Kliff Kingsbury: College Football's Offensive Prodigy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It hasn’t taken Kingsbury, 34, long to make his mark as a college football coach. Expectations are high for this offensive mind and onetime mentor to Johnny Manziel in the 2014 season and beyond.
By Emily Cadei
When Kliff Kingsbury was bouncing around the third string lineups and practice squads of the National Football League and its European counterpart last decade, a successful career in football seemed nearly impossible.
”At the time, I was thinking, ‘Oh, this sucks,’” Kingsbury, a quarterback, recalls of having to learn all the different offenses and game plans for each new team he landed on, after being waived from the team before. In hindsight, however, ”it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me,” he says. ”It was really like a Ph.D. in coaching.”
As luck would have it, his stints with the New England Patriots, New York Jets and New Orleans Saints gave him first-hand exposure to the likes of Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy and Herm Edwards — some of pro football’s greatest coaching minds of recent years — experiences that Kingsbury credits for helping shape his own coaching career.
In just five years, he went from a volunteer college quarterbacks’ coach to head coach at his alma mater, Texas Tech.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Kingsbury, who, in just five years, went from a volunteer college quarterbacks’ coach to head coach at his alma mater, Texas Tech, a top Division I program in Lubbock, Texas. Hired just last year, he came into the league as one of college football’s youngest head coaches. And though his first season at Tech has had its up and downs, the Red Raiders’ bowl game victory over ranked Arizona State in December sent the signal that they — and Kingsbury — are very much on the rise.
A younger Kingsbury had slightly different plans for his future. The Texas native grew up in a football-mad family (his father, Tim, was the head football coach at New Braunfels High, near San Antonio, which Kliff attended), and he’d long dreamed of making it as an NFL quarterback.
The early signs were good: Kingsbury, a prolific college passer who finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2002, was 100 percent focused on trying to make it as a pro. Even as he shuttled between New England, New Orleans, Cologne (Germany) and Winnipeg, in a stint with the Canadian Football League team there, while he was waiting for his shot to play, Kingsbury tried not to let the doubt creep in. “I wanted to say I did everything I could, I chased this dream until the end, and be comfortable with that,” he says.
He acknowledges feeling ’like I was trying to keep my head above water a lot of the time’ last year.
After a year in snowy Canada, however, the Texas native concluded a successful pro career wasn’t in the cards and he had to, as he put it, ”reset” his goals. It was humbling, Kingsbury says, but after failing to catch on as a starter on a handful of teams, he said he realized, ”I had exhausted what I could do.” So when Dana Holgorsen, the offensive coordinater at the University of Houston and one of the coaches at Texas Tech during Kingsbury’s undergrad days, invited him to come out on a volunteer basis and help with the summer workouts for his quarterbacks in 2008, he seized the opportunity … and quickly found his new calling.
”I just loved it, the camaraderie, watching them have success and learning from what you were teaching them; it was very fulfilling,” Kingsbury says in his soft Texas twang.
That led to four seasons on Houston’s coaching staff under the much-heralded Kevin Sumlin, where Kingsbury rose to be co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. When Sumlin left to take the head coaching spot at Texas A&M in 2012, Kingsbury went with him, assuming the plum post of offensive coordinator and mentor to freshman quarterback phenom Johnny Manziel, aka “Johnny Football,” who went on to win the Heisman Trophy that year. (Manziel was the first freshman ever to win college football’s biggest prize.) Kingsbury, himself, was named national offensive coordinator of the year by Football Scoop for his role in the Aggies’ high-flying, high-scoring season.
Texas Tech scooped him up to fill their head coach vacancy the next year.
Now, with a season under his belt, Kingsbury feels like he’s getting the head coaching equivalent of his sea legs. After a quick start out the gate in 2013, winning seven straight games and cracking the top 10 in the college football rankings, Kingsbury’s Red Raiders proceeded to lose five straight and barely sputter to the finish line in the Big 12 Conference. Still, Texas Tech still wound up ranking second for average passing yards in all of college football. And the season was redeemed after picking apart No. 14 Arizona State’s defense in a 37-23 Holiday Bowl victory. But Kingsbury says his goal this fall will be consistency, in everything from how he communicates with players and the standards he sets as well as in the team’s performance on game day.
He acknowledges feeling “like I was trying to keep my head above water a lot of the time” last year. Particularly challenging was dealing with all of the non-football responsibilities — the alumni requests, the media, the academic issues — that come with being the head honcho at a big-time college football program in a state like Texas, where fans live and breathe the sport. ”Every day there’s a ridiculous amount of information that crosses your desk that you have to handle,” Kingsbury says, adding that he’s had to improve his time-management skills and be highly strategic about his priorities.
With its core group of returning players on offense, including young star quarterback Davis Webb, you can bet that Texas Tech will continue to maintain one of the most explosive, pass-heavy offenses in college football in 2014, a style that has become something of a signature for Kingsbury ever since his own college days airing it out and throwing for big yardage. The bigger question marks come on defense, where the Red Raiders lost several veteran players. Kingsbury, however, says they’ve ”signed a very solid defensive class” of recruits, many of whom he expects to ”come in and play right away.” And while he concedes that he’s not much of a defensive guru himself, he says he’s content to delegate that responsibility to his assistant coaches, whom he trusts. ”I just try to hire guys I believe in,” he says.
With the Big 12 Conference as wide open as it has ever been, Kingsbury’s team should be right in the mix for conference supremacy — and a climb into the country’s elite strata of teams. For Red Raiders fans, that’s both good news and bad news. After several years hanging around the middle to bottom of the conference pack, they’re hungry for success. On the flip side, it could mean Kingsbury himself is not long for Lubbock. With such a hot hand, after all, it’s hard to see this being Kingsbury’s last stop on his rise up football’s coaching ranks.