on yourself," said Washington's backfield mate, Kenny Williams. "When a head coach does that instead of chewing you out, you gain so much respect for him. And it gives you that drive to give everything you have for him on the field."

So when the Red Raiders fell behind 11 points on the road at West Virginia last weekend, they didn't panic, either.

"You take on the identity of your head coach," Cumbie said. "And there's a confidence and looseness about them."

The players call it swagger. Hocutt does, too.

"It's been so refreshing to be able to work along a head football coach and group of assistants who bleed Texas Tech," Hocutt said. "Committed to winning championships."

The Red Raiders could take a big step toward winning their first-ever Big 12 championship this weekend.

Today, Kingsbury sports his "Suns Up, Guns Up" painting on what once was a blank wall in his office. The 8-foot-by-5-foot portrait of the Masked Rider storming the field commemorates Texas Tech's 2008 win over Texas -- the last time the Red Raiders were this close to winning any championship.

Kingsbury calls it the pinnacle moment of Texas Tech football.

But the direction he has the Red Raiders headed, the pinnacle may be yet to come.

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