The Curious Case Of Kliff Kingsbury

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Photo via John Weast, Getty Images


Lubbock, Texas is generally hot, the dry kind of hot, the kind that evaporates every last drop of water from an already drought-prone place. If Lubbock becomes hot during the spring, summer, and fall, then the fire that’s been slowly building under Kliff Kingsbury’s seat might soon be the hottest thing in the county.

Let me be clear – it’s not hot yet, but it’s warming, and another subpar season in which Texas Tech misses a bowl game might be too much to bear.

In the beginning, Texas Tech fans and the nation were enthralled with Kliff Kingsbury. His first season was an abject success, he took a team that started two true freshman quarterbacks over the course of a season to a Holiday Bowl win, an 8-5 record, and a top ten ranking that was swiftly followed by a 5 game losing skid that was largely passed off as being due to injuries.

Longform titan Grantland ran a short six minute mini documentary on him before he coached a single football game. Bleacher Report profiled a day in his life. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports profiled him. With the return of Davis Webb at quarterback, Bradley Marquez at wide receiver, and key defenders, Texas Tech was nearly everyone’s dark horse pick to win the Big 12 Championship.

Then, the 2014 season happened, a season so chock full of abject misery and the dashing of hope that the aftershocks still reverberate around the program, whether they’re seen or not. Arkansas rushed for over 400 yards on the Red Raiders. Kansas State pounded them into the turf. Texas Tech took a fairly large lead on West Virginia at home, only to see it evaporate bit by bit and finally dashed by a 40+ yard field goal as time ran out.

A win against Kansas was a win against Kansas, and it might have got Texas Tech back on track if they hadn’t faced TCU the next week. The Horned Frogs were a top 5 team in the nation that year, and the woes of Texas Tech were of no concern to them.

Saying that the Horned Frogs crushed Texas Tech is an understatement. It was an unholy beatdown of biblical proportions, a series of dominating plays that seemed to never end. To rewatch the game is to be a masochist in the highest regard, there is nothing but a void there, an endless hail of touchdown passes and the thud of would-be tacklers wearing gray helmets and white jerseys bouncing off ballcarriers.

The season ended with the injury of Davis Webb and the eventual first start of Patrick Mahomes, who beat Iowa State and nearly beat an excellent Baylor team.

Regardless, the newness had begun to wear off. Almost immediately, there were locker room changes, lifestyle changes for the players, lifestyle changes for the coaches, culture changes, lifestyle and culture changes, it became readily apparent that something had to be done different. A defense that was ranked 126th in the country had to be retooled. An offense that had sputtered at times must reinvent itself.

Enter 2015, the season of Patrick Mahomes. His exploits during this year were nothing short of unreal. He made the impossible happen, he made the difficult look casual, and he did it with a sly smile on his face, much like Kingsbury when he knows he’s found a safety out of position. Texas Tech nearly beat an excellent TCU team (before they were gutted by injuries) at home this year, losing on a last second tip drill play in a rain-soaked mess, a mixture of moisture and high octane passing games.

The emergence of a running game with DeAndre Washington and several good plays from young defenders made a defense that looked putrid at times manageable, and the Red Raiders ended their season at 7-6 after a big loss to LSU in the Texas Bowl.

However, despite improvement, the big struggles were still apparent. Tech lost to Baylor 63-35, lost to Oklahoma 63-27, and squandered a huge early lead at home against Oklahoma State to lose 70-53. The record had improved, Texas Tech beat the teams it was supposed to beat, but the losses were still nothing short of catastrophic in their scale.

Enter 2016, the year where all the pieces were supposed to come together. The junior year of Patrick Mahomes. The emergence of speedy flankers like Jonathan Giles and Ian Sadler were going to help with the loss of Jakeem Grant. Defenders like Breiden Fehoko and Dakota Allen were expected to progress under the new defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who would return for his second season. Once again, the Red Raiders were being heralded as a dark horse candidate for the Big XII title.

2016 did not pan out as expected. Texas Tech got ran over by Arizona State. They experienced close losses at Kansas State and against Oklahoma, but beat TCU in overtime, finally getting the revenge they so desperately wanted. Then, came a date with Iowa State, who was 2-8 at the time. In order to make a bowl, the Red Raiders had to win.

They did not win. The return to the void of the 2014 TCU loss threw fans and donors into a frenzy. Rumors flew all around Lubbock for the better part of the last months of the year. It was unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. Not even a dominating win over Baylor the next week could wash the taste of that loss out of many’s mouths.

It’s not really fair to just throw out a bunch of box scores and say, “this is the legacy of Kliff Kingsbury”, it’s important to take all of these things into the appropriate context.

This is maybe half of the transfers and turnover that have hit the Texas Tech program under Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure, only the big highlights have been hit. Many more transferred or flat out left the program.

There’s some of this blame that can be placed on Kingsbury, they were his hires and his recruits. However, is it all on one guy? How can he control every single aspect of every single player in every single game?

The bottom line is this – Kliff Kingsbury’s job is safe, no matter how mad online the fans get. His buyout is far too high. Besides, it’s not like he’s had every advantage in the world given to him. He has to exist in a conference with names like Bill Snyder, Mike Gundy, Bob Stoops, and now Tom German and Matt Rhule. It isn’t an easy job. It’s nearly impossible to win consistently in this conference. He’s had players transfer or get arrested, and he’s done the right thing every time by not allowing those arrested players to play football.

The Kliff Kingsbury “phenomenon” has worn off. In a year or two, there will be another young Air Raid prodigy, and it’ll be gone forever. The newness isn’t there anymore, the chrome is beginning to rust. He simply hasn’t won enough to justify the spotlight anymore. However, his job is 100% safe.

It’s been a curious, strange, at times awful, at times amazing four years for him, but Kliff Kingsbury isn’t going anywhere soon.

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