College Football Identity Crisis: Kliff Kingsbury Doesn’t Want to Be a Sex Symbol — So Can He Be a Good Coach?John Weast/Getty Images
Transience defines college sports, but an unusual amount of soul-searching seems to be taking place this preseason. So as we gear up for the 2015 season and the second installment of the College Football Playoff, we’ll take a closer look at some of the programs working to rediscover their roots, embrace change, and find a sense of self.
If you were one of the millions of Americans who gaped in horror this summer as photos of Jim Harbaugh’s unapologetic dadbod were inflicted on an unsuspecting citizenry, you probably find it hard to believe that any sane person could have reacted to Harbaugh’s pasty protrusions with a sigh of relief. But for Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, whose primary offseason goals included keeping his own well-documented torso out of social-media circulation, the opportunity to cede the title of America’s Top Shirtless Coach was a welcome surprise. As far as spontaneous Internet sightings are concerned, college football’s most celebrated six-pack is retired: “You won’t see it,” Kingsbury told local reporters in the wake of Harbaugh’s contribution to the genre. “I learned a lesson about keeping my shirt on.”
His midsection isn’t all that Kingsbury has been keeping under wraps for the past six months. In fact, unless you happen to be obsessed with the daily minutiae of Texas Tech football, you likely haven’t seen much of the young coach in any capacity since last winter, which is very much by design. Although Kingsbury has never overtly courted outside attention, for most of his first two years as a head coach it seemed like he couldn’t help but attract it — for his looks, his clothes, his age, his “swagger” (whatever that means), and anything else that caught the fleeting attention of an audience that couldn’t have cared less about his team’s fate on the field. Among the people who do care, though, the tabloid persona that’s encircled their young coach has grown stale at best; at worst, as the 2014 campaign unraveled into a ragged, 4-8 debacle, it began to look like a legitimate distraction.
Seemingly no one is more tired of the persona than Kingsbury himself. Of the many lessons he learned during the course of last season’s slog, perhaps the most important was that being known as “the cute one” isn’t so cute from the losing sideline. This year, post-honeymoon phase, Kingsbury has deliberately shunned the viral frenzy in favor of a humbler, more businesslike persona that better suits the mood following an eighth-place finish at a school that hasn’t fared that poorly in the win column in 25 years, since the days of the Southwest Conference. “It’s as low as you can get; we’re at the bottom,” Kingsbury told the Dallas Morning News last month, conveniently ignoring the two teams (Kansas and Iowa State) that actually finished below Texas Tech in the 2014 Big 12 standings. “As a head coach, I’m trying to evolve and improve.”1
His first two years on the job have offered a steep learning curve. While Kingsbury is slightly too old to qualify as a millennial (he turned 36 on Sunday), he’s the only active head coach in a Power 5 conference under 40,2 and the contrast between the fit, meticulously coiffed bachelor and his pudgier, wizened counterparts has only exaggerated the sense of a generation gap that would have existed based on age alone. In his first season, 2013, he stood across from three other Big 12 bosses (Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Texas’s Mack Brown) who coached against Kingsbury when he was Texas Tech’s starting quarterback from 2000 to 2002 and two (Baylor’s Art Briles and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen) who were on the Red Raiders’ offensive staff during that span.
Initially, the image of a cool, hip-hop-fluent camp counselor was one that Kingsbury seemed willing, if not exactly happy, to indulge. Maybe because he didn’t have a choice: The vast majority of coverage he received before last season fell willingly into the divide between the generic portrait of “college football coach” — the professional scowler with graying temples, love handles, and your father’s fashion sense — and the actual presence of a coach who could still easily be mistaken for one of his players, or, more often, for a certain, stubbled movie star with whom Kingsbury has become inextricably linked. Put the man in a tailored suit or a pair of sunglasses, and the attendant buzz seemed to generate itself, emanating from Twitter and Instagram like a collective mating call. Put him in both, and you had the makings of a full-blown meme.
