As Texas Tech players streamed off the turf last December at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, there was plenty to celebrate.
The Red Raiders had just posted one of the biggest upsets of the bowl season, winning as a double-digit underdog against Arizona State. Quarterback Davis Webb and linebacker Will Smith were MVPs of the 37-23 victory. Kliff Kingsbury had by far the biggest win in his first season as head coach.
Fans looked forward to what came next.
And then some of the players slid back into old habits.
Which meant Kingsbury had to jerk them back into line. Five a.m. workouts, here we come.
“When he first got here, there were a few,” defensive end Branden Jackson said recently. “But after the (2013) seniors left and people got comfortable and the younger guys started to transition to being an older guy, it reverted back to people thinking they could get away with missing class, and that’s when we had a stretch of three straight this spring.”
Wednesday was the players’ off day from offseason workouts, Jackson said. Three Wednesdays in a row, they were up at the football building pre-dawn.
Drill stations might include anything from pushing boards to squat jumps to bear crawls to up-downs to rolling.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the worst thing I’ve been through,” Jackson said, “but when you’re getting up here and it starts at 5 a.m., so you’re waking up at 4:30, making sure you’re up here and dressed and on the field before 4:50, it’s just hard.”
That’s the point of the punishment.
“It’s not as much how hard it is or how long,” Kingsbury said, “but just waking up that early tends to get them.”
Fixing a problem
In the first several weeks after he took over in December 2012, Kingsbury had to hire assistants, rapidly recruit new players and take steps to correct internal problems. Kingsbury said he detected a lack of respect for the program from within, at least among some players.
That didn’t sit well with a guy who had been as good a student as he had been a quarterback during his Texas Tech playing days.
“Just certain attitudes, certain ways that people would act within the building,” Kingsbury said. “Just simple things with not keeping the locker room clean, not handling your business off the field and in the classroom. Bad reports how they’re acting.
“I felt like that was something that, in the transition period, had really come on hard, because when I got here, the way the unceremonious exit (of Tommy Tuberville transpired), there was just a lack of appreciation for Texas Tech and being a part of this team.
“That was one thing I wanted to correct as soon as I got here was, ‘You’re going to respect everybody that has to do with Texas Tech football, and you’re going to respect everybody that has to do with Texas Tech University, and you’re going to do the right things.’ ”
Kingsbury said he doesn’t know if the lapses can ever be eliminated completely. After all, he’s dealing with about a hundred 18- to 22-year-olds whose “attitudes can change daily.” There was another 5 a.m. session a few weeks ago.
Kingsbury thinks the attitudes and behavior are much improved, though.
Players know what happens when they stray.
“If you want to be a part of this team, you’re going to act a certain way and conduct yourself a certain way, and that’s the bottom line,” Kingsbury said. “We weren’t winning enough games to get away with acting like that, if that makes sense. You go 7-and-5, you better be acting really good. If you go 11-and-1, maybe you can put up with some of that stuff, but we need to correct off-the-field stuff first.
“I still think it has a long way to go, because I think it translates to a lot of the penalties and a lot of things that happen on the field, so hopefully we can clean that up more (this) year.”
Walking the walk
Kliff Kingsbury’s an early-to-bed, early-to-rise guy. It’s nothing for him to be at the office at 5 a.m.
He’d just as soon his players not greet him before dawn, but if they mess up, they will.
“I’m up here,” he said. “That’s what I tell them: ‘Trust me, you won’t bother me. Y’all can keep coming. I’ll be here.’ ”
When he played at Tech from 1998 through 2002, Kingsbury’s name regularly appeared on the Big 12 commissioner’s academic honor roll. His senior year, he was one of 14 players in the nation to receive a post-graduate scholarship from the National Football Foundation and was named the academic all-America player of the year.
He put the “student” in student-athlete.
“I have a plaque in that building to prove it,” he said. “I can point to that and say, ‘Hey, listen, fellas, I went to every class during my tenure here and handled my business and I expect you to do the same, because if I can do it, you can do it.’ I actually did it and lived it, and there’s still some people around this university that can vouch for me.”
This generation can vouch that he means it.
Jackson says Kingsbury got his point across, and didn’t need long to do so.
“From day one, coach Kingsbury, for as cool as he is and as laid back as he is, there’s just a point you don’t cross,” the Red Raiders defensive end said. “We’ve had people on the team kind of jiggle around with the line and try to test the waters, and we all found out real quick what happens.
“People have been removed from the team, removed from practice, suspended from practice. People miss the bowl game. All for not doing what’s expected of us. Now the team is, what coach Kingsbury says, goes. No one questions that. It’s pretty good now.”
Kingsbury generally concurs.
His discipline seems to be producing the desired results.
“It’s night and day from when we first got here as far as effort in the classroom, effort in this building, the conduct off the field,” he said. “We’re most proud of that so far, so hopefully that continues.”
Sharing the burden
Kliff Kingsbury’s corrective measures play on peer pressure. Let someone skip class, and it’s not just the offender who feels the heat. It’s everybody.
“When you have people like (linebacker) Micah (Awe) studying to be an engineer, he has to get up at 5 a.m. to work out for someone else who missed class, it’s frustrating,” Jackson said. “It brings on peer pressure and everyone being accountable.
“Now we’ve got people in leadership roles and players making sure everyone goes to class. There’s people in each group, each position, making sure everyone in their group is going to class.”
Still, not even more and more players buying in and team leaders making others accountable can forestall every foul-up.
This summer, Tech players had another of the dreaded 5 a.m. workouts, for not policing their area.
“The locker room’s been way cleaner than it was in the spring this summer,” linebacker Sam Eguavoen said. “I think he was just putting his foot down to all the incoming freshmen. Like, ‘This is what we’re going to do every time the locker room’s dirty.’ Even though the locker room wasn’t that dirty. ‘We’re just going to do it regardless, so y’all know not to ever make the locker room dirty.’ ”
As a senior, Eguavoen bears some responsibility to show newcomers the way. It’s a role he’s willing to take on.
“We let them know, ‘Hey, we’re not playing that,’ ” Eguavoen said. “So reality hits. ‘You’re not in high school anymore. This is college. You’ve got to take care of your stuff.’ ”
If they don’t, the Red Raiders know someone who will.
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