Generation Y's X's and O's

The meteoric rise of Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, the second-youngest head coach in the country and probably the most dashing.
Photograph by Artie Limmer

JASON COHEN: At the University of Houston, you went from being an underpaid “quality control” assistant to being offensive coordinator in two seasons. Now, after just a few years as a coordinator at U of H and Texas A&M, you’ve got the top job at Texas Tech, making you, at 33, the second-youngest head coach in the country. Were you sure you were ready?

KLIFF KINGSBURY: I didn’t really think about it too much. It was such a great opportunity. The years of playing and learning different offenses and being around great coaches and then being fortunate enough to work under Coach [Kevin] Sumlin [at U of H and A&M] really prepared me for pretty much any situation in this profession.

JC: On the same day that Johnny Manziel was in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, former Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville resigned. You’d played quarterback at Tech under his predecessor, Mike Leach, so immediately, people on Twitter started nominating you for the job. What do you remember about that day?

KK: We were all up there for Johnny’s Heisman, and I had a nice New York weekend planned. As soon as [Tuberville’s resignation] happened, the phone started ringing, and it just escalated from there. I knew that if that job ever came open I’d be very interested. I had a pretty good gig going there in College Station with that quarterback coming back and that team coming back, so I wouldn’t have left for just any job. This was the one.

JC: You were recruited by Spike Dykes, but your Tech roots literally go back to infancy. Chancellor Kent Hance employed your uncle when he was in the Texas Senate. Is there a picture of you as a baby with a Tech rattle?

KK: No, no, none of that. But the one football camp I always went to was Texas Tech growing up, and it’s just funny how it all worked out.

JC: Your first game as a starter way back when was Texas Tech’s win over Oklahoma, which was also Dykes’s final game. You’ve said that it remains your favorite game. Did it not get any better, or was it just that special of a memory?

KK: It was just how much Coach Dykes meant to me—he was the one college coach in America who believed in me and gave me a scholarship. To send him out with a winning record in his last game, and a great win over a great opponent—that is just the best win I’ve ever been a part of. If we can have half the run he had, we’ll be really successful.

JC: What was it like to play for Leach?

KK: It was like nothing I’d ever been around—his style, his philosophy. It took all of us a little time to get used to, but once you see his passion for the game and how brilliant he is with X’s and O’s, it was easy to follow him.

JC: In high school, your father, Tim Kingsbury, was your coach. Does having been a coach’s kid affect the way you coach now?

KK: I’m not sure. The things I learned from him were work ethic and discipline to the extreme, and that’s something I try to instill in our players. I’ve always felt he was one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever played for.

JC: Your father put in place the Hal Mumme Air Raid offense at New Braunfels High in 1997, and next thing you know you’re at Tech, playing for Mumme’s most famous protégé, Leach. How much has that offense loomed over Texas football?

KK: It’s been incredible to see it expand over the years. So many high schools now are running it and so many colleges are running some version of it. So to be a part of the beginning stage of the Air Raid in Texas is something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. What Coach Leach got going out here is something that had never been done before on that consistent of a level in college football.

JC: Anything else about yourself as a coach that you can specifically trace back to your dad, or Leach, or Sumlin?

KK: You know, a little bit from each. I think Coach Leach, the thing I got from him was the extreme confidence in his offense. I mean, he’d tell us, “Hey, I don’t care if they know what play is coming. If we execute the way I’ve taught you, I promise you, they won’t be able to stop it.” And that’s something that’s always stuck with me.

My dad, like I said, the discipline and the work ethic and the time he put in and what he expected of his players.

And then Coach Sumlin, just the amount of respect that all his players and all his coaches have for him to a man. That’s why he gets the most out of them, because they play their hearts out for him, and they coach their hearts out for him, each and every day.

JC: You also played for Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, another coach’s son. What did you take away from him?

