DALLAS– When Kliff Kingsbury hung up from talking to Dana Holgorsen five years ago, he didn’t see the offer of a small coaching role as the start of something big. Kingsbury’s football aspirations had always been centered around playing, not coaching.
He figured he’d give it a summer and then, ever the serious student, go back to school to get an MBA.
“He had called me that summer and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over and help out with the quarterbacks?’” Kingsbury said, relating his conversation with Holgorsen, then a Houston assistant. “I was going to do that for that summer and then probably go back to school.
“(But) Case Keenum was there, and I was like, ‘This is easy.’”
Thus began the whirlwind rise that has Kingsbury in charge at Texas Tech, his alma mater, at age 33 and put him on stage Monday at Big 12 media days as the league’s only new head coach. Kingsbury made school look easy, being an honor student. He made playing quarterback look easy, throwing for 12,000 yards during his Tech career.
Being a head coach in the Big 12 is probably his biggest challenge yet.
At least he has everyone – fans, players, assistants, most of whom he’s known for years – pulling hard for him to succeed.
“I think all the positive energy we get back in the program is good,” Kingsbury said at the Omni Hotel. “I understand we haven’t played a game. We’re still undefeated, so there’s a love-fest going on. But I know there’s people in place that are working their butts off for this university, that love this school and want to see it at its highest point.”
That goes double for Kingsbury, who was the Red Raiders’ starting quarterback from 2000 through 2002, ushering in one of the school’s best football eras. Kingsbury stops short of sleeping on the couch in his new office. (“No, I like my bed.”) But he prefers to show up at work at 5:30 a.m. and focus on his offensive ideas for three hours until the 8:30 a.m. staff meetings.
After that, it gets hectic. As the buck-stops-here guy, Kingsbury confronts time demands that he never had as an offensive coordinator.
It’s part of the adjustment.
“It’s more time management than anything,” he said. “As offensive coordinator, you’re worried about offense, and that’s it, 100 percent of the time. Now all the administrative things come into play with this. The biggest thing has been time management and how do I fit in working with the offense as well as handling all the head-coaching duties.”
Kingsbury says he’s yet to feel overwhelmed. He figures he’ll give each new task his best shot and learn as he goes along.
He seems to be connecting with his players.
“This has been the easiest transition I’ve been through with coaches,” said senior defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, who has had five defensive coordinators and three head coaches.
“To me, he seems like he’s handling everything very well,” said wide receiver Eric Ward, the Red Raiders’ fifth-year senior. “He’s relating to us. We like him.
“I love playing for him. This is the best experience I’ve had in college playing for coach Kingsbury.”
Ward said it was no small thing when Kingsbury let players play music in the weight room and before and during practice. Ward said the Red Raiders took it as a sign he cared about their interests.
That goes for everyone in the program, it seems. More than once last winter, Kingsbury said he wants to hire young assistants who aspire to be head coaches.
“I’m not one of those micromanagers that knows everything,” he said. “I want feedback. I want feedback from all our coaches, and I want them to be empowered to coach their position and bring ideas to me all the time.”
Despite his youth – Kingsbury turns 34 on Aug. 9 – the Tech coach already has a lot of connections in the business. One advocate isKansascoach Charlie Weis, who was offensive coordinator atNew Englandduring the year Kingsbury spent with the Patriots.
“He’s always been one of my favorite people,” Weis said. “He was a pleasure to be around, and he was a sponge. Him having early success in his coaching career has come as no great surprise to me.”
Kingsbury said he learned how to put together a game plan during the time he spent with Holgorsen atHouston. Kevin Sumlin, for whom he worked at Houston and Texas A&M, is his model for leading people.
“I think his biggest deal is empowering his players and his coaches,” Kingsbury said of Sumlin. “That’s how he gets the most out of them. He gives them a lot of leeway until they show they don’t deserve it, and I just watched how they responded to that, the respect they show him and the way they play. They play their butts off for him.
“I pretty much modeled his style, and I think with his success it’s a pretty good model to go after.”
Now out from under their wings, Kingsbury goes off shortly in search of his own success. Five years ago, he says he fell into coaching “randomly.” Once in, however, he made up his mind to work at coaching as hard as he had at playing quarterback.
Along the way, he found reasons to embrace the job. He said foremost among those reasons, Kingsbury said, are the relationships with players.
That he’s a head coach, with all its connotations and responsibilities, still might take some getting used to.
“It’s been so fast and furious, you’re trying to stay above water on a daily basis,” Kingsbury said. “I’m sure there’ll be some point in the season where I’ll sit back and say, ‘Wow, this is not just calling plays anymore.’”