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Kliff Kingsbury Gets Defensive

Texas Tech’s offensive wunderkind built his reputation on points and flash. Now, as the one-time golden boy’s seat grows ever hotter, he’s trying to save his job and reboot the Red Raiders by widening his focus to include something new: defense.

A photo illustration of Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s 4:06 a.m. in Lubbock, Texas, when the headlights on a Cadillac Escalade pierce the semi-darkness shrouding Texas Tech’s football facility. The white SUV pulls into the parking spot nearest the entrance, and the driver kills the engine. It’s cool for early August, and a breeze clanks the pulley off the flagpole. The Double T logo on the side of the football stadium adjacent to the parking lot glows neon red. The driver’s door opens, and out slides the man everyone around here calls “Coach King.”

Kliff Kingsbury usually arrives around this time because he likes to, but this season, the early start means more. It embodies the change the Red Raiders head football coach now understands he needs to make. Tech hired Kingsbury in December 2012 after the former TTU QB and Mike Leach protégé’s reputation burgeoned in his one season as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Under him, Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. This instantaneous hype—which incorporated Kingsbury’s oft-discussed Hollywood-caliber looks as well as his quarterback whispering—created an expectation and a celebrity that Kingsbury has found himself measured against ever since.

Through his first four seasons and the opening game of Tech’s 2017 campaign, Kingsbury has posted a 25-26 record; he’s made just two bowl games, and his Raiders have finished in the bottom half of the Big 12 in each of his seasons. Before this season, Vegas gave Kingsbury 18-to-1 odds to be fired this season, tying him with his former Texas A&M boss, Kevin Sumlin, as the sixth-likeliest college football coach to be fired this season.

Kingsbury strides toward the building. He walks like he talks: straight and to the point. He’s never been “an orator,” says his chief of staff, Kenny Bell, because Kingsbury believes in efficiency wherever he can find it. He watches about three hours of film per day, every day, and, when he first became a head coach, Kingsbury did the math to see how long it would take him to hit the fabled Gladwellian 10,000 hours, signifying the mastery of a certain field. He was disappointed when his calculator informed him that it’d take about 10 years.

Kingsbury passes the flagpole and looks up at the facility, temporarily pausing his BlackBerry tapping. (“Encryption,” he later offers up as explanation for why one of the state’s highest-paid public employees still uses a cellphone from a company with a 0.0 percent smartphone market share.)

“It’s a beautiful day,” he says, beaming into the approaching dawn.

He presses his thumb against the facility’s scanner, and the door clicks unlocked. Kingsbury walks in and grabs the TV remote from the welcome desk, flicking on ESPN. He turns on all the lights and stops in the middle of the lobby to stretch his back, like a cat. He strides through the weight room, directly to the sound-system controls. Drake’s “Miss Me” booms.

I said, tell me, what’s really goin' on
Drizzy back up in this thang, I'm ready
What’s happenin'?

Then, he disappears to his office, to his whiteboard with green-and-red play diagrams. He’s not just working to save his job this year; he’s working to unify his roster after players told him last season that he needed to. Those pursuits could be related. He’s always gotten to the facility early, but now, he says, he needs this time to pore over the offense’s X’s and O’s before the staff meeting, because he’s determined to stay involved with the offense while distributing his time more equally across units during the day. He returns to the weight room about 30 minutes later, as more bodies pile into the facility and the J. Cole and Big Sean tracks slowly give way to Garth Brooks live. By 5:15 a.m., about a dozen personnel have filtered in. Even before the players arrive for their 5:50 a.m. lift, the room is an ant farm of men and weights.

Though everyone around the facility knows the pressure their head coach is under—the pressure they are all under—they dismiss it just as he does. “It’s a part of the job,” Kingsbury says often. “There's always pressure with a head coach today, with what winning is all about,” says director of football operations Tommy McVay. They remain on-message, because most have experienced seasons with a head coach on the “hot seat.” That’s precisely why, in quieter moments, some staffers acknowledge that this year’s pressure feels different. Across campus, down University Avenue in the Torchy’s Tacos and Insomnia Cookies and Spanky’s, and across the city in the public schools and bars and Walmart, similar thoughts echo: Lubbock loves Coach King. Lubbock loves winning. Please, Coach King, don’t make us choose one.

