Kliff Kingsbury embracing challenge of leading alma mater

LUBBOCK, Texas -- "Frat house." That’s the all-too-common dis.

Kliff Kingsbury’s critics seem to think he loaded up his Texas Tech coaching staff with young, unqualified buddies from his college days who just want to chill and act cool and who don’t know how to win.

Kingsbury says he doesn’t pay any attention to that critique, though he’s no doubt aware it exists. His assistant coaches? They’re tired of hearing it get repeated by rivals.

"At times, I think the biggest thing we battle -- and I think other schools try to use it with recruiting -- is, 'It’s a bunch of young guys out there. It’s a frat house,'" TTU outside linebackers coach Trey Haverty said. "That’s not the case."

The reality? Coaching at your alma mater can come with an extra dose of scrutiny. The highs are higher, absolutely. There is a special kind of glory for coaches who win big at the place they call home. There are unique challenges, too.

Kingsbury is one of five former Red Raiders on his coaching staff, a group with an average age of 37 and seven coaches under 40. Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt has admitted he had initial reservations about taking such a youthful approach (though in fairness, Hocutt was hired by Tech at age 39). But Kingsbury had to do it his own way.

He wanted to surround himself with peers who understood what makes Tech special. He felt something was missing when he returned to Lubbock: a certain level of pride in the program and the university.

"I think every day that you can come to a university you truly have incredible memories of -- it helped mold you, helped shape you, you’re passionate about it and it’s your school, you put work in on the front end and back end and every which way -- yeah, there’s not a lot of negatives to it," Kingsbury said.

He had no trouble finding four Tech grads who could match his enthusiasm in Haverty, co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Eric Morris and secondary coach Kevin Curtis.

"Trust me, there’s a lot of people Kliff played with that wanted jobs here," Smith said. "He turned them down. There’s a certain quality he was looking for. We were all overachievers. We were tough and never gave up."

Smith keeps turning down NFL coaching opportunities -- his mentor and friend Rex Ryan called again this offseason when he took over the Buffalo Bills -- because he truly believes this is his dream job. He says he wants to coach in Lubbock forever.

"When you’ve put blood, sweat and tears on that field and give everything you’ve got to a university, it’s personal," Smith said. "I think you can see that with our emotions, the way we coach, how involved we are, how we’re constantly working. It’s hard for me to believe there’s another coaching staff that works as hard as we do in everything."

When they started 7-0 in their first year at Texas Tech, this staff got a brief taste of how sweet winning at their alma mater could be. Then Tech finished the year 1-5, followed by a 4-8 season that Haverty considers "the roughest year everyone in this office can say they’ve had." Welcome to a different variety of pressure.

"When you do lose, there’s no escaping it," Kingsbury said. "All the best friends you’ve made in life are all Red Raiders. It surrounds you. There’s no way away from it."

What Kingsbury and his staff can do is build their program around players who share their passion. That few recruits elected to bail after 4-8 was a truly encouraging sign of buy-in. Authenticity is as crucial an asset in recruiting as age.

"Kids can see how much the university means to me," Smith said. "I can tell you everything about this university. There’s a lot of coaches who get jobs, but do they really know about that school?"

They know the value of their degree. They know every inch of campus and downtown Lubbock. Yes, they even know where to find the frat houses.

Most important, they now know how rare, difficult and rewarding this opportunity can be.

"It’s definitely a unique perspective, and I don’t think you can fake that, either," Kingsbury said. "When a student-athlete comes on campus and they talk to myself, Coach Haverty, Coach Morris, Coach Curtis or Coach Smith, they see our eyes light up when talking about campus life and this community. We’ve lived it. It’s genuine. You just can’t fake it."