LUBBOCK, Texas -- From the outside, it seemed as if the House That Leach Built was crumbling all around Kliff Kingsbury.
There was a five-game losing streak that included getting whipped at Texas on Thanksgiving night. His starting QB left for another Big 12 program. His right-hand assistant bolted days later for a different Big 12 foe.
Yet through such trying weeks, the 34-year-old first-year head coach never changed his demeanor. Not publicly. Not even privately with his team. He still arrived at Texas Tech’s football training facility during the 4 o’clock hour each morning. He still worked out twice a day, once around sunrise, and again after lunch.
Kingsbury refused to dwell on the past. Instead, he focused his players on the opportunities ahead.
“Really, a team gets its personality from its head coach,” said senior running back/outside linebacker Kenny Williams. “Coach Kingsbury is a very strong person. I think the way he conducted himself during that time made us a stronger team.”
Because their coach never wavered in the weeks leading up the National University Holiday Bowl, the team didn’t, either. And like a captain guiding his crew through choppy waters, Kingsbury righted the (pirate) ship at Texas Tech.
The two-touchdown-underdog Red Raiders completely dismantled No. 14 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl -- and they’ve been riding a wave of momentum no one outside the program saw coming ever since.
“For what they did and the way they performed in the bowl game, I couldn’t have been more proud of those guys,” Kingsbury said. “I think the biggest part was the resiliency this team showed. That’s how you build for the future. Because it’s not always going to be going well. It’s not always going to fall in your favor. But you gotta keep fighting.”
After they rallied past West Virginia to move to 7-0 and into the top 10 of the polls, nothing seemed to fall in the Red Raiders’ favor. Texas Tech played Oklahoma tough in a tight loss on the road, but then lost to Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas by an average margin of almost 24 points.
“I don’t think anyone on the team felt sorry for themselves or felt like, ‘Hey, this wasn’t a good team,’” Kingsbury said. “We just weren’t playing as good as we needed to be to beat good teams.”
But just like the five straight losses themselves, the losses of quarterback Baker Mayfield and assistant Sonny Cumbie stung, too.
Mayfield became a national story after winning the starting job during the preseason as a walk-on true freshman. He was named the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year the same day he informed Kingsbury he was leaving to enroll at Oklahoma.
Cumbie’s departure was almost as shocking. He played quarterback at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, had been teammates and longtime friends with Kingsbury and was the only assistant retained by both former Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville and Kingsbury. Cumbie had recruited several of the players on Texas Tech’s current roster, including quarterback Davis Webb. And he had been instrumental in helping Kingsbury acclimate during his first few days as head coach, even bringing recruiting tape for Kingsbury to review in his empty office.
“It was really rough having coach Cumbie leave, because that was the guy that had been recruiting me since my sophomore year,” Webb said. “He’s a guy I got really close to. He knows my parents really well. He came to my house multiple times. That was really rough on me I guess because I look up to him a lot. Baker leaving threw everyone off guard, too. Coach Cumbie leaving to TCU was very surprising. So there was a lot of shock. But we never became distraught.”
Instead, Kingsbury kept his players on campus throughout December to prepare them for the bowl game. And by the time the Holiday Bowl rolled around, the Red Raiders had the look of a team that had successfully weathered a storm.
“Everything just boiled up in a pot,” Webb said. “And we just exploded.”
Taking over for Mayfield, Webb came out on fire. Also a true freshman last year, Webb threw touchdown passes on Texas Tech’s first four possessions and finished with 403 passing yards on his way to earning Holiday Bowl offensive MVP honors. The defense, finally at full strength again after several injuries, held up too.
“More than anything, that showed our players that you gotta handle adversity, you gotta be mentally tough,” Kingsbury said. “And if you do, that good things can happen.”
Good things have been happening for Texas Tech ever since.
Last month, Kingsbury scored a commitment from Jarrett Stidham, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2015. Stidham had offers from Alabama, Oregon, Texas and Baylor, which was thought to be the favorite because of Art Briles’ connection to Stidham’s Stephenville High School (Briles won four state titles there).
“Coach Kingsbury done everything to make sure that program is going in the right direction,” said Stidham, who revealed he’s been in touch with several other high-profile recruits about joining him at Texas Tech. “I believe what he’s doing is going to pay off.”
The momentum from the bowl game has carried over into the spring.
More than 10,000 fans attended an open scrimmage in Midland, Texas, and another big turnout is expected Saturday for the spring game in Lubbock. Plus, Texas Tech broke a record with more than 34,000 season tickets sold, and is sure to sell more with five months to go before the Aug. 30 opener against Central Arkansas.
On the field, Webb has used the bowl performance as a springboard and has been even sharper this spring. During the Midland scrimmage, he tossed four touchdowns to four different receivers without an interception. Even with All-American Jace Amaro and Eric Ward moving on, the Red Raiders appear to be loaded at receiver again as well, with Jakeem Grant, Reginald Davis and Bradley Marquez, all of whom had touchdowns in the bowl game.
The defense should be improved, with the players having a year of experience now in coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s 3-4 scheme.
And the schedule lines up nicely, with Oklahoma and Texas both coming to Lubbock, and defending Big 12 champ Baylor still on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas.
“We’re really ready to build off the Holiday Bowl,” Webb said. “We don’t want that to be the highlight, though.
“We want that to be the jump-start.”