"Only thing that's in Lubbock is Tech, and we're all obsessed with Tech football,” says Chris McCollem, a 20-year Lubbock resident and Insomnia Cookies employee. “... They need to have a big year for Coach Kingsbury. I like Coach Kingsbury and I feel like if they can prove themselves this year, then he can have a couple years to get [them] back to where they need to be."

This season also feels different because, the team thinks, almost everyone in the Big 12 seems beatable. Even the traditional powers, Oklahoma and Texas, have new coaches simultaneously for the first time since 1947. TTU, meanwhile, is on Year 5 with Kingsbury and, after prolonged turnover at the position, Year 3 with the same defensive coordinator. The Red Raiders are already 1-0, having steamrolled an Eastern Washington team that finished 12-2 last year. The weight room is newly madeover, as is the recently remodeled locker room down the hall. A state-of-the-art indoor practice facility is nearing completion outside. The players now have iPads. The fields, new turf.

“Kirby [Hocutt] stepped up,” Kingsbury says of TTU’s athletic director. “… Psychologically, these improvements make [players] feel better, and as a program we feel better about ourselves.”

Kingsbury knows the improvement he feels inside the facility needs to show up outside of it. He says he’s received letters from fans and boosters, with bullet points on how he can improve the team. If he’s going to lead Tech to a breakout campaign, this year has to be the year, right?

Kingsbury grins and leans back in his chair. “I think,” he says, “it better be.”

West Virginia v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Cameron Batson was in space. The Tech wide receiver had juked right, come back left, and sprinted down the left sideline. Quarterback Nic Shimonek saw the separation and delivered a ball that turned over just as the receiver looked back over his shoulder, falling and nestling in Batson’s arms. Kingsbury is normally placid during practice. Now, though, he’s howling.

“Let’s go, D,” he shouts, taking a few steps out from the defensive sideline. Throughout 2017 camp, after acrobatic pass break-ups, interceptions, or third-down stops, Kingsbury runs out to celebrate with defenders or tap them on the helmet. It wasn’t always this way.

Kingsbury recalls that during the team’s exit interviews at the end of last season, almost every defensive player expressed different versions of the same refrain: They told him that he seemed to care more about the offense than their unit. Last year, in total defense, Tech finished 128th out of 128. Before this season, an anonymous Big 12 coach told Athlon Sports & Life: “Kingsbury is a hard worker and super talented, but he wasn’t prepared to be a head coach when he got the job and just hasn’t put it all together at this point. He tries to do so much on offense.”

Solving the defense’s problem began with stabilizing the unit’s leadership. “We were changing ‘em like underwear,” one Tech staffer joked about the defensive coordinator position’s turnstile-like existence. David Gibbs, now entering his third season in the post, is Tech’s longest-tenured DC since 2009. Gibbs started as a defensive coordinator at Minnesota in 1997, the year after the Gophers finished 4-7 and allowed nearly 31 points per game. By 1999, based on the same turnover-heavy philosophy Gibbs now employs at Tech, Minnesota ranked eighth nationally in pass efficiency and scoring defense.

“Everybody asks me [if it’s hard to trust the system],” Gibbs says. “To me, I know what I'm doing. Therefore, I'm not doing anything crazy. I'm not some wild scientist trying to create a defense. What I'm doing is sound, so if you keep coaching fundamentals and techniques and get better players to do it, you're going to be better.”

This preseason, SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, a college football expert, projected the Red Raiders to again win five games this season. This weekend’s matchup against Arizona State is one of three remaining games that Texas Tech is favored in by the S&P+ rankings. For several experts who forecast similar gloom, it all comes back to the same thing. As the headline on Connelly’s piece read: “Texas Tech’s offense will be great, but the defense will probably waste it. Aaaaagain.”

Supporting Gibbs despite his defense’s statistics, Kingsbury found, wasn’t enough. As Tech’s defenders spoke in their exit interviews, Kingsbury thought, “Wow. They have a point.” He never considered himself a schematic defensive guy, limiting the advice he’d give his defensive coaches to how certain defenses matched up with offenses. But he realized during his players’ exit interviews that he needed to be more present for every player on his team, to say, “Hey, I got your back.”

This season, Kingsbury adjusted his approach by having offensive coordinator Eric Morris script all the practices and, for the first time in Morris’s career, come down out of the box to coach on the sideline. This freed Kingsbury up to do more team-wide.

