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King's Welcome Embarrasses New Texas Tech Coach

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Former Texas Tech quarterback turned head coach Kliff Kingsbury returned to a hero's welcome. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.
Former Texas Tech quarterback turned head coach Kliff Kingsbury returned to a hero's welcome. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.

Back in the first few days of February, I was in Lubbock, Texas, to cover a basketball game. It was West Virginia against Texas Tech, as forgettable as one would imagine from two teams that combined for 24 wins and 39 losses.

But why do I remember that trip so vividly? A day after the game I was rolling around campus and ducked inside a building and noticed the T-shirts almost everywhere I looked.

“Our coach is hotter than your coach,” read one over top a picture of a Ryan Gossling-looking fellow.

“Future’s so bright,” read another with the script placed above an illustration of a pair of mirrored sunglasses.

This would be a good place to tell you where I was. Not a bar or restaurant or grocery store. This was the scene from a church and the Sunday’s Best was the best indication available that the Red Raiders were swooning over their new coach.

He is Kliff Kingsbury, a stylish 33-year-old former quarterback who threw 95 touchdowns and set 39 school records as the Red Raiders quarterback from 1999-2002. He’s been so tightly embraced by a school desperate for a coach that it hurts just a little bit.

“It’s more, I guess, embarrassing than surreal,” Kingsbury said in a conference call last week.

Understand the explanation of the hysteria, if not the need for it. The fans were once bonkers for Mike Leach, his predilection for pirates and the way he’d swing his sword on offense until he left town in a messy controversy over allegations of how he treated a player. His replacement was former Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville, who was as excited about Lubbock as West Texas is about droughts. Happy to cash a paycheck and resurrect a career that went off the road only five years after an unbeaten season with the Tigers, he left Texas Tech under the most unusual of circumstances.

Devonte Danzey, a junior college offensive line prospect, was part of a small group of recruits that went out to eat with Tuberville and some other assistants during a recruiting visit last December. Danzey told the Texas Tech recruiting site WreckEm247.com that he asked Tuberville about his future coaching at the school and was suspicious about a wishy-washy reply.

“The waitress brought our food out, and we thought he went to the bathroom, but he never came back to dinner. Then next thing I know, the next day, he made an announcement that he’s going to Cincinnati,” Danzey told the website.

(Aside: The best Texas Tech T-shirt? “Schedule Cincinnati.”)

The people weren’t sad for long because their attention shifted immediately to Kingsbury, who’d gained coaching fame for his work at Houston and especially at Texas A&M, where he mentored Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel. He was who the people wanted and they would get him, his skinny jeans and thin ties, his tight-fitting suits and dress shirts, his 5 o’clock shadow and sunglasses.

A model of the modern-aged coach, and he was theirs.

“It’s been fun watching him since leaving Houston and all the success he had at Houston and Texas A&M,” said West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen, who coached Kingsbury at Texas Tech and was an assistant coach with Kingsbury at Houston, during the same conference call. “He’ll have lots of success at Texas Tech. He’s a true Red Raider.”

There was no stopping the excitement about the return of the king. Deadspin.com obtained a letter sent to an assistant athletic director from an exuberant graduate who owns a clothing store in town. The fanatic had devised list of ways to make Kingsbury cool, marketable and popular – or everything it seemed Kingsbury already was.

The graduate recommended nicknames, suggested a stylist and a branding firm and aimed at goals like celebrity appearances and magazine covers. The whole thing was silly, but it was emblematic of the environment. One of the nicknames the letter suggested – Swagger – is actually on a T-shirt you can buy online: “Swagger’s back.”

“I’d like to actually do something on the field first before all the other stuff comes into play, but that’s part of the position, part of the job,” Kingsbury said later on the call. “I’m trying to have fun with it. Being in a place I feel comfortable with, being on a staff with people I’m comfortable with eased all of that.”

These things are somewhat necessary at Texas Tech. Oklahoma and Texas can bank on their tradition and their exposure to stay in the mainstream. Oklahoma State has to do a little more on and off the field to be taken as seriously. Texas Tech has to go out of its way. It's been a few years since the Red Raiders beat top-ranked Texas and rose to No. 2 in the polls for four weeks. The headlines since then have been far less favorable. 

So, sure, craft an appeal and take it as far as it will go. This is the honeymoon phase, but you know it won’t be long until a blowout loss or a deflating defeat is followed by suggestions he spend less time in the mirror and more time in the film room. Future comfort will be decided by what happens in the first season with a new offense and a new quarterback. The people are so excited about success at Texas A&M being transplanted to Texas Tech that they want it now, never mind the factors that separate one situation from the other.  

It’s just not that easy in the Big 12. Holgorsen won 10 games in his first season in 2011 and scored 70 points in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers moved from the Big East to the Big 12 in 2012 and finished 7-6 despite first- and third-round draft picks at receiver and a second-round pick at quarterback. Art Briles, who coached Kingsbury at Texas Tech, has Baylor humming with record-setting offenses and award-winning quarterbacks, but the Bears have one 10-win season since 1980 and have only finished above .500 once in Big 12 play.

Fashion is fun, but nothing is in style quite like winning.

“It’s a great opportunity for him and a great chance for him to really get started on his college career at very early age, which is a big, big plus,” Briles said during the conference call. “At the end of the day, it’s all about putting a good product on the field and winning football games.”