The bulk of it was harmless, of course, like the viral photo of Kingsbury posing shirtless, chest seemingly waxed and abs on fleek, with two bikini-clad women3 at a backyard pool party, or the viral video of the post-practice dance session he held with players while sporting a backward visor and a shirt that said “Too Turnt Up.” Some of it was embarrassing, like the leaked email from a Tech booster to then–deputy athletic director Joe Parker pitching a plan to capitalize on their new coach’s budding persona by handing Kingsbury over to a professional stylist, giving him a marketable nickname like “GQ,” “Hollywood,” or “Swagger,” and making him a regular presence on the red-carpet circuit at events like the Oscars, Grammys, and New York Fashion Week. (The scheme never progressed beyond Parker’s inbox.) But mostly, within the context of an overwhelmingly middle-aged, authoritarian profession, it was strange.
Why was a college football coach showing up in a spontaneous group photo with Mike Tyson and Tom Brady, among others, at the Preakness?4 Since when would Esquire turn to a college football coach for detailed fashion advice?5 How did a college football coach find himself sitting down to be profiled by E! News less a month into his debut season, for no apparent reason except his resemblance to Ryan Gosling? What other college football coach could even imagine being the subject of a Jeopardy! clue in the “Pop Culture” column — not because of anything he’d ever done as an athlete or coach, but again strictly for the Gosling factor?
Most of Kingsbury’s contributions to the “GQ” brand have been accidental, and he’s always insisted that his focus is on the steak (winning football games) and not the sizzle (everything else). Other coaches who have worked with Kingsbury describe him as a hard worker, and point to the fact that his father, a Vietnam vet, was his high school coach in New Braunfels, Texas, turning Kliff into a born-and-bred X’s-and-O’s nerd at heart. Before he’d coached a single game at his alma mater, Kingsbury had already conceded that his reception in Lubbock as some kind of homegrown heartthrob was “embarrassing,” and asked the athletic department to put the kibosh on T-shirts and other merchandise that boasted, “Our Coach Is Hotter Than Your Coach.”
But he hasn’t always been able to control the situation. Lubbock is the most geographically isolated home base of any FBS program, a desert outpost known more for Buddy Holly, bizarre weather patterns, and UFO sightings than for attracting blue-chip football players in a state dominated by the Longhorns, Aggies, and Sooners. In lieu of a ready-made media footprint or pipeline for in-state talent, a personality capable of commandeering the national spotlight can be invaluable. That was a lesson Texas Tech learned firsthand from Kingsbury’s mentor, Mike Leach, an enigmatic, profane, savant of a coach who attracted a kind of cult following around the country — stoked by such far-flung outlets as The New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes, which took an interest in Leach as “The Mad Scientist of College Football” — largely by being an authentic weirdo.
What appealed to fans about the flagrantly uncool Leach was the polar opposite of what appeals to fans about Kingsbury, but the coaches are alike in that their popularity stems mainly from their ability to cultivate an image that defies the straitlaced rep of the stereotypical college football coach. It’s the logic that animated Stephen Spiegelberg,6 the overenthusiastic booster who wanted to turn Kingsbury into a bona fide, B-list celebrity: “We need this to level the playing field with TEXAS,” Spiegelberg wrote. “We can turn the tables on TEXAS. Its old, tired, its the Nike to your kids generation. … We can brand as the Hippest school in the game.” There was nothing remotely weird or hip about Leach’s successor, Tommy Tuberville, and when Tuberville bailed for the top job at Cincinnati in December 2012 after three respectable but unremarkable seasons, no one in Lubbock lamented his departure.
Kingsbury’s arrival from Texas A&M, where, as coordinator of the SEC’s highest-scoring offense, he’d just overseen Johnny Manziel’s Heisman-winning breakthrough, was a clear PR win; beyond the aesthetics, the new guy was a familiar face, a welcome link to the success of the Leach years, and was in no risk whatsoever of reminding Tech fans of the guy he was replacing. Still, in the long run, enthusiasm for an outside-the-box captain extends only as far as the win column, and Kingsbury’s record has begun to veer far too close to the rocks. Frequently lost in the rush to lionize Leach as an innovator and an eccentric was the fact that no one would have cared if he wasn’t also, above all else, a winner: In 10 years at Tech, Leach’s teams won 41 games more than they lost, played in nine bowl games, and landed in the final AP Top 25 in five of his last six seasons. At first, Kingsbury’s Raiders looked more than capable of living in that neighborhood, ripping off seven consecutive wins to open the 2013 campaign behind a pair of true freshman quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, and ultimately rising as high as no. 10 in the initial BCS standings. From that height, though, they’ve crashed and burned, dropping 13 of their last 18 while tossing two more freshman QBs into the fire7 and fielding one of the most consistently flammable defenses in the nation.
