It was all a dream.
Or at least it used to be.
Not long ago, most young coaching hopefuls only dreamed of nabbing a high-profile head coaching job while in their early 30s.
Now, more and more college programs are giving young coaches the chance to step into the limelight and lead a group of student-athletes, some of which are just a decade younger than their coaches.
There may not be a better sample case in this trend than 33-year-old Kliff Kingsbury, who spent just five years as an assistant coach at the University of Houston and Texas A&M before earning the top spot at his alma mater, Texas Tech.
Ever since his playing days in Lubbock, everything about Kingsbury has been fast-paced and high-flying.
He started under center for three years as the signal-caller in Mike Leach’s air raid offense at Tech. While throwing the ball to a guy named Wes Welker, Kingsbury became just the third of nine QBs ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a season (Via NCAA.org).
After trying his hand at a professional playing career for a few years, Kingsbury decided to go into coaching in 2008. He broke into the ranks with Houston, where he became an offensive quality control assistant working under one of his former TTU coaches, current West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, who was the Cougar offensive coordinator at the time.
From there, he quickly moved up the ladder under head coach Kevin Sumlin, earning a spot coaching quarterbacks before becoming co-offensive coordinator for the 2011 season.
Kingsbury tutored Houston’s prolific quarterback Case Keenum as he led one of the most productive offenses in NCAA history, throwing for 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns over his career—both NCAA records.
After Houston finished 13-1 in 2011, Sumlin made the jump to the BCS-conference and took the lead job at Texas A&M. After the incredible run at Houston, it was a no-brainer for Sumlin to bring Kingsbury to College Station as his offensive coordinator.
Sumlin and Kingsbury were faced with a tough job at TAMU, as they had to replace first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Tannehill at quarterback while guiding the Aggies through their first season in the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
But in a matter of months, Kingsbury managed to groom Johnny Manziel from a virtual unknown into a Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most well-known figures in college football. Needless to say, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt was impressed with the results.
Hocutt—who earned his first athletic director job at Ohio at age 33—was a likely candidate to put his faith in a young leader. When the position came open, Hocutt hired Kingsbury as the new head coach at TTU, making him the youngest head coach in the big six BCS conferences.
A boring old press conference to announce such a bold decision just wouldn’t have been right. Instead, he tweeted out a video announcing the hiring with Kingsbury giving the customary “guns up” sign—the Red Raider rally cry.
After that, Kingsbury wasted little time in making his mark in Lubbock.
Texas Tech started spring practice on March 22, and players responded immediately to the change brought on by their new coach. On March 23, one of TTU’s veteran defensive leaders, Terrance Bullitt, tweeted his approval of the new regime.
Perhaps “regime” isn’t the correct word to label Kingsbury’s movement. “Way of life” might be better.
Not coincidentally, the young and energetic Kingsbury replaced an older, more traditional coach—58-year-old Tommy Tuberville, who apparently didn’t allow fun of any sort in Lubbock.
Kingsbury is simply a different breed.
Tuberville may be like an old lab; he shows signs of the zeal he once had, but he just can’t keep up with the younger dogs.
Kingsbury, on the other hand, is like a vivacious pit bull puppy; still not fully grown, he may thrash around into the coffee table or slide into the kitchen cabinets occasionally, but he is as spirited and exuberant as can be.
Just a few days after the start of spring practice, the Texas Tech athletic department released an all-access spring practice video to show off their new pup.
In it, Kingsbury showed exactly why athletic departments around the country are deciding to go young in their coaching search.
The video features “Juicy,” one of the most well-known Notorious B.I.G. songs. The TTU players are noticeably loose as Kingsbury is rapping along to Biggie bumping in the background.
At one point, he notes that the song was popular back when he was in high school, but the players still know “Juicy.”
To put things in perspective, if Tuberville had selected a song that was playing from his high school days, he may have been shredding air guitar along with “Smoke on the Water.” And though that too is a classic tune, there would have probably been a noticeable disconnect with his 18-to-22-year-old players.
But despite the relatability that comes with a young coach like Kingsbury, there’s a lot more that comes with a head coaching job than just player relations. That’s where athletic directors must be able to distinguish a real coach from a glorified cheerleader.
And if you ask those who have previously worked around the new TTU boss, they’ll tell you that Holcutt found a real coach in Kingsbury.
Manziel was quick to express his happiness for his former coach when he left A&M, but also called his departure “bittersweet” in a tweet shortly after the announcement was made.
In January, the Heisman Trophy winner spoke to ESPN Big 12 blogger David Ubben, outlining Kingsbury’s tireless work ethic:
They’re getting a heck of a coach. He worked hard this year. He was there every day at 5 a.m. and he was the last person to leave. I know you hear that and you think it may just be people saying that, but it was true. Every morning I was up there to work out or whatever it was, he was already there for hours ahead of time.
While this kind of work ethic is absolutely necessary in a head coach, there is still more that must be done by the men like Kingsbury who have been selected to take up one of the most high-profile positions in not just athletics, but all of academia.
This is something that Kingsbury’s former boss Sumlin knows all about, but he believes that his protege has what it takes to fill all of the duties that come with leading a program.
When speaking to Ubben, Sumlin explained how Kingsbury has the mind of an old coach to go along with the spirit of a young one.
The difference in college football and pro football, it’s not a plug and play. You have to have a background and an understanding of what particular institutions value. He gets that.
Even despite having the traits necessary to be a successful coach, Kingsbury still has plenty to prove on the field, which will be no easy task in the rugged Big 12.
However, if his charisma and coaching talent translate into wins in Lubbock, his success could open the door for even more young coaches looking to follow his blueprint.