LUBBOCK, Texas — Lightning streaks across the West Texas sky, briefly illuminating Texas Tech’s Jones AT&T Stadium. Another bolt lights up the parking lot—it’s almost empty, with just a few pickup trucks dotting the black pavement.
What they’re doing here now, so early in the morning that it still feels more like late last night, is an open question. The sun won’t be up for hours. Neither will the birds.
A pair of lights approach, two eyes glowing in the dark. A white Lexus stops next to a sign that bears coach Kliff Kingsbury’s name, and he steps out of the driver’s side.
It’s 4:51 a.m.
He usually arrives at 4:30, so that he finishes his morning workout as the players start theirs. He wants them to see that he does what he asks them to do, only more. But the players don’t have an early workout today, so Kingsbury took his time getting in.
He enters the Football Training Facility and turns on the lights, revealing walls covered with bios and pictures of the biggest stars in the school’s long football history, including himself. As Texas Tech’s quarterback in the early 2000s, Kingsbury propelled the team into the national conversation by putting up record-breaking offensive numbers. Now as the head coach, he is doing the same thing.
After Kingsbury’s quick rise as the offensive coordinator at Houston and Texas A&M, the Red Raider faithful hailed his hiring in December 2012 as the first step to return Texas Tech to the level he took it to—and beyond. Kingsbury, 35, brought with him a fearless football joie de vivre, a "score now, later and often" swashbuckling bravado that if nothing else guarantees Texas Tech will be fun to watch.
And there was far more to the excitement than just the return of a local hero. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he is, sources say, impossibly good looking. Easily the most GQ coach in America, he wears designer sunglasses and tailored suits. All big-time college coaches have tailors. Perhaps Kingsbury alone uses his to dress nicely instead of like an insurance salesman from Poughkeepsie.
The buzz around all of that became absurd long ago but shows no signs of letting up. Stores in Lubbock carry T-shirts proclaiming, “Our coach is hotter than your coach.” As Case Keenum, Kingsbury’s quarterback at the University of Houston and one of his close friends, put it: “He’s as cool as he looks. … Every guy wants to be him, and I think every girl wants to be with him.”
And be coached by him. In the last three seasons, his quarterbacks gained more than 15,000 yards and combined for 136 touchdowns. In his first season as head coach, Texas Tech ended the year with a win in the Holiday Bowl over No. 16 Arizona State to finish 8-5.
As his second season dawns—Texas Tech’s first game is Aug. 30 against Central Arkansas—the attention on Kingsbury has only increased, and he will be under scrutiny this season to produce results commensurate with the hype. The hottest coach in college football must prove he is more than the hottest coach in college football.
Kingsbury granted Bleacher Report behind-the-scenes access to the inner workings of his program as it prepares for a Big 12 season ripe with both hope and uncertainty. This day-in-the-life look revealed a coach eager to show he is more than just a pretty face.
It’s 6:45 a.m. Kingsbury has already been working for two hours…well, one hour and 56 minutes. He walks outside, where the sun finally basks Jones AT&T Stadium in heat and light, and climbs into his car. He drives across Lubbock to Regimen Salon for his every-other-week appointment with owner and stylist Natalie Craig. The sign on the door says the salon doesn’t open for three more hours, but they both know if Kingsbury shows up during regular hours, customers will gawk as she cuts the most famous locks in Lubbock.
Craig cut Mike Leach’s hair when he coached at Texas Tech. Before a big game against Texas, she wanted to change his look, but he resisted. Without him realizing it, she cut his hair shorter than usual anyway. And when she gave him the post-cut scalp massage, she surreptitiously put dye on her fingers, so he walked out with fewer gray hairs than he walked in with. She says a picture taken of him with his new cut and color wound up on the cover of his book, Swing Your Sword.
She talked Kingsbury into a new style earlier this year. Before giving it to him, she practiced on her son to make sure she got it right, lest she send Kingsbury out into the ever-scrutinizing world looking less than perfect.
Kingsbury’s success as a coach is predicated on his players practicing the same plays over and over again so that when the game comes their execution will be precise. How many times did Craig practice the cut on her son before going live on Kingsbury?
“Just once,” she says. “I’m that good.”
Shortly after Kingsbury appeared in public sporting the new style, Craig says, customers started bringing in his picture and asking her to cut their hair like his.
Back at his office, Kingsbury sits at his desk. To his left, out the window, the still-rising sun bathes the practice field in soft light, a pastoral antidote to the brutality that takes place there. To his right hangs a dry-erase board with 90-plus plays written on it, many of the names illegible to everybody but him, all of them in all caps. In the bottom right-hand corner, he wrote “FIRST PLAY OF 2014” next to a bunch of Xs and Os.