“Work in progress,” Kingsbury says, when asked to grade himself as a delegator. “At first, you just get here and you're focused, and you've done things the way you've done things. Then, as you go on, year to year, you try to get better at delegating and the people you delegate to have a better understanding than they did the year before.”

Kingsbury alternates spending practices in the offense’s backfield and on the defensive sideline. He cheerleads the defense, because, several players had told him, an offense having a bad day at practice doesn’t mean it was a bad practice.

“I feel a big difference on [the defense’s] sideline, knowing that my head coach is for the whole team,” says defensive lineman Talor Nunez. “Everyone's running to the ball hard. It's the things people on the outside wouldn't notice, but on the inside, within our teammates, we can feel that difference.”

Back at practice, a few plays after Batson’s grab, the defense seems sluggish and the offense completes several passes in a row.

“Good work, O!” Kingsbury says. And then, quickly: “Let’s pick it up, D. We good!”

2012 Heisman Trophy Presentation
Kingsbury and Johnny Manziel at the 2012 Heisman Trophy presentation
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Kingsbury’s players are looking at him in the football facility meeting room that looks like half a movie theater. There are six rows of black, leather chairs. Kingsbury has been in the room for about six minutes, four of which he’s spent watching a video about Tom Brady. When Kingsbury entered the room a few minutes ago, someone immediately shut off Drake, and video clips from practice suddenly appeared on the two screens.

“Do your job and you’d blow this up,” Kingsbury says to one defensive back as, on-screen, the player whiffs on a tackle.

“Can’t happen,” the coach says to a receiver when tape of the player dropping a ball rolls.

“Offense, we’re a long way from spring,” he says to the room when the film shows the defense forcing turnovers on two consecutive plays.

Five seasons ago, when Kingsbury first arrived at Tech, another meeting, held annually when players report to camp, lasted about 90 minutes. It included about 17 total speakers from TTU athletic training, ticketing, nutrition, football operations, video operations, the athletic director, compliance, and academics liaison. Kingsbury did not like that. His staff meetings regularly last between six and eight minutes. The aspiration to remain involved with his offense, yet become a more complete head coach, necessitates a hyper-efficiency. His desire to streamline meetings dates back to his days as Sumlin’s offensive coordinator at A&M, when Kingsbury would rather allow position coaches more time with their players than to use up the players’ time talking.

“If Coach Sumlin gave us 30 minutes to position meet, [Kingsbury's] trying to get it done in 20 minutes,” says Bell, previously A&M’s director of recruiting. “He thinks, ‘I can give them the information they need in a shorter period of time and I don’t need to sit there and go through stuff and talk.’ … If we decide that [Kingsbury] is going to get in front of the team for two minutes, it needs to be the most impactful two minutes you can possibly imagine.”

This year, Bell says, the report date meeting lasted 54 minutes, with 17 speakers. That’s about three minutes per person. “Without counting transitions,” Bell laughs.

Today’s meeting isn’t the annual reporting session, but Kingsbury approaches it the same way. Kingsbury flicks on an inspirational video about Tom Brady and the challenges Michigan’s longtime backup quarterback faced before winning five Super Bowls. Three role players transferred away from Texas Tech at the end of last season’s 5-7 finish, and now Kingsbury wants to show those who stayed what fighting for their spot and their team can bring.

“All right,” he says after pausing the video and walking to the front of the room again. “Helluva first appearance, huh? He sat three years, working hard, [hardly played] a snap. Three years. Finally named the starter, won [eight] games in a row and then what happened senior year? [Sophomore] comes in and they make him split time. All right. Didn't even faze him. That's how you respond, right? How do you respond? Y'all got me?"

"Yes sir," about a hundred voices say.

"Compete every day. That's the whole dang thing. We got a lot of bodies in here now in camp, with a lot of guys doing a lot of good things. Finally have enough depth to have great competition. Every one of you should embrace that. Embrace it. Because all it's doing is making us better. Making you better, making us better. Y'all got me?"

"Yes sir."

"Let's have a great day today. We're going to reverse the schedule, so get yourself going. Make sure you're revved up and ready to rock. Y’all got me?"

"Yes sir."

Kingsbury strides for the door. His portion of the meeting is over. He points to special teams coordinator Joe Robinson to begin his film breakdown. Eight Tech staffers file out behind Kingsbury, and the room gets dark. Less than eight minutes have passed since Kingsbury entered.

