HOUSTON — For bowl practices in Lubbock and three workouts this week at Rice Stadium, Texas Tech football players have been under the watch of an interim head coach and minus their head coach and offensive coordinator of the last three seasons.
Big deal. Don’t they deal with this stuff every bowl season?
By now, the Red Raiders should have earned a master’s in rolling with the flow of coaching changes. The upperclassmen on this year’s team have gone through a coaching change — either at the top or involving a coordinator — every winter since 2009.
“It’s become a common theme,” senior running back Eric Stephens said with a grin of agreement. “It’s nothing that you wish for or for another player that comes here. But this is a business as much as a game, so we’ve got to get adjusted to whatever it throws at us and move on.”
Bowl-wise, Tech is unblemished during the recent years’ upheaval. The Red Raiders beat Michigan State with interim head coach Ruffin McNeill in the 2009 Alamo Bowl and beat Northwestern two years ago in the TicketCity Bowl right after the sudden exit of defensive coordinator James Willis.
This week at Rice Stadium, the Red Raiders have seemed energetic and buoyant with interim head coach Chris Thomsen, who took over after Tommy Tuberville’s unexpected resignation three weeks ago.
“It says a lot about our guys,” said defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, a junior who entered the program in 2009. “We’re able to adapt to, it seems like, any situation so far. We just come out here and work. No matter who’s coaching, we come out here and do our job.”
In 2009, Mike Leach’s suspension and firing dominated the headlines during Alamo Bowl week. But McNeill and acting offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley engineered a 41-31 conquest of Michigan State in San Antonio.
In 2010, TicketCity Bowl week started with the announcement of Willis leaving the staff. Tech managed to beat Northwestern 45-38 in Dallas. Though Tech failed to qualify for the postseason last year, the bizarre departure of defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow marked last December.
There’s been no such thing as a smooth December for current Tech players, so maybe they’re getting good at managing the circumstances.
“As opposed to other teams that may not have been through this and may not know how to deal with this adversity,” Stephens said, “this group went through the same thing when we were freshmen. So having that senior leadership that’s been through this helps out a lot as far as transitioning from coach Tuberville to coach Thomsen.”
The changes have been less of a big deal for offensive players, according to junior wide receiver Eric Ward. After all, the major departures the last two winters were defensive coordinators.
“The last time a (head) coach changed, I was a redshirt freshman,” Ward said. “It didn’t affect me then. This coaching staff is all I know since I’ve been playing. The coaching change really doesn’t affect me as a player. We’ve got the same scheme, still going to do the same things, same routine, so we just go out there and get the job done.”
Players have spoken highly of Thomsen, who seemed to have ideal qualities to lead the Red Raiders in an emergency. The Vernon High School graduate grew up three hours from Lubbock. His deep voice can easily grab the team’s attention, but more than one player described him as laid back.
Perhaps most important, he’s been a successful head coach, having won big from 2005 to 2011 at Abilene Christian University.
Thomsen says he feels comfortable the last couple of weeks because of his head-coaching experience and because he holds the team’s seniors and their leadership in high regard.
“I told them the first day, ‘If y’all were a group of guys that was not focused and didn’t care, I wouldn’t want the job,’” Thomsen said. “But with this group of guys, it’s a great experience for me. That’s why I like coaching. I like seeing players take it serious and want to prepare and play at a high level. To get to help them do that, that’s a great thing for me.”
If the Red Raiders plan to mail it in Friday against Minnesota in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, they’re hiding it well. While they practiced Wednesday in 36-degree chill, cornerback Bruce Jones did a backflip and stuck the landing.
A little later, in the 11-on-11 team period, safety Austin Stewart returned an interception about 50 yards for a touchdown. The entire defense chased after Stewart and then loudly whooped it up in the end zone.
While Thomsen has overseen loose, spirited practices, he’s also let the Red Raiders know he’s taking the one-game assignment seriously. On Monday, he announced the suspension of three players. On Tuesday, during an end-of-practice talk, Thomsen told players their curfew was 1 a.m., but issued a word of warning: He’d tolerate no excuses — say, a cab being late — if anyone missed the curfew.
“I really like coach Thomsen,” Ward said. “He’s a good guy. He’s outgoing, and he’s coach-friendly. You can relate to him on a personal level. Coach Tuberville’s a good guy, too. It’s just nice to have good coaches around that you can relate to as a player.”
Especially this time of year, when the Red Raiders never know from one year to the next who’ll be leading them in a bowl game.
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