Kliff Kingsbury works the video controls and provides running commentary to Texas Tech's quarterbacks as, on a screen at the front of the meeting room, Texas A&M rolls to a game-winning touchdown against Ole Miss. Wearing a gray hoodie over a V-neck T-shirt and a pair of selvage jeans with the cuffs rolled just so, Kingsbury looks like the best-dressed QB in the room, or maybe GQ's vision for a chic assistant coach. He is neither. The 33-year-old is the Red Raiders' coach, earning $2.1 million a year and charged with leading his alma mater to its first Big 12 title.
This is an article from the March 4, 2013 issue
Texas Tech fans have had fun with Kingsbury's molasses-tinged New Braunfels, Texas, accent, his looks and his youth. They even created the Twitter hashtag #OurCoachIsHotterThanYourCoach. ("A liiiiiiittle creepy," Kingsbury says with a laugh.) But since leaving his job as the Texas A&M offensive coordinator in December, the coach who could still pass for an undergrad has been showing off his Ph.D. in the Air Raid offense that Tech will implement this fall. Narrating the video, Kingsbury curses himself for calls he should have made and chides Aggies QB Johnny Manziel—four months removed and 440 miles away—for balls he should have thrown. As he shows the five QBs the 20-yard pass to Ryan Swope that sealed the victory, Kingsbury hits play-rewind-pause-play in rapid succession until all the Red Raiders in the room can identify the signal from the sideline that started the play and recite the blocking scheme, receivers' routes and read progression. Then, as Swope makes the catch, Kingsbury hits pause again and points to a group of white-clad young men celebrating on the sideline. "Look at those guys," Kingsbury says, pointing at Texas A&M's Yell Leaders. "I was surprised, but those guys do work."
The quarterbacks crack up. For those who don't speak College Student, Kingsbury was referring to the all-male cheerleading squad's popularity with the ladies. Kingsbury speaks the language fluently. So does most of his staff, which includes co--offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie, 31, and Eric Morris, 27; Kenny Bell, a 24-year-old accounting grad who oversees the office staff and helps athletic director Kirby Hocutt manage an eight-figure football budget; and Danielle Bartelstein, 28, a former elementary school teacher who directs recruiting.
At some schools the media-guide section on coaches touts the staff's combined experience and has a group photo full of gray hair. Others, like Texas Tech, have embraced youth. In the next few weeks three head coaches and 30 coordinators under 35 will open spring practice. "Football is really becoming a young man's game," says Kingsbury's ex-boss, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. "Particularly college football, because of the energy level it takes to recruit and continue to evolve."
Kingsbury now runs the team he quarterbacked just 11 years ago. P.J. Fleck, who was born 25 days after Ronald Reagan was elected president, has taken over at Western Michigan. Kingsbury's replacement in College Station is Jake Spavital, 27, who has already coached one first-rounder (Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden) and most likely a second (West Virginia's Geno Smith), and will now be in charge of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Meanwhile, at Auburn, Gus Malzahn will entrust much of his offense to 29-year-old coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who first worked with Malzahn as a seventh-grader.
To a young coach taking on bigger responsibilities, youth is seen as an advantage rather than a handicap. "It's like the guy who created Facebook," Kingsbury says. "It doesn't matter how old you are if you're great at your job. College athletics is one of the few places still holding on to [the notion that] you've got to be older, you've got to be wiser. Well, not in business. Not in any other sector."
The young coaches stressed that it isn't the amount of experience but the quality of it that matters. Most have already bounced around frequently and built diverse résumés. "I was never one to say I wanted to arrive there at 55 or 60," Fleck says. A former receiver at Northern Illinois who played two years for the 49ers, he had held five jobs at four stops over six years when Western Michigan called. That had given him time to cross several items off the bucket list he keeps in a binder on his desk: See all the monuments in Washington, D.C. Go to a BCS title game. Coach at a BCS program as an assistant. Be an assistant in the National Football League.
Ultimately Fleck's travels allowed him to cross off the most ambitious item to date: Be the youngest head football coach in Division I-A.
When chasing that last goal, Fleck heeded the advice that former Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak gave him. Novak, who got the NIU job in 1996 at 50, reminded Fleck that no matter how old a head coach is when he's hired, he won't enter knowing exactly how to succeed. "You don't know when you're ready," Fleck says. "You're just ready. And you'll never be ready until you say, 'I'm ready.'"
A key, according to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was hired in 2006 as a 31-year-old, is bringing in trustworthy assistants who can match the coach's energy. Kingsbury has done that. He hired five former Tech players because he wanted coaches who loved Lubbock and could sell it to skeptical recruits. Kingsbury lured Bartelstein away from TCU, in part because the former schoolteacher has a gift for putting recruits' parents at ease. And he hired Bell to manage the staff thanks to a deep trust forged during long hours at Houston, where Bell was an unpaid volunteer and Kingsbury was a lowly offensive quality control assistant.
