Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury focused on substance over style
NEW YORK -- Kliff Kingsbury has an image problem the way Russell Westbrook has an image problem, only to a lesser extreme. Kingsbury may not sport red-framed glasses without lenses or polo shirts with fishhook patterns, but like Westbrook, Kingsbury lives in a world where people often focus on his image at the expense of everything else. Play-calling? They'd rather talk about the long-sleeved shirt and Ray Bans he wore on the sidelines last fall. Program-building? They're too focused on the slim-fitting black suit he sported while strolling through midtown Manhattan last week to notice.
Kingsbury, 33, is stylish to be sure, but the public's appearance-driven mindset masks the type of coach he really is. He rose from a quality control assistant at Houston to the head coach at his alma mater, Texas Tech, in just five years. There are numerous reasons why Kingsbury has gotten to where he is, but his wardrobe isn't one of them.
"It's funny, because when I was at Houston nobody said anything," Kingsbury said of his image last Tuesday. "We were on CBS Sports every week and nobody was saying anything. Same look, same everything. But maybe the youth, [people] are just not accustomed to it. I'm just being myself."
Kingsbury comes off as flashy, a reputation that only grows each time he does something like write a memo to his players referencing Madden and Call of Duty. But behind the scenes, the Red Raiders' first-year head man exudes a totally different vibe. Kingsbury is a film junkie and one of the brightest young play-callers in college football. Before delving into any discussion about his coaching future or about Texas Tech's prospects for the 2013 season, it's best to start there.
"I think it kind of gets lost in the shuffle, I love watching tape and studying other people's offenses," Kingsbury said. "And that's why I'm in this, to work with the kids and develop student-athletes. But the X's-and-O's part I think gets lost -- that's what I really enjoy doing."
Like most players and coaches who were part of Texas A&M's program last fall, Kingsbury's shining moment in 2012 came on Nov. 10, when the Aggies upset top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The game launched Johnny Manziel's historic Heisman campaign and christened A&M as a new-wave SEC power. For Kingsbury, however, it was also the game where his crafty play-calling finally came up short -- by a yard, at least.
Less than four minutes into the first quarter, Kingsbury dialed up his take on one of the classic trick plays of the 1980s and early '90s. "We run the Fumblerooski on like the three -- but we don't score," Kingsbury recalled. "And so nobody talks about it. It's the one play that made me mad the entire year."
Look back at the tape (the play starts at the 7:06 mark). On first-and-goal from the Alabama four-yard line, center Patrick Lewis subtly snapped the ball to Manziel -- and then nobody on the offensive line moved. Alabama's defensive linemen basically held their ground, and Manziel hesitated for a beat before quickly shoving the ball into running back Ben Malena's gut. Malena burst to the left side, catching the entire Crimson Tide defense by surprise, before linebacker Tana Patrick eventually stuffed him at the one-yard line.
It wasn't the traditional version of the play -- the version of the Fumblerooski in which the quarterback quietly drops the ball on the ground was outlawed by the NCAA in 1992 -- but it was of the same trick-play ilk. And Kingsbury wasn't afraid to turn to that play on the road, on Texas A&M's first red-zone possession, against the then-undefeated reigning BCS champs.
"Our O-linemen sell it," Kingsbury said. "We pull it off perfectly. We go around and the guy sits there and he waits. If [Malena] would've run to the pylon, he would've scored. That's the one thing about that game that pisses me off. Because we had set that up all week. And none of the kids believed me that it would work."
Nearly eight months later, a play that came up one-yard short is what sticks with Kingsbury most from A&M's program-altering victory and breakthrough season. And that, far more than his appearance, demonstrates what Kingsbury is all about.
Kingsbury's feel for the game developed during his playing days, from his career at Texas Tech from 1998-2002 to his brief tenure in the NFL, which included very short stints with the Patriots, Saints, Broncos and Jets. Along the way, he learned from the likes of Mike Leach, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- the latter of whom he calls the best quarterback he's ever seen play in person.
At each stop, Kingsbury got a sense of the work ethic and leadership required to generate success, but more significantly, he internalized lessons in football philosophy. Among the most important: Shape the system around the quarterback -- not the other way around.