Texas Tech was never a bastion of defensive fortitude under Leach or Tuberville, but even by prevailing Air Raid standards, the 2014 unit was a disaster in every respect. Less than a month into the season, defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt was booted after reportedly showing up to campus while under the influence of an unknown substance — he’d just watched his charges ground into asphalt on national TV in a 49-28 loss to Arkansas — and it was downhill from there. The Raiders subsequently yielded 45 points to Oklahoma State, 45 to Kansas State, and 37 to West Virginia in their next three games (all losses), and were later incinerated in historic fashion by TCU, which dropped an 82-point bomb on the Raiders in late October. Out of 128 FBS teams, Tech finished 126th in scoring defense, 125th in total D, and 104th in Defensive S&P+.
By midseason, the narrative of the precocious, energetic up-and-comer that had persisted over Kingsbury’s first 18 months on the job curdled into something darker. After the Oklahoma State loss, a columnist in Oklahoma mocked Kingsbury as “college football’s Anna Kournikova.” After the K-State loss, a local writer at the Lubbock paper cackled that Kliff “didn’t look so pretty at his post-game press conference,” noting that his eyes “looked sullied and sunken” by the frustration of a fading season, and later adding, “it is hard to look like Ryan Gosling with the crow’s feet beginning to grow at the corners of his eyes.” After the TCU debacle, a Houston columnist admonished Kingsbury to “lose the sunglasses,” unless he was wearing them for anonymity. Amid the mounting losses, getting called out by national scribes for making too much money must have felt like kid gloves.
But at no point did the Raiders rebound with a performance that might have served as a rebuttal, leaving Kingsbury only one viable response: putting his nose to the grindstone. In January, he hired a new defensive coordinator, David Gibbs, from the University of Houston to import the aggressive, ball-hawking philosophy that resulted in an FBS-best 73 takeaways the past two years. In the meantime, he’s remained fully clothed in public and out of the headlines altogether except for engaging in routine patter with beat reporters and at conference media days. When he’s had something to say, it’s been about the timeline for naming a starting quarterback, or the potential impact of Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell on the beleaguered linebacking corps, or his expectations for the incoming recruiting class, all while knowing full well that the only way to counter the most deep-seated doubts about his administration — that he’s in over his head; that he doesn’t project authority; that his pretty-boy rep is somehow embodied by an inherently soft team — is to engineer a turnaround in the Big 12 standings. If that happens, Kingsbury will revive his status as the precocious coach on the upswing, fully deserving of his $3.1 million annual salary. If not, his seat will become a little hotter and the skeptics even more entrenched.
“It’s one of those offseasons that we definitely took a closer look at what we’re doing as a program and we’ve addressed it,” Kingsbury told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re just grinding. None of us were happy with the way things worked out. It’s kind of a decision with the way things went last year. We want a workmanlike attitude.”
No one ever used words like grinding or workmanlike, or their close cousin blue-collar, to describe Texas Tech in the Leach years, which stand as arguably the most successful decade in school history. More than any other factor, it was Kingsbury’s association with that era, as the first of many record-breaking passers on Leach’s watch, that made him such a popular candidate to restore the wide-open, pass-happy, defense-optional mentality in the first place. Between Leach and Kevin Sumlin, on whose staff Kingsbury served at Houston and Texas A&M, Kingsbury has spent virtually his entire career running some iteration of the Air Raid that he helped to bring into fashion as a player. Neither the playbook nor the basic philosophy behind it is going to change anytime soon. But until the record improves and the Red Raiders regain some measure of relevance in the Big 12, if blue-collar rhetoric is what the skeptics need to hear to be assured their head man is maturing into the kind of sober, straitlaced chief who fits the standard head-coaching mold, then that’s what they’re going to get.
This article has been updated to clarify that Art Briles and Dana Holgorsen coached at Texas Tech when Kliff Kingsbury was the team’s quarterback.
Filed Under: 2015 College Football Preview, College Football Preview, College Football Identity Crisis, College Football, Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Big 12, College Football Coaches, Texas Longhorns, Texas A&M Aggies, Oklahoma Sooners, Ryan Gosling, Johnny Manziel, Mike Leach, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton