It doesn’t disparage Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching skills to say he carried a trump card others lacked in seeking the Texas Tech job: He loved it out here the first time around in a playing career that almost never happened.
Before his fondness for the university and Lubbock could bloom, he needed an invitation to show up in the first place. A week before national signing day in 1998, New Braunfels quarterback Kliff Kingsbury was still hoping for a scholarship offer from Texas Tech.
That’s where then-defensive backs coach Dean Campbell comes in. As the Tech assistant who recruited the Austin area for several years, Campbell was convinced of Kingsbury’s worth, but scholarships were in short supply.
On a regular basis that winter, A-J headlines provided the latest updates on NCAA enforcers getting ready to drop the hammer on Tech. The Red Raiders were going to sign a mere 15 players for the class of 1998, and they’d checked their quarterback box with Shannon Bennett from South Grand Prairie. He’d committed some time before.
“Spike (Dykes) said, ‘We can take those other quarterbacks off the board, because we already got a quarterback,’” Campbell said the other night.
Campbell liked a couple of his Austin-area quarterbacks that year, and so the inability to add another left him disappointed — but not deterred.
“I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got two pretty good quarterbacks here,’” Campbell said, referring to Kingsbury and another prospect in his area. “‘Coach, I’ve seen strange things happen. I’ll stay with these guys for a while.’”
That fall, Kingsbury and the New Braunfels Unicorns kept winning games, and Campbell kept checking in on Kliff, pointless though it might be. Meanwhile, he sought other advocates. He tossed a tape on Rick Dykes’ desk, and the Tech offensive coordinator approved almost immediately.
“I watched about 15 minutes of it and I said, ‘Hey, this guy can play for us. I think he’s a winner,’” Dykes said.
Too bad Tech had 15 spots and needed most of them for defense. Too bad the Red Raiders already had taken a quarterback. They’d just have to watch Kliff Kingsbury go somewhere else.
Interesting thing about Texas Tech: Some of the Red Raiders’ all-time greats set off few, if any, fireworks on signing day. That’s true of James Gray, of Zach Thomas, of Wes Welker, of Kliff Kingsbury.
Even after a senior year in which Kingsbury passed for 3,000 yards, engineered six come-from-behind victories, won games twice with touchdown passes in the final 30 seconds and led his team to a 13-2 record, not many major universities went after him.
No one needed to tell Campbell, who thought Kingsbury’s productivity and character, his accountability and toughness, mitigated the fact his 6-foot-4 frame hadn’t filled out.
“He pushed Kliff and I really liked Kliff, too,” Rick Dykes said, “and we didn’t move on Kliff until a little bit later. When we got on him, it was pretty apparent he was an outstanding high school player. But Dean Campbell — really, not that he had to sell Kliff — but he was very proactive in keeping Kliff’s name in front of all of us.”
Mississippi State moved in on Kingsbury after his smashing senior season. Before Kliff went to see Starkville, Campbell asked him not to take action before he came home. Give Tech a little more time.
“Rick liked him, and (receivers coach) Dick Winder liked him,” Campbell recalled. “We were kind of pushing Spike to pull the trigger on him.”
Then Campbell thought of something else: He’d ask Jim Streety to call Spike. Streety had coached at New Braunfels. Spike thought the world of him. Maybe if Streety went to bat for Kingsbury-to-Tech, that’d make the difference.
Not long after, the Red Raiders elected to take Kliff.
The chain of events that would make Kingsbury one of the Red Raiders’ great quarterbacks and, 15 years later, their head coach wasn’t set in motion until he received a scholarship offer six days before signing day.
He committed to Tech three days before national signing day.
Talk about a come-from-behind victory.
I dug up the story I wrote at the time.
“Tech probably was one of my top choices to begin with,” Kingsbury said. “So it was real nice to have them come back around and have a chance to go there.”
To be fair, everyone involved now says there was no disagreement over Kingsbury’s capability.
“You could see after you got into the realm of the visit and being in the home and everything, there was not much doubt that Kliff was going to be a heck of a player,” Spike said. “I imagine if there was any reluctance to offer, it was to make sure we had one (scholarship) to offer before we offered. The last thing you want to do is tell them you’ve got one when you don’t have one.”
I don’t know what became of Shannon Bennett. His Tech career lasted not much longer than it took me to research and write this column.
As for Kingsbury, one can surely wonder: Had Tech not made room for Kliff the player, would there even be a Kliff the Tech coach?
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