"I think it's actually starting to go that way more," Kingsbury said of the approach. "A prime example to me is what Washington did with RGIII last year. They put him in some of Baylor's offense it looks like when you're watching the Redskins play."
At Houston, Kingsbury's offense was structured around Case Keenum's prolific arm; Keenum finished his Cougars' career as the NCAA's all-time leader in completions (1,546), passing yards (19,217) and passing touchdowns (155). Last year at A&M, the Aggies tailored their attack to Manziel's incredible penchant for keeping plays alive -- a talent that fully came to light during the team's 20-17 season-opening loss to Florida.
"It was the first third-and-15 versus Florida, we run a quarterback draw, [Manziel] takes off up the middle, outruns people and gets it," said Kingsbury. "I'm like, wow, we're gonna have to change the offense because he's that special."
Kingsbury reworked his playbook to fit Manziel's talent. Texas A&M's offense went on to average 558.5 yards per game, third in the FBS, and Manziel broke Cam Newton's SEC record by racking up 5,116 yards of total offense in a single season.
It's important to remember all this when analyzing Kingsbury's rapid rise through the coaching ranks. He may be best known for his youth and style, but he was hired back in Lubbock because of his football mind.
"I just think you recruit [quarterbacks] for a reason," Kingsbury said. "Just let them be themselves, and that's how you're gonna get the best player."
Since returning to Texas Tech following his hire on Dec. 12, Kingsbury has needed to adjust to a new set of challenges. He had to hire his own staff, which now includes five additional Red Raider alums and a number of key assistants under the age of 35. He had to revitalize the school's recruiting efforts; Tech already boasts 16 verbal commitments in the class of 2014.
More than anything, though, Kingsbury has needed to learn how to juggle the administrative responsibilities that come with being a major-conference head coach. Now in the top job, he can no longer simply hole up in the film room and leave those duties to former boss and A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin.
"When you're the OC, all day every day you can just be X's and O's," Kingsbury said. "Now, you gotta find the time when nobody is there usually to focus on football."
Kingsbury still finds the time to study the game, however. He pores over offenses from high school to college to the pros, incorporating his favorite aspects of each into his schemes. (Of the Seattle Seahawks' offense, he marveled: "They had so many boots and rollouts and waggles and things to take advantage of what [Russell Wilson] can do.) Kingsbury constantly strives for innovation, and if his Texas Tech team makes a run in 2013, it will likely be the product of the tactics he employs.
These are the kinds of conversations Kingsbury wants to have: about the quarterback competition between redshirt sophomore Michael Brewer and early enrollee Davis Webb, and how both can best be utilized; about his two top returning sack-getters, Kerry Hyder and Dartwan Bush; about the steps Kingsbury is taking to increase takeaways and limit turnovers, two areas the program struggled mightily with last season. Kingsbury's image is one of the last things on his mind, even if it seems to be the first thing on everyone else's.
In March, Deadspin published a now-infamous email from a local Lubbock businessman who presented his ideas for improving Texas Tech's football brand. Among them: planting nicknames for Kingsbury (GQ, Hollywood and Swagger), hiring him a personal stylist and landing him "B-list" invites to the Oscars and Grammys, among other high-profile events. The message was over-the-top sports marketing taken to the most absurd level, and it quickly circulated through fan sites across the web.
"I caught [some flack] from friends and stuff," Kingsbury said of the note. "But that's just fun. And that guy, he's a good guy, and he was just thinking he was helping the program. Anybody that has ideas and if they're good ones and on the up-and-up, send 'em our way. We're trying to all go in the same direction."
Still, for Kingsbury, his "image problem" isn't such a problem. While fans and rivals alike focus on his style, he's going to continue to obsess over the smaller parts of the game, from devising trick plays to finding the perfect run-pass balance. He's going to focus on the stuff that could spell the difference between winning and losing come fall.
"I've been this way forever," Kingsbury said. "I told myself, if I was gonna be head coach, I wouldn't change and treat the players the same and act the same and be the same person just with more responsibility. It just kind of is what it is."