Most of the pictures on his wall feature Texas Tech players. Notable exceptions include Keenum and Johnny Manziel, the Heisman-winning quarterback whom Kingsbury coached at Texas A&M. In their two seasons combined under Kingsbury—the two seasons before he got this job—Keenum and Manziel ran and threw for 10,782 yards and 98 touchdowns.
The shelves behind Kingsbury hold trophies, books—an academic All-American, he reads widely—and pictures, including one of him, Mike Tyson and Tom Brady at the Preakness this year. Brady was his teammate with the New England Patriots, for whom Kingsbury spent 2003 on the injured reserve list.
Ten Post-it notes, each with plays drawn on them, stick to the top of Kingsbury’s desk. Next to them, legal pads sit atop each other, each full of plays. In front of the legal pads, the markers he uses to draw those plays line up in a row. This is the laboratory of a mad scientist…who is also organized and structured.
He will give rise to a new play today.
First, quick background: Kingsbury and Texas Tech’s offense became famous in 2000 for running Leach’s version of the Air Raid offense. The Air Raid offense features only a handful of plays, nearly all of them passes, run over and over, regardless of the opponent. Leach’s philosophy is simple: Here it is. Try to stop it.
Kingsbury’s offense borrows heavily from Leach and adds wrinkles from other coaches he played for and coached with, most notably Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his attention to detail. There might not be two more different football coaches on Earth than the wide-open Leach and the squeezed-tight Belichick, yet Kingsbury counts both of them as strong influences.
The play that Kingsbury will bring into the Texas Tech world today has been gestating for years.
When he served as offensive coordinator for the Houston Cougars in 2010, they played Tulsa. Tulsa ran a play in which after the snap, the offensive linemen just stood there, as if they didn’t know the ball had been snapped. The quarterback rolled to his right as the defensive linemen chased him. Then he threw back across his body to a running back on the left. Kingsbury made a mental note of that play at the time, both because it was creative and because it worked.
Kingsbury calls himself a big fan of Chad Morris, who was Tulsa’s offensive coordinator then and now holds the same job at Clemson. Kingsbury studies other coaches obsessively, and this offseason he broke down every play the Clemson offense ran in 2013. In doing so he saw that, against Syracuse, Clemson ran the same play as Tulsa ran against Houston. That reminded him that he liked the play.
At 8 a.m., Kingsbury and his coaches gather for the first meeting of the day. They discuss a handful of recruits, and then he shows the play on a TV screen. He returns to it repeatedly throughout the day, slowly turning the play from an idea into reality.
As Kingsbury shuffles in and out of meetings with staff and coaches, his office door remains open. Coaches wearing shorts and flip-flops come and go. They speak in the familiar shorthand of men who have known each other for years.
Kingsbury runs through a checklist in his head, coming up with only one coach whom he didn’t know before he hired him. “I know people say don’t hire your friends,” he says. “I’d rather go to war with my friends and guys I trust.”
Offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who played wide receiver at Texas Tech from 2005-08, shared an apartment with Kingsbury in Houston while they both coached there. They often played tennis against each other at 4 a.m. to avoid the heat. They screamed at each other so loudly they could be heard inside nearby apartments. Morris says between the two of them, they broke six rackets.
They still scream at each other like that, only now it’s during Texas Tech football games and sometimes in the office (though not today). Kingsbury calls the plays from the sideline, with consultation with Morris, who coaches from the booth.
Kingsbury likes constant chatter, to hear from Morris what he sees from above and what plays he recommends. Which is not to say he always likes what he hears. Their headsets connect only to one another, and that’s a good thing, because they fight over play calls in language bluer than the Texas sky.
When Morris got married and moved out of Kingsbury’s Houston apartment, Kenny Bell, whose title at Texas Tech is chief of staff, moved in. He plays the measured, calm adviser to Morris’ fiery, bombastic provocateur.
Now it’s late morning as another staff meeting winds down. The topic of conversation lands on a game years ago in Los Angeles. The coaches think they angered the football gods by going out on the town the night before a game. They haven’t done that since, because they lost their starting quarterback and his backup to injury during the game.
One topic leads to another and to another. It’s hard to keep up because everybody laughs so hard they only finish half their sentences. Apparently offensive line coach Lee Hays once accidentally swigged out of a cup full of someone else’s Copenhagen tobacco chew spit, and Hays also sleeps in a mask like Darth Vader’s, which he agrees makes him look funny but not as funny as the coach who sleeps in, as Hays puts it, “1985 silk-ass Speedo underwear.”
