Among his many time-consuming duties as Texas Tech’s head coach, Kliff Kingsbury recently encountered something nearly as challenging as breaking down game film of Oklahoma.
“I set all the playlists [for practice], and I always ask for requests,” Kingsbury said. “All of these guys want hardcore rap. It’s hard to find the edited versions. The linemen ask for country songs, and practice comes to a screeching halt.”
The playlist currently includes a heavy dose of Justin Timberlake, Kings of Leon, Drake and Lil Wayne. It’s hard to imagine Nick Saban or Brady Hoke performing a similar task. “You’ve got to play to your audience,” said Kingsbury. “I stay pretty in tune with what they’re listening to.”
Kingsbury, 34, has garnered no shortage of attention over the past year for his stylish persona and movie-star looks. It’s hardly surprising to learn that the former Red Raiders quarterback (2000-02) listens to the same music as his 18-to-22-year-old players. What’s more surprising is that Texas Tech, picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, is off to a 7-0 start under its first-year head coach and offensive play-caller. Kingsbury has found success with a pair of true freshman quarterbacks.
“I’m happy for him, and frankly I’m not that surprised,” said Kevin Sumlin, Kingsbury’s former boss at Houston and Texas A&M. “He gets guys to play hard for him, not just at quarterback but all over the place, and that’s contagious.”
Remarkably, Kingsbury is just four years removed from being an entry-level quality control assistant at Houston. In his past three seasons as a play-caller and quarterbacks coach, he has helped lead Case Keenum and the Cougars to a 13-1 season in 2011, Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M to a 10-2 regular season in 2012 and now Texas Tech, with freshmen Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb alternating at quarterback, to a top-10 ranking in 2013.
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Try to look past the Ray Bans and five o’clock shadow. Kingsbury is quickly emerging as of the sport’s brightest coaches.
The perpetually mellow Texas native shrugs off his seemingly meteoric coaching rise as a case of “good timing.” During his second year as an offensive coordinator, his quarterback was a record-breaking sixth-year senior (Keenum) who started for the Houston Texans last week in the NFL. Kingsbury moved to Texas A&M and inherited a little-known redshirt freshman (Manziel) who would prove one of the most dynamic athletes in modern college football history. Then, it was on to his alma mater, which had a veteran defense and was already running an offense similar to Kingsbury’s system.
All told, he is 30-3 as a head coach and/or play-caller since 2011.
“I take zero credit for that,” said Kingsbury. “I just show up at the office, put in the work, try to connect with these players and try to find some plays that will work.”
Those who have observed Kingsbury’s coaching style up close marvel at two things in particular. One is his offensive mind, developed first as the son of a high school coach, then as a quarterback in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, then as an NFL backup under coaches like Bill Belichick and Mike McCarthy and finally as a disciple of Dana Holgorsen at Houston. Even now, despite having a myriad of other responsibilities, Kingsbury still logs long hours dissecting tape.
“We don’t run the same plays every single game,” said standout Red Raiders tight end Jace Amaro. “He’s done a good job of exploiting defenses.”
But beyond the X’s and O’s, the youthful coach’s ability to relate to his players serves him well as a motivator. He speaks their language, exhorting them to “ball out” and “get cranked.” He gets them to believe they’re better than the pundits say.
“He’s transformed our team to believe we can beat anyone out there,” said Amaro. As one figure inside the program put it: “Our players would literally run in front of an 18-wheeler for him.”
Echoed Sumlin: “So many times as a coach, guys have knowledge but they’re unable to really communicate it and pass it on. His ability to communicate with his players was evident in the time he was with me.”
Before Kingsbury arrived in Lubbock, Texas Tech’s program had grown stagnant following Leach’s controversial ouster in late 2009. Leach’s successor, Tommy Tuberville, brought credentials as an accomplished coach at Auburn, but he never seemed to embrace the culture, nor did Red Raiders fans embrace him. Frustration mounted the past two seasons after Tech started 5-2 in 2011 and 6-1 in 2012 but finished 5-7 and 8-5, respectively. When Tuberville abruptly left for Cincinnati last December, fans immediately clamored for Kingsbury, whose protégé Manziel would win the Heisman Trophy that same night. Athletic director Kirby Hocutt granted their wish just four days later.
“I don’t know if I fully recognized the position that this university was in until the night we announced Kliff’s hiring,” said Hocutt. “You just saw the swell of support from the student body and the alumni base. The pride was taken to an entirely different level.”
And that was eight months before he coached his first game.
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The Red Raiders opened the season with a fairly unremarkable 41-23 win at SMU, but that game reinforced Kingsbury’s ability to groom young quarterbacks. With Texas Tech’s expected starter, sophomore Michael Brewer, sidelined with a back injury, Kingsbury rolled out Mayfield, a walk-on who arrived on campus just last summer. The former Lake Travis (Texas) High standout finished 43-of-60 for 413 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
When Mayfield suffered a knee injury in a 54-16 win at Kansas on Oct. 5, Kingsbury turned to another true freshman, Webb, who enrolled last winter. All Webb has done in his first two starts — a 42-35 home win over Iowa State and a come-from-behind 37-27 win at West Virginia last week — is complete 67 percent of his attempts for an average 438.5 passing yards with five touchdowns and one pick.
“I coach them like I coached Case in his sixth year. It’s a standard we set at that position,” Kingsbury said of his freshmen. “It’s more good timing and good fortune. I’ve been very fortunate to have talented college-ready quarterbacks.”
Texas Tech’s schedule has been admittedly light to this point. Its only opponent with a winning record thus far is Texas State (4-3). That will change on Saturday when the Red Raiders visit No. 17 Oklahoma (6-1) in a game that many will use to gauge whether Kingsbury’s team is legit. No. 19 Oklahoma State (5-1) and No. 6 Baylor (6-0) loom later in November.
“We haven’t played close to what we think we can play, but when the chips are down, we have found ways to make plays and win close games,” said Kingsbury. “If we ever put together a full game, it could be fun to watch.”
He’ll have a soundtrack ready for watching.