KK: Nobody prepares better than Coach Belichick. He knew every side of the ball, inside and out, and could coach every position on the field. I just remember the walk-throughs being the most intense, detailed walk-throughs of all time. Any situation you were going to see on Sunday you’d already seen three times that week in practice.

JC: And you got a Super Bowl ring from that year. Is that something you keep in a prominent place?

KK: Yeah, it used to be in a safe, but now I keep it in my office for recruits to check out when they come through.

JC: You’ve said you didn’t necessarily dream of being a coach.

KK: No, I didn’t. I thought I’d still be playing. That’s all I ever wanted to do my entire life was play quarterback in the NFL. When that came to an end, you know, I was thinking about trying to get my MBA or looking at other opportunities and the opportunity in Houston came about. I got around the kids and just loved the teaching aspect of it. Working with Case Keenum and just watching him develop throughout the year and the kind of success that he had, I was like, “This is as fulfilling as being a player.”

JC: Your hiring inspired the “our coach is hotter than your coach” Twitter hashtag.

KK: Yeah, I took a lot of razzing from friends over that. It was kind of a strange deal, but hey, I guess all pub is good pub.

JC: That’s one big difference from when you played, the way that social media creates an instant feedback loop.

KK: Social media has changed the entire game. I was never on Twitter before I became a head coach, but now it’s just something you really have to do to keep up with recruiting and let your fans know the pulse of your program. I’m still getting adjusted to the Twitter life.

JC: Do you write all your own tweets?

KK: I do.

JC: Maybe you can get some etiquette tips from Johnny Manziel.

KK: He can definitely give me some tips on something.

JC: Are the women of Lubbock looking to fix you up with their daughters and their nieces now?

KK: (Laughs.) I don’t know. I try to stay out of the limelight in Lubbock. I’m pretty much at the office and my house, and that’s it.

JC: You and Sumlin and Manziel kind of changed the image of A&M. Are you looking to do the same for Tech?

KK: If we can win like A&M did last year, we’ll be excited. Each program’s different. I was excited to be a part of that run there at A&M and hopefully we can get things rolling over here too.

JC: But I mean, have you had older alumni read your Twitter and ask you, “Who’s Skrillex?” Or “Drizzy?”

KK: We’re more directing that toward our 18 to 22 demographic and the recruits we’re after.

JC: When did you know what you had in Manziel?

KK: We knew he was a great player in high school. Nobody could touch him. But we didn’t know how that would translate in Division I football, especially in the SEC. But once we got to that Florida game and they were trying to tackle him and he still was running around making plays, that was the game where we realized, “Okay, we’re gonna have to build around him because he is a phenomenal talent.”

JC: Was it easier for you to let him do his thing because you’re a younger coach?

KK: I think so. And I think you just have to understand the pulse of your players and what really makes them tick. Johnny is a guy who, you’ve got to give him enough rope that he can go out there and be himself. We trusted him and let him do his thing within our system.

JC: Your contract at Tech gives you input into uniform design. Why did you want that?

KK: I wanted to dictate how everything looks on the field. For today’s generation, that’s a big deal; we wanted to keep up with the styles and try and put a uniform out there that our fans appreciate and that grabs the attention of recruits.

JC: Are you literally making sketches?

KK: No, I don’t do that. I’ll point out things I like and tinker. But I don’t actually draw them up.

JC: Is this gonna be like Oregon or Maryland, where everyone on Twitter will be saying, “What the hell are they wearing?”

KK: No, no. We won’t be that extreme. There are some different themes that we’ll have this year. Staying true to Tech but a little more modern.

JC: Tell me about this painting that you had commissioned for your office, featuring the school’s Masked Rider. Was that your idea or did the artist come up with it?

KK: No, it was my idea. I had a wall space when we were redecorating my office, and I wanted to do some sort of portrait that’s all-encompassing of Texas Tech and so he—we emailed back and forth and I sent some pictures and he came up with this idea and it turned out incredible. It’s I think five-by-eight feet, so it takes up a lot of space. It’s a really, really nice deal.