Baylor v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

As Shimonek breaks the huddle and approaches the line of scrimmage, his coach stops pacing and bends down to watch, putting his hands on his knees. It’s third-and-short for the first-team offense against the first-team defense. The 300 or so fans scattered about the lower bowl of Jones AT&T Stadium watching the intrasquad scrimmage barely react. More fans are fanning themselves in the West Texas heat than are standing and cheering.

The sidelines don’t reflect this. The coordinators ping-pong up and down each sideline, pleading with their units to make a play. Running backs coach Jabbar Juluke waves his hands to demonstrate a point to the backups while keeping his eyes on the field. Offensive line coach Brandon Jones stares unblinkingly at his unit, bellowing for protection. Kingsbury’s face is hidden behind the sunglasses and straw hat he usually wears to practice, but he still makes himself heard.

“Let’s go, D,” he barks. “GET OFF THE FIELD!”

This is Kingsbury’s new mission, but it’s also, in a way, his calm. Because Tech missed a bowl game last year, the team had a nine-month offseason. Because of who he is and where he is, that offseason was filled with one of his least favorite things: endless talk. About “hot seats.” About Vegas odds. About his defense. There’s still chatter here in the stadium, but it’s from his coaches and his players. This noise brings a certain quiet.

The argument used most often by those in favor of keeping Kingsbury is rooted in an old joke about “The Hub City.” Lubbock is in the middle of everything: roughly five hours north of San Antonio, five hours east of Santa Fe, five hours south of Oklahoma City, and five hours west of Dallas. “He wants this job,” McVay says. “This is a hard job, this is not easy. I've been here a long time. It's not easy to win here, because you're isolated. It's harder to recruit kids to Texas Tech than it is other places. People don't want to hear that, and they don't understand that, but it is. If you turn coaches over every three to five years, you're not going to have the continuity you need to get done what needs to be done. Plus [if Kingsbury goes], who you going to get? You can go out and hire somebody, but they're going to be here for a year and get out and go someplace else.”

In 2002, when Kingsbury was a senior quarterback at Tech, he made Jones AT&T Stadium perhaps as loud as it’s ever been. TTU knocked off rival Texas with Kingsbury throwing for 473 yards and six touchdowns, including what proved to be the game winner with just shy of six minutes to go. As the seconds wound down, the crowd roaring and the result not in doubt, then-Tech head coach Mike Leach called over redshirting offensive lineman Manny Ramirez.

“Manny,” Ramirez remembers Leach saying, “when this game’s over, I need you to follow Kliff and make sure he’s all right.”

The buzzer sounded. Fans flooded the field. Ramirez put a hand on Kingsbury’s shoulder and the quarterback turned to him.

“I’m all right,” Kingsbury said, smiling. “Don’t worry about it.”

Ramirez protested, saying he was following Leach’s orders, but Kingsbury just smiled. Within seconds, delirious Lubbockites blanketed the field. The crowd swallowed Ramirez and Kingsbury and the rest of the team. Fans started jumping on Kingsbury, and Ramirez, who had remained close despite the assurances, fought through the mass to pull people off him.

“All right,” Kingsbury said to Ramirez then. “Stay with me.”

Fourteen years later, after Ramirez played nearly a decade in the NFL, he returned to Tech as its director of player development under his old quarterback. All the coaches, Ramirez says, feel a certain responsibility to protect their head man. If there’s pressure, they’ll push back against it together. But not all of them have done it for as long as Ramirez has.

“That's what I'm meant to do,” Ramirez says now. “I'm meant to protect my quarterback. He's always been my quarterback. Still is.”

After the scrimmage, near the south end zone, Kingsbury speaks with assembled media as fans gather at the edge of the stands about 10 feet away. After a few minutes, Kingsbury breaks away from the scrum and walks toward the tunnel, pausing to sign a few small footballs and a couple of programs.

Kingsbury starts to jog up the tunnel when one man wearing a Tech flat brim and a black Red Raiders jersey hollers from off to the left, away from all the other fans. The man holds his iPhone in his right hand in front of his chest, tilted horizontally, to take a video.

“Coach King,” he yells, and Kingsbury turns toward him. His sunglasses and straw hat are off.

“We’ve been mediocre for too long,” the man says. “Time for excellence.”

Kingsbury grins and nods.

“Absolutely,” Kingsbury says. “I hear you.”

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