LUBBOCK – As they prepare for Friday’s Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas at Reliant Stadium, Texas Tech fans greet Christmas morning with visions of Kliff Kingsbury dancing in their heads.
Some recall the quarterback who helped Red Raiders football recover from one of its lowest moments with contributions on and off the field.
Others see an older version of Johnny Football, who as an assistant coach at Texas A&M mentored Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Still others see a good-looking guy with Tom Brady-style stubble, Oakley Frogskin sunglasses, skinny ties and slim-cut suits, inspiring the Twitter hashtag #OurCoachIsHotterThanYourCoach and a T-shirt reading, “Every King Needs a Queen: Kliff Kingsbury, Will You Marry Me?”
All, however, agree that Tech’s new head coach has hit the South Plains with the same blinding force as the freakish sandstorm that descended the Wednesday before Christmas, with a personality and look that will land him on “SportsCenter” or “The Bachelor” — or both.
At that suggestion, the object of their affection smiles and shakes his head.
“I hope it’s ‘SportsCenter,’” Kingsbury, 33, said. “If you see me on ‘The Bachelor,’ things went really wrong out here.”
Ten days into the job, things are OK. There are recruits to stroke and assistant coaches to be hired. Work is under way on expanding Jones AT&T Stadium. Fans bought 1,200 season tickets and booked orders for eight stadium suites in less than a week. Across University Avenue from campus, the dozen T-shirt designs bearing Kingsbury’s name or likeness flew out the doors of Red Raider Outfitters and The Matador.
“It’s interesting to see how one person in a week has completely taken over the economy,” said a harried clerk at Red Raider Outfitters. “Tell him we said thank you.”
Kingsbury, who will take the reins after Tech plays Minnesota under interim coach Chris Thomsen, a holdover from Tommy Tuberville’s staff, is thankful as well.
“I think people see this as a chance to get everybody going in the same direction again,” he said. “We’re all Red Raiders. We all want to have a winner, and we want what is best for this university.”
While entertaining, the chatter about Kingsbury’s youth, alleged hotness, sense of style and brash comments belie his role in the history of Tech football.
In August 1998, as Kingsbury arrived as an unheralded freshman from New Braunfels, Tech was placed on four years’ NCAA probation for a slipshod compliance system that resulted in 76 students in eight sports over seven years competing while ineligible. Two star players, Bam Morris and Byron Hanspard, flunked every course in their final fall semester.
Kingsbury was cut from different cloth. The son of two educators, he graduated fourth in his high school class and in 2002 was named as college football’s Academic All-America Player of the Year.
One of coach Spike Dykes’ final additions to a lightly-regarded, probation-limited 15-member recruiting class, Kingsbury became the dominant member of a group that produced four three-year starters and three NFL draft selections.
“That was huge for me,” Kingsbury said. “I wanted to be a guy who showed that this was the new Texas Tech.
“Being an academic All-American is one of the things I am proudest of. There are a lot of great athletes, but not everybody is willing to put time in the classroom. To be part of that when there was a struggle here for identity in that department, it means a lot to me.”
As a scholar and athlete, passing for 12,429 yards and 95 touchdowns as the first quarterback of the Mike Leach era, “He was just the guy,” said Kent Hance, chancellor of the Texas Tech University System. “He was the right guy at the right time as a player. And he is the right guy at the right time as head coach.”
After leaving Tech, Kingsbury had brief stints with four NFL teams and played in NFL Europe and in Canada before retiring in 2007.
When he followed his father, Tim Kingsbury, into coaching in 2008 at the University of Houston, he took up the same offense – Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid” – that Tim Kingsbury installed for the Unicorns in 1997 and that Leach installed at Texas Tech after succeeding Dykes in 2000.
His first pupil at UH under coach Kevin Sumlin was Case Keenum, who set NCAA career records for passing yards, touchdowns and completions.
“He brings energy and the credibility from having played the position,” Keenum said. “He fires guys up and gets them going. You believe in him, and you want to fight for him.”
Kingsbury accompanied Sumlin to Texas A&M, where he was a finalist for the 2012 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach and helped generate the Manziel phenomenon.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Kingsbury said. “He’s the fiercest competitor I’ve seen. When he steps in the huddle, everybody knows he will do what it takes to win.”
In that sense, Manziel is not unlike Kingsbury – although, Kingsbury said, “If I could run like he can, I’d still be in the NFL.”
Spike Dykes said Kingsbury proved his grit in 1999, when he was thrown to the Texas Longhorns after Rob Peters was injured during a 58-7 mauling. A week later, he led Tech to a 38-28 win over Oklahoma in Dykes’ final game.
“I wasn’t amazed that he played well. Anybody can play good,” Dykes said. “The amazing thing was how he took control of that huddle.”
Kingsbury was the first of a productive line of Tech quarterbacks, including B.J. Symons and Graham Harrell, before Leach’s contentious departure after the 2009 season. Tuberville was 20-17 in three seasons but never captured the affection of West Texans before leaving in early December for Cincinnati.
The contrast between Tuberville and Kingsbury is a subject that Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt approaches carefully but frankly.
“Your word means something in West Texas,” Hocutt said. “It’s easy to say you are guided by a set of guiding principles and your word and handshake are as good as a contract. Not everybody can live up to that. But having somebody who wants to be here, who wants to be an integral part of the community, is important to us.
“Tommy Tuberville is a good man and a good coach and had a lot of success. I think, given this set of circumstances that this program was faced with, given the time in our history of where we are, Tommy going to Cincinnati was the best thing for Tommy Tuberville, and Tommy going to Cincinnati was the best thing for Texas Tech.”
Kingsbury, with his request that Hocutt schedule a Tech-Cincinnati game, was slightly less circumspect. (Hocutt says talks were under way before Tuberville left and that the game “hopefully is something that can be put together in the near future.”)
“My comments weren’t a slight,” Kingsbury said. “It’s just my feelings for the program and how much I put into it and my best friends put into it. If you feel it has been disrespected, you’re going to speak to that.”
It is that sense of loyalty (he also referred to A&M, in Tech parlance, as “that other university”) that means more to Tech fans than his statistics, shades or stubble.
“Being a Red Raider, we have a chip on our shoulder being way out here,” Kingsbury said. “We’re all we have out here. You’re not close to anything, and it makes you build a special bond.
“I always wanted to be an NFL quarterback. When that fell short, as soon as I got into coaching I thought would be great to come back and run the style of offense I want to run and bring the type of mentality I want to have at this place.”
Hance, who as a member of the Texas Legislature hired Kingsbury’s uncle as his chief of staff, shares the chip and the aspirations.
“The thing people love is that he is one of us,” Hance said. “He wants to be here. Spike was that way. Anybody who replaced Leach was going to have problems, and I understand that, but as far as Tuberville is concerned, certain fans never warmed up to him.
“But they’re excited about Kliff. When we interviewed him, I was thinking that I remember when you were born, and now you’re going to be our head coach. Is this a great country or what?”