One day last month Kingsbury pointed at Bell's blazer and asked if he was a bit overdressed for a football office. Bell shot back that he had just met with Hocutt and other senior officials. The meeting had helped address an important issue for Kingsbury: updating the uniforms. Following the leads of Oregon and Oklahoma State, he wants six uniforms that can produce dozens of variations and help the Red Raiders differentiate themselves from the other Texas teams. The prototype helmets, which are locked in a bin in the Tech equipment room, include designs featuring the masked rider mascot. Kingsbury is most likely the only coach in the country who refers to his team's potential helmets as clean and sick. (Both of these are compliments.)
The project will be expensive—Kingsbury and Bell joined the staff after the budget was finalized—but Kingsbury has recruited donors to cover the cost. In the meeting, Bell was told that donations shouldn't be earmarked by the donors but disbursed by the athletic department. Still, the new uniforms will be ready this season, thanks partly to Bell's savvy. "My wife's grandmother always said I [must have been] 35 coming out of the womb," he says.
Neither Kingsbury nor Fleck has experienced resistance from older donors more accustomed to a coach their own age. Kingsbury believes playing at Texas Tech helped his cause. "If I was just some kid from Texas at a school in California talking to a bunch of boosters who didn't know me, then I think there may be some awkwardness," he says. "But I can speak from the heart about this place."
Hocutt, who was hired as Ohio's athletic director at 33, understands the power of youth. After Tommy Tuberville ended his divisive tenure in Lubbock by taking the Cincinnati job in December, Hocutt drew up a very short list of potential replacements. Kingsbury's interview eliminated the need to bring in other candidates. "It was evident that he'd prepared his entire career and his entire life for this opportunity," Hocutt says. Since Kingsbury was hired, Hocutt says the Red Raiders have sold an additional 3,000 season tickets. Jones AT&T Stadium has 84 luxury suites, and Hocutt says those are full with a waiting list of 35, thanks to Kingsbury and his assistants. "Their energy has changed the entire environment and culture," Hocutt says.
After taking over in Lubbock, Kingsbury & Co. have, in the words of Hocutt, formed "an instant connection" with Texas Tech players. At two SEC schools a pair of veteran coaches are banking on young assistants to create a similar bond.
Jake Spavital, the son of a high school coach in Broken Arrow, Okla., played quarterback at Missouri State before deciding to enter the family business. At Houston he learned the finer points of the Air Raid with Cougars coach Sumlin and assistants Kingsbury and Dana Holgorsen. When Oklahoma State hired Holgorsen to run its offense before the 2010 season, he hoped to bring Kingsbury to Stillwater. But Holgorsen only had room for a grad assistant. He chose Spavital.
"It's tough to install an offense by yourself when you don't have your guys around you," Spavital says. "You have to teach the concepts to the O-line coach, the running backs coach, the inside receivers coach and the outside receivers coach and at the same time work with the quarterbacks. That's when I learned the entire offense." Then 24, Spavital found himself teaching concepts to coaches twice his age. Even Weeden, a former minor league baseball player, was two years older than Spavital. "There were some battles," Spavital says. "I got put in some awkward situations." But ultimately things worked so smoothly that Holgorsen took Spavital to West Virginia with him as his quarterbacks coach before the 48-year-old Sumlin tapped him to help Johnny Football win a second Heisman.
Spavital hopes being close to Manziel's age will make bonding easier. "In the quarterback room, that's probably 95 percent of the battle," Spavital says. "Just making sure you have them feeling comfortable enough to have faith and trust in what they're doing."
At Auburn new quarterbacks coach Rhett Lashlee has an even longer history with his boss. He started in Malzahn's system as a seventh-grader at Shiloh Christian in Springdale, Ark. After shoulder injuries derailed his Arkansas career, Lashlee helped coach Malzahn's offense at Springdale High, and he followed the coach on subsequent stops with the Razorbacks and Auburn. "There is a small number of people that have branched from our style of no-huddle system," Lashlee said. "I'm one of the few with the advantage that I got to play in it as a quarterback. That helps me because I'm not asking them to do something unrealistic or something I haven't done."
While being able to relate to his QBs is a plus, Lashlee realizes that like all young coaches, he has to establish his authority. "You've got to walk that fine line of developing that relationship where they trust you and, at the same time, they know you're their coach and they respect you," Lashlee says.
Even though their vocabularies are hipper and they might have a little more flair, Kingsbury, Fleck, Spavital and Lashlee probably aren't all that different from the forty- and fiftysomethings they'll coach against. Regardless of age, winning is all that matters. Well, in Lubbock there might be one noticeable distinction. "No pleats, man," Kingsbury says. "Pleats are a tough look to pull off."
Young coaches such as Spavital (above) are not an entirely new phenomenon. This week's tablet edition of SI looks at the history of young hires, from Bear Bryant to Lou Holtz. Free to subscribers at SI.com/activate