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March 4, 2013

Kingsbury showing he's substance and style


MORE: Turner believes he can turn FIU around

Jessica Simpson may or may not be Kliff Kingsbury's most noteworthy recruit.

There are photos of the two online, and blogs insinuate they were once an item.

Ask the 33-year-old Texas Tech head coach about it, though, and he offers a chuckle.

"No comment," Kingsbury says through a bit of uncomfortable laughter.

The response is all anyone could rightfully expect to a personal question. It also fits the larger theme.

The youngest BCS conference head coach in America is a mystery of sorts. He's called his share of plays, completed his share of passes and created memorable moments in Lubbock as a player.

He's also had wild success in his five-year tenure as an assistant. But the big office is unfamiliar.

Mike Leach, Bill Belichick and others left their fingerprints on Kingsbury as a player. Kevin Sumlin helped shape him as a coach. So if success really is born from success, the bloodline isn't half bad.

"I've been fortunate enough to be around incredible coaches, even going back to high school," Kingsbury said. "I just kind of took a little bit from each one. I'm still going to be myself, but I took a little thing from each guy. I've seen these guys sleep in offices and the time they put in to get it done."

Kingsbury's facade is classic cool. And it's not because he (probably) dated a pop star. Believe only half of what you see. The V-neck T-shirts he sports at practice and the skinny ties he wears to formal events don't define him. The fact that he uses the term "no doubt" to express agreement doesn't do it, either. There are certain advantages that come with the persona, sure, but Kingsbury isn't relying on them.

"Recruiting is about building rapport with young people," he said. "Being young can help, but it's a case-by-case basis. I think, once we get them out here and they see what we have to offer, they know it's a special place. I think, once we get them here, we'll have great success."

You won't find the pretense of overwhelming seriousness that has become familiar among tenured coaches here. What you'll discover among the tumbleweeds in West Texas is a soft-spoken folk hero with a modern wardrobe.

You'll find a fan favorite, but you'll also find an enigma. Learning much about Kliff Kingsbury requires a look elsewhere.

INFLUENCES

You can find Kliff Kingsbury's obsession with offense on the campus of the University of Houston.

Now the Cougars' head coach, Tony Levine served as co-offensive coordinator with Kingsbury after Kevin Sumlin abruptly promoted his young quality control coordinator in 2010.

Even internally, the move to tab Kingsbury over more experienced candidates was seen as bold, if not risky. But any doubt about the move was erased, at least in the mind of Levine, a few months later when the new guy walked into his office with a script of plays for a game that wasn't set to kick off for another four months.

Kingsbury spent more than 15 minutes describing a particular pass he wanted to try against UCLA. His excitement and his prediction on what the Bruins' safeties would do to combat it drew some chuckles. At the end of the impromptu presentation, Kingsbury promised his play would score.

And when the time came ...

"We ran it and it worked," Levine said. "It scored. I'd like to say every time he did that, that's what happened. That's why he's a Big 12 head football coach.

"There's no question in my mind that he game planned for Alabama (which Kingsbury and A&M defeated last season) over the spring. There is no question in my mind that he was planned and ready for them last spring. He just did too many things to that defense. That's how he is, though."

So while Kingsbury looks like a guy more likely to be holding a surfboard and a cigar than a clipboard and a whistle, there's a reason Sumlin took his most inexperienced assistant with him when he made the jump to Texas A&M.

"I think people are fascinated by Kliff's persona and his appearance and may interpret, without knowing him, that he's laid-back and some other things," Levine said. "But he's brilliant. When you talk about offensive football and relating to student-athletes, he is brilliant in both regards."

Observing Kingsbury at a practice is enough to send those preconceived, appearance-based notions on their way. Laid-back? Yeah, just like Henry Rollins.

"Not only does he talk smack to the DBs his quarterbacks complete passes against, he talks smack to the guys coaching them," Levine said. "I remember us doing warmups, doing one-on-ones he'd be out there actually yelling smack talk to the defensive backs coaches after every rep. He's ultra competitive and ultra passionate."

BUT CAN HE RECRUIT?

You can find Kliff Kingsbury's recruiting prowess in the rural town of Munday, Texas, at the family home of defensive end L.J. Collier, a Texas Tech commit in the class of 2014.

You can also find it in the halls of the small high school Collier attends. Months before he committed to play for Kingsbury, he was familiar with his future coach's name and face, thanks in large part to his female classmates.

"I knew how young he was before they even started recruiting me because girls at my school and girls around here wear these shirts that say 'Our coach is hotter than your coach,' Collier said. "They have his face on them and everything."

A pretty face and some buzz didn't land Collier on the Red Raiders' commitment list. There are other facts he's unearthed. He discovered that Kingsbury doesn't observe as his team lifts weights. Instead, the head coach joins in, taking reps alongside his players. Collier describes Kingsbury as "chill" and his taste of music as "cool." So if Texas Tech wanted a change, it got its wish.

Nobody's ever used the word "chill" to describe the last guy who used Kingsbury's office.

"With Tommy Tuberville, I didn't get (to know) him that well but he seemed like not the coolest guy," Collier said. "Coach Kingsbury is cool. You can talk to him, and he can relate to me. For somebody as famous as he is, he's chill just like me."

Like it or not, "chill" matters in modern recruiting. So do uniforms. Kingsbury has total creative control of his team's game-day attire written into his contract. Just last week, Tech unveiled a slew of new helmets, and the overhaul won't stop at headgear.

It's all in the name of recruiting, something about which Kingsbury feels strongly. Texas Tech's new head coach is not from the coaching-beats-talent school of thought. He'd rather have the talent. He has no interest in playing the role of loveable underdog.

"It's about players, not plays," Kingsbury said. "I'm all in for recruiting. We all have to pull our weight on that. ... Going to school here and the things I learned here and the people I met here are what carried me to this point. I'm selling a place where I actually lived. To me, there's a lot in that."

AT HOME

You can find Kliff Kingsbury himself in Lubbock, Texas, the city he says he loves more than any other place in the world.

It's here that he feels at home. He's already reverted to calling his former employer, Texas A&M, "that other school." His staff includes six former Raiders players. Season-ticket sales have skyrocketed since the hire.

Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe it's hope. But whatever it is, it certainly isn't forced. Little about Kingsbury is. The marriage between this coach and this school is as organic as it gets.

"The people are what really make it," Kingsbury said. "West Texas people are some of the finest I've ever met in my life. They're so welcoming and so warm. The people here are what make it such a special place."

But what he doesn't have in Lubbock is as much of a blessing as the things he has. Kingsbury lives just minutes from the Tech football facility, so he won't "have to" sleep in his office. There is no Mrs. Kingsbury. Little Kingsburys are nowhere to be found.

"Being single has been a plus for me," Kingsbury said. "Especially as far as the moving process. Sometimes the hours and the travel can be difficult, but it's easier not having anybody to report to. I don't have a family, so these guys here are my family. It means a lot to me to be able to work with them each and every day."

No wife, no kids, no head coaching experience. What Kingsbury has is a spotless -- albeit short -- resume and a city in which, at least for now, he can do no wrong. What he has is an unmistakable sense of cool and an obsession with offense. What he has is youth and momentum.

And for a head coach with an 0-0 record, that's something.



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