The son of two high school teachers, Kingsbury loves teaching the game more than any other aspect of coaching. He meets with his quarterbacks at 4:15 p.m., and he explains to them “Clemson” and “Freeze,” two versions of the Chad Morris play. He shows them video and diagrams the play on a dry-erase board and says “write this down,” and then he talks so fast that there is no way in the world they actually do so.
Kingsbury asks if they got it and they all nod and say yes and it is beyond obvious that they are lying. They didn’t “get” squat. Kingsbury knows this, even plans it that way. He knows they’ll text him later with questions.
He wants to bombard them now so that later on, when he formally installs the offense, everything will seem slower. He barrels through practices the same way, running plays as fast as possible so that when the games start the pace seems easy.
The quarterbacks meeting breaks up, and that means it’s time for practice. Football outside in Texas in late July is a terrible idea. It’s like football in hell, only with fewer Alabama fans. The high this day reaches 94 degrees, and it feels every bit of that as players file outside late in the afternoon.
But at least it’s a dry heat as they sweat through agility drills. Kingsbury walks around the field, zigzagging among the players, wearing sunglasses and occasionally bouncing to the beat of the music blaring out of the speakers.
He pulls the offensive players onto an adjacent field to give them a first look at “Clemson” and “Freeze,” sans ball. He lines up at quarterback, calls the signals, takes the “snap,” rolls right, pops up and “throws” left. He does this several times and then calls the team to circle around him.
It’s the end of the last day of summer practice. A long and free weekend awaits the players before fall practice starts the following week. Kingsbury tells them to be smart because big things await this team. “You want to be part of this ride,” he says.
The football building buzzed all day, and now it’s time to find out why: Kingsbury will host the second Kliff Kingsbury Women’s Clinic, a fundraiser that teaches women the basics about football. Kingsbury’s coaches expect his arrival at the dinner that opens the clinic will turn it into a madhouse. Wait until you see that, they all say, in one form or another.
Early in the day, Texas Tech head basketball coach Tubby Smith—who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1998—pokes his head into Kingsbury’s office to say hello. He says his wife wanted to go to the clinic, but she couldn’t get tickets.
The clinic’s organizers believe that however many tickets they wanted to sell, however much money they wanted to raise, they could do it, so long as Kingsbury’s name (and picture) appeared on the brochure. As it is, they only had room for 357 tickets, which sold out easily.
“He’s Elvis Presley,” says Tommy McVay, director of football operations. McVay has worked for the school for 18 years through four coaches and recruited Kingsbury when he was a player. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. People just want to touch him.”
Kingsbury says he has had enough of the superficial attention he gets and wants the focus to turn to his players, not the cheekbones that could sharpen a pencil or the abs that look like speed bumps. But attention and buzz are valuable currencies in college football and, to an extent, Texas Tech will take its moments in the spotlight however it can get them.
So he hams it up, too. He gets so many Twitter mentions testifying to his hotness that ESPN asked him to read some of them aloud, which he did. And when an Arkansas fan (whom he had never met) wrote him a letter in which she simultaneously expressed her love for him and dumped him, he wrote her back.
He says his fame has turned him into more of an introvert. On the road he loves exploring new restaurants, but he can’t go out to dinner in Lubbock without causing a ruckus. He is not married and has no family in town, so he and his friends say a typical night for him includes getting home late in the evening, eating a sandwich for dinner, watching Law and Order and going to bed early.
Whatever ambivalence Kingsbury feels about his celebrity, he sets it aside today because the football clinic benefits an important cause—the Jennie Bailey Fund. Bailey is Texas Tech’s administrative assistant for recruiting. She is fighting cancer, and cancer smacks Kingsbury right in his heart.
He keeps a copy of the eulogy from his mother’s funeral in his locker. Sally Kingsbury wrote the eulogy herself as she prepared to die from sarcoma, a form of lung cancer, in 2005.
Kingsbury admires his mom for displaying grace in using the eulogy to honor all of the people in her life as it drew to an end. He recites the eulogy’s opening line from memory: “It’s been one hell of a party, Woodrow.” She cribbed that from The Lonesome Dove, her favorite show. In life and in death, it was her motto.
Kingsbury’s mom and dad, the two biggest influences in his life, were opposites. His dad, Tim, is a former high school football coach, an alpha male Vietnam veteran. His mom was a free spirit with a permanent smile who delighted in being loud and boisterous and embarrassing her two boys (Kliff has an older brother, Klint).