JC: And are we giving Raider Red the short shrift here, or does he have a spot too?

KK: We’ll work into that. We’re building into Raider Red. He knows he’s got a special place in my heart already, so I don’t think he’ll take too much offense.

JC: You’ve said Leach changed the culture at Texas Tech. Is that something you have to do yourself, or is it more of a recharge?

KK: I think more just putting this staff’s spin on it. The six of us who played at Texas Tech and are on this staff, we know the direction that we want to take this place, and we know the potential that this place has. Having played here not too far in the past, there’s a relatability for these players. We’ve sat in the exact chair they’re sitting in, so when we speak, there’s some street cred there.

JC: Did you and Leach talk when you were hired?

KK: Yes. Obviously he coached all of us who are on the staff, the six of us. And so he couldn’t be more fired-up, and I’m sure he’ll be rooting for us the entire year.

JC: Gonna get Washington State on the schedule?

KK: (Laughs.) Yeah, I doubt that’ll happen. Maybe in a bowl game.

JC: At your hiring press conference, you actually suggested Tech should schedule Cincinnati, the school that Tuberville left Lubbock for.

KK: If I wasn’t a Texas Tech alumnus, I probably wouldn’t have said it. But having played here and gone to school here, I take a lot of pride in this school. If somebody disrespects your school a little bit, you’re going to take notice.

JC: No reply from them?

KK: Yeah, we tried to get it done, and they weren’t up for it.

JC: Last year’s team actually did pretty well: 8-5. But one of the things I read a lot when you got hired was “the Tech fan base is going to be patient with him because he’s already got credibility.” Do you want to hear that, or do you want to win games right away?

KK: No. I mean, this staff isn’t patient at all. We expect results early and that’s why we’re here. Any expectation that the fan base could put on us we probably have just as high if not higher. Like you said, eight wins last year, lots of room for improvement.

JC: So how’s that SMU game plan for August 30 looking?

KK: We’re a long way away from really attacking that. We’re still in the stage of worrying about us. Once we get into August and get training camp going on, I’ll start getting on the SMU film. But it’s going to be a heck of a game. They do a great job there. 

JC: Mumme is the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator. Dana Holgorsen, another former Leach assistant who was your boss at Houston, is at West Virginia. When you look up and down the schedule, do you stop to realize how many branches are on that family tree?

KK: Yeah, it’s gonna be some surreal handshakes before the games, that’s for sure. When I was at the head coaches’ meeting—you know, you’re sitting around all guys I’ve either played against or played for, and it’s just humbling and an incredible feeling to be sitting with those guys and talking college football.

JC: Being a former Big 12 player yourself, what was it like to be part of A&M’s departure for the SEC last year? There’s still this weird scene where the schools in the Big 12 try to act like A&M isn’t even in the state anymore.

KK: I think the entire state of Texas is still getting adjusted to that. None of us playing Texas A&M anymore is unfortunate. But what they did has been great for them, and they’ve really run with the opportunity. I think eventually, once everything calms down, those games will come back, and Texas A&M will be playing the other schools around Texas.

JC: People keep calling you the GQ coach. Do you even read GQ?

KK: Yeah, I’ll pick it up when I’m flying. They’ve got some good articles. I’m more of an Esquire guy. I like the short stories in Esquire. But that whole deal’s gotten blown out of proportion. I was dressing like this before I took this job, but obviously being more in the spotlight now, people want to talk about it.

JC: Still, I gotta ask—and thanks for reading print magazines by the way—what’s the designer and price point of your favorite pair of jeans?

KK: My favorite pair of jeans right now is probably AG, but I don’t really want to get into price. If people are that interested, they can look it up themselves, I guess.

JC: Your facial hair has also been a topic of conversation. Do you shave and then let it grow back, or do you trim it down to stubble every day?

KK: That’s a top secret question. I can’t give away all my trade secrets.

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