Fit To Be King: Kliff Kingsbury and the Red Raiders
Second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury leads the Texas Tech football program to new heights and expectations.
photos provided by Texas Tech Athletics Communications
On the surface, it seemed almost a flippant thing. If nothing else, at least a bit impetuous. Such is the case with most any viral video. But the most popular YouTube video in the history of Texas Tech University was the product of planned orchestration. The perfectly-timed music cues were one clue. Kliff Kingsbury’s involvement was another.
As with anything Kingsbury involves himself, there was a purpose and plan of execution. In this instance, the second-year Red Raiders football coach was leading his team into the penultimate spring practice of the season. Practice No. 15, the finale, was to be the spring game. The script for practice No. 14 called for light drills, no pads, and the possibility for wavering focus and emotion.
Kingsbury’s remedy was to start practice with an impromptu dance-off, even inserting himself into the circle, breaking down to Stanky Legg. And this was all captured on video. It concludes with the team raucously running off to start practice, Kingsbury’s mission accomplished.
“He has a great sense of humor. He can make things fun, when maybe things are dragging a little bit,” said Tim Kingsbury, Kliff’s father. “But he is extremely focused and always has been.”
And that’s the delicious dichotomy of Kliff Kingsbury. The v-neck shirts, cuffed jeans, and coiffed hair all live in perfect harmony with his daily 4 a.m. alarm clock, handwritten day planner, and old school work ethic. After a record-setting collegiate career with the Red Raiders and five years playing professionally, Kingsbury fell into coaching, ultimately working as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator and shepherding freshman Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy. But the New Braunfels native was hired by his alma mater in 2012 as a first-time head coach based on the promise of his potential as much as proven performance.
“You don’t know if you’re ready or not; you just go for it,” said Kingsbury, 34. “That’s the beauty of life—just continue to make yourself uncomfortable, and raise up your level.”
In his first year as head coach, Kingsbury led the Red Raiders to an 8-5 overall record while Tech set a new school record for average home attendance. However, the year wasn’t entirely a honeymoon. The Red Raiders began the season with a seven-game win streak, but entered the National University Holiday Bowl against No. 16 Arizona State on Dec. 30, 2013, having lost five straight.
The 37-23 Tech victory provided a crushing crescendo to punctuate Kingbury’s first year in the head coach’s chair. Season tickets for the 2014 campaign are sold out for the first time in school history.
“We knew, if we’re going to win, we need to keep working. We put in a lot of time scripting those game plans, and the kids bought in,” Kingsbury said. “And that was the most fun for me, because we had lost five in a row, and you would have never guessed it with their enthusiasm, the way they worked and then the way they played.
“It was a program-changing type deal for us.”
Growing up in New Braunfels (then more of a rural, country town), Kingsbury’s life involved school and football. And the occasional trip to the family farm to fish. Both of his parents were educators, and his father Tim was a retired Marine and high school football coach. Practice fields were Kingsbury’s after-school day care, and at home, he was usually throwing footballs through a tire swing, just like Joe Montana once did. (Hence Kingsbury’s chosen jersey number, 16.)
Kingsbury’s junior year with the Unicorns, his dad also became the school’s head coach.
“It was a great pleasure for me, coaching him, but I can’t say it was for him,” Tim Kingsbury said. “I was always a lot tougher on him, and tried to set an example. I didn’t want to show any preference to anybody.”
In fact, when it came time to fill out college questionnaires—recruiting staples in the pre-Internet era—the elder Kingsbury didn’t even list his son, who passed for 3,009 yards and 34 touchdowns and led New Braunfels to the Class 5A Division II semifinals as a senior, among his top prospects.
“If you’re good enough, they’ll find you,” Tim told Kliff.
Eventually, the Red Raiders did, and with offensive wizard Mike Leach as the head coach, Kliff Kingsbury went on to pass for more than 12,000 yards. He was named Associated Press Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and set 39 school records, 16 Big 12 marks, and 17 NCAA records during his career at Tech (1999-2002).
A sixth-round draft pick in 2003 by the New England Patriots, Kingsbury played for five NFL teams and also played professionally in Canada and Europe. “Being an NFL quarterback was all I wanted to do, and all I ever planned on doing,” Kingsbury said. “I wanted to make sure I exhausted all of it, and I could look myself in the mirror and say I played until it was over. Coaching was sort of secondary and sort of reactionary.”
Kingsbury ended up in Houston to play for the All-American Football League, but it folded before competition began. So, he accepted an invitation to join Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Houston in 2008 as an offensive quality control assistant. He made something like $400 a month, and lived in a spare bedroom in the apartment of another assistant coach.
“I think he went back to the way he was raised and just kept working hard,” Tim Kingsbury said. “Life’s not fair. You get knocked down, but you’ve got to get back up and keep working hard. Good things happen to people who work hard.”
A Player’s Coach
Kliff Kingsbury moved up to quarterbacks coach and eventually co-offensive coordinator at Houston, which won a record 13 games in 2011, before following Sumlin to A&M. With Kingsbury organizing the Aggies’ attack, Manziel and A&M ranked third nationally in total offense.
As Kingsbury was with Manziel in New York for the Heisman presentation, dominoes were falling in Texas that would bring Kingsbury back to Lubbock. When Tommy Tuberville resigned to take the Cincinnati coaching job, Kingsbury appeared on a short list of candidates to become the next head coach of the Red Raiders.
After an initial interview, Kingbury was to meet athletic director Kirby Hocutt, Tech chancellor Kent Hance, and university president Lawrence Schovanec at Hance’s home in Austin. Kingsbury arrived alone in a white pick-up truck, some 30 minutes early. “Just in case I got lost,” said Kingsbury, ever the Marine’s son.
The group talked for about an hour, and then Hocutt offered Kingsbury the job. He shook their hands, and said, “I’ll take it,” before dollars were ever discussed.
“He wasn't trying to play games,” Hance said. “He was prepared. And five days earlier, there was no reason to be prepared unless he had mentally been thinking about what he would do in that position.”
Said Kingsbury: “I just wanted to be myself and show my passion for this place, and what I wanted to make it. All we spoke about was what we needed to do to get this place where we all wanted it.”
As the head coach, the one who makes all the decisions, Kingsbury’s work ethic went into overdrive. He arrives at the football complex every morning for a 4:30 a.m. workout, and then hits the office to drill out the game plan or practice scripts. Staff meetings are held promptly at 8:30 a.m. By 9 p.m., he's usually asleep.
Kingsbury remains heavy-handed in the offensive planning, with his philosophy anchored by tempo and timing. He wants to avoid “paralysis by over analysis,” so practice reps become critical to instilling play calls as almost second nature. “By the time you get to the game, it should be reactionary,” Kingsbury said.
One of Kingsbury’s teaching techniques is to have players essentially create their own playbooks. “We just found that if they’re writing it down, they learn it better,” Kingsbury said. “We’re big on video playbooks. They learn from watching, especially in this day and age.”
Kingsbury should know, after all. His work ethic is a thing of the past, his energy motivates the present, and the future is a blank canvas of possibility.
“It was ingrained at an early age: Anything you do, you do it well, to the best of your ability,” Kingsbury said. “If you work every day with max effort, you should be happy and accomplished.”