So idyllic was Kingsbury’s upbringing in New Braunfels, Texas, that he says, “I have no excuse to ever do anything but live an amazing life considering the way I was raised.”
He briefly left the New York Jets to be with her in her last days. “She was really the only person I ever showed weakness to,” he says. He talked to her about girl problems, confidence issues, whatever troubled him, and she always listened.
“I still talk to her a bunch,” he says. “When I’m at home or before games, I just kind of talk to her on my own.”
Seeing her stay strong as she succumbed to the sarcoma, and the loving way his dad took care of her, changed Kingsbury.
“I stopped worrying about things as much, what people thought. Just cut loose. Watching her go through that, how she handled it, I’ll never have a bad day after that,” he says. “To her last dying breath, it was about, ‘Hey, make sure your dad’s OK, make sure you’re OK. Are you going to be OK? Is your brother going to be OK?’ Not once was it about her. That selflessness, and that courage, was something that always stuck with me.”
Sunshine pours in through the windows into the Frazier Alumni Pavilion as Kingsbury enters. The 357 women crowd around round tables. They eat dinner and drink beer and wine. They wear gym clothes because there will be football drills later.
Kingsbury walks to the podium. The applause is, frankly, unimpressive. He steps from the podium to center stage. “Last year, you gave me a standing ovation,” he says, and he moves his arms up and down, like a player on the sideline asking the crowd for more noise.
They give it to him.
“Take off your shirt!” a woman yells.
He sits at a round table to the left of the stage and laughs when coaches and ladies in the audience compete in a dance-off inspired by video of him doing “the stanky leg” with his team in the spring.
Eric Morris takes the stage. On the screen behind him, he shows side-by-side pictures. In one, a shirtless Leach sits on a bicycle. In the other, a shirtless Kingsbury, with abs like the walls of a log cabin, stands with a woman in a bikini under each arm.
The crowd voices its approval.
The football clinic transitions from dinner to the Football Training Facility, where the women move from a video room to the weight room to the locker room. Kingsbury cuts in through the back way.
His executive assistant, Kirstie Sherman, and Bell, his chief of staff, insist he retreat to his office. All evening, Sherman shoos away women who want photos, some of them more than once. The event’s brochure said “no cameras,” but apparently nobody read that.
“He is so nice,” Sherman says, “(but) there comes a time when everybody needs a bad guy. Well guess what? I’m the bad guy.”
She is part-mother, part-watchdog and totally loyal to Kingsbury. “We’re going to do big, big things,” she says. “I would pay them to let me work here.”
It’s not that Kingsbury or Sherman or Bell don’t want him to interact with fans, it’s that one photograph turns into two photographs turns into two hours of photographs. If he shows his face in the lobby, he’ll get mobbed. So he sits back in his office, behind a password-protected locked door, reading the news online and watching a Jeremy Lin video.
Safeties coach Trey Haverty walks in. He’s on the phone with a recruit. He gives the phone to Kingsbury, who explains to the recruit just how great he (the recruit) is.
“I’ve already mapped out your future after about a 15-year NFL career,” Kingsbury tells him. Kingsbury hands the phone back to Haverty, who keeps the recruit on the phone and passes it to at least two more coaches over the next several minutes.
Meanwhile, the ladies move to the football stadium. Under the guidance of Kingsbury’s assistants, they will learn to catch, throw and long snap the ball. Kingsbury stays behind at first, again at Sherman’s and Bell’s insistence.
When Kingsbury arrives at Jones AT&T Stadium, he walks the length of the field, mostly unnoticed, because the drills capture the participants’ attention. He watches the women play catch for a few minutes in the north end zone into which he threw so many passes himself.
As he starts to leave, Sherman walks with him, protecting him as best she can, as nicely as she can. But even the best offensive lineman occasionally allows a sack. A woman touches Kingsbury’s shoulder, which turns into a picture and then into a hug, which makes him stop and therefore submit to still more pictures.
He soon starts walking again, eventually making his way through the south end zone and onto the ramp that leads back to the training facility, a reverse Raider Walk. The clinic is almost over anyway. It’s dark now, and the sun has set behind him. He has been at work for more than 16 hours, and he hasn’t eaten dinner yet. He has to get home.
It’s probably too late for Law and Order. He has to be back at work early tomorrow.
Matt Crossman is the author of more than 30 cover stories in national sports magazines. He has written for Sporting News, SI.com, CBSSports.com and many others. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com.