What does Kliff Kingsbury fear?

LUBBOCK, Texas -- The poster outside Kliff Kingsbury's office says "fearless," a reference to a university marketing initiative to drive financial support to the athletic department.

But who's devoid of fear, really? Even movie-star-looking people like Kingsbury, Texas Tech's 35-year-old second-year football coach, are not. Even millionaires wrestle with the uncertainty of the future.

And that sensation is being exacerbated because, at 3-7, Texas Tech is threatening to have its worst season since 1990, when it won four games. Kingsbury is 11-12 since taking over at his alma mater.

Don't feel sorry for the good-looking millionaire coach. The Marine's son wouldn't want that, anyway.

But Kingsbury offers something worth considering: When you climb to the top of your profession, especially when it has happened somewhat rapidly, there's immense pressure to remain there.

"Does the thought of going backward ever just scare the s--- out of you, giving up what you've got?" he said in September, when the Red Raiders were 2-0. "That scares the s--- out of me."

Kingsbury's response, taught by his father, the former serviceman and a longtime high school football coach, has always been to outwork opponents. You know, show up to the office earlier, leave later. Absorb information and ideas, find anything and everything to improve.

But what happens when that isn't working? What happens when more and more cracks seem to be forming, some by your own hands and some merely as a result of poor fortune?

There's no real blueprint for a team that has played four true freshman quarterbacks, including two walk-ons, in two seasons. Even the most promising of the bunch, sophomore Davis Webb, has inexplicably committed 16 turnovers in eight games in 2014. Entering the season, the coaches thought he was a Heisman dark horse.

There's no guide when the defensive coordinator shows up intoxicated for a morning staff meeting, and then later, after being fired, shares your team's signals with opponents. That's what the staff on Monday accused former coordinator Matt Wallerstedt of doing, of trying to further damage the program from which he was dismissed in late September.

"I've been around a lot of football teams," one assistant volunteered last week, a ghost-white look on his face, "but I've never seen anything like this. I really haven't. You just hope that hard work and a positive attitude gets you through it. That's all you can do."

It isn't just situational. Texas Tech has played bad football. It has one Power 5 win in 2014. It came against Kansas, which had already fired its head coach when the teams played.

The Red Raiders are currently No. 108 in the country in yards per play allowed, No. 116 in turnover margin and No. 127 in penalties.

Going 7-0 out of the gate in 2013 sure looks now like the aberration, not the 4-12 record since then.

"We knew we'd have to play extremely error-free or mistake-free football for the first couple of years to be in the upper echelon of the Big 12," Kingsbury said. "I thought last year at times we did, early on, and the end of last year and all of this year we have not played that way to even put ourselves to be competitive with that top-tier group."

OK. So, now what? Iowa State and Baylor still remain on this year's schedule, even though the Raiders are guaranteed just their fourth losing season since 1990.

"You just put your head down and grind. You try not to let it define you, let losing define you," Kingsbury said. "I'm always about the next day. You wake up a little earlier, work a little harder. I just get immersed in the next day, what's ahead of me. If you do that then you don't have time to feel sorry for yourself or go into a woe-is-me way of thinking."

Kingsbury usually arrives to his office around 4:30 a.m., an hour before the players and two hours before the sun.

"It's what he lives and breathes for," said Eric Morris, the team's offensive coordinator who was Kingsbury's roommate when they were starting out five years ago at the University of Houston. "He spends every minute of his day toward preparing the kids to play. During the whole season, his whole life is about it.

"I've seen him cry tears behind closed doors. He wants [the players] to be successful more than anything."

The statistics and records chronicled above would lead you to believe that Kingsbury is on a fast track to the hot seat. That's a notion that is laughed off by the man who hired him.

When athletic director Kirby Hocutt arrived four years ago, he willingly stepped onto a wildly spinning football carousel. The primary objective of his entire job is to get it to slow down, and hopefully stop altogether.

Sitting in his office overlooking Jones AT&T Stadium last week, Hocutt highlighted this recent churn:

• Kingsbury is the program's third head coach in six seasons.
• There have been six defensive coordinators in six seasons. Finding Wallerstedt's more permanent replacement would make seven in seven seasons.
• Of the 20 defensive linemen signed from 2010-12, four remain on the roster.
• Of the 25 recruits signed in the '11 class, players who would now be third-year juniors or seniors, 11 remain.

"When you go through numerous transition periods that we've been through, these are the results you get," Hocutt said.

Still, a surprising bowl win against favored Arizona State -- Kingsbury kept the players on campus during Christmas break, emphasizing the game more than ASU -- provided enough promise that Hocutt feared someone swooping in to pluck his coach. It seems funny now, but in August that felt like the biggest threat to the much-needed consistency.

The day before the 2014 opener, Hocutt extended Kingsbury's contract until 2020. He was given a raise of more than $1 million. He is set to make $3.1 million next year.

Then, the following night, the Red Raiders had to labor to beat FCS Central Arkansas. The next week, they were forced to escape at UTEP. And they've defeated only Kansas since then.

"The way the year's played out, I could see how [the extension] could become a lightning rod," Kingsbury said. "But that in no way, shape or form has changed the way I've approached things or what we're trying to accomplish."

Hocutt did not flinch in standing by the extension and its timing.

"I don't regret it one second," he said. "It was a proactive move and one that I believe in and one that I think showed the confidence in what Kliff is doing each and every day, the culture he is setting in this football program. It showed our commitment to him, and none of that has changed. ... We all want success yesterday, but that's not where we are as a program today."

At the Nov. 1 home game against Texas, a loss that dropped the Raiders to 3-6, a prominent alum approached Hocutt. The department's leader likely braced for criticism. Instead, the booster thanked Hocutt for hiring a coach whom the fan base believes cares enough to not only fix what's broken but also stay long enough to do so.

"We have a coach who wants to be here. I don't know if that's been the case around here in recent years," Hocutt said. "As they say, [Tommy] Tuberville never had both boots on the ground. Mike [Leach], his last number of years, was always looking to interview and to leave.

"To have someone that wants to be here ... it's important."

Kingsbury's age, 35, is the average of the current 10-man staff. Half of the coaching staff was born after 1980. The oldest assistant is 47.

This highlights a criticism that often surfaces from peers: From afar, they believe Texas Tech is running the school's 22nd fraternity.

By design, the staff is young. Kingsbury seeks to connect with his players and recruits. You might have seen on YouTube his spring dance-off with players, all while wearing a Too Turnt Up T-shirt. (Get it? TTU?) He returned to YouTube in August when he challenged Beyonce to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. At practice, it sounds like Drake's iPod is hooked to the speakers.

"He's just got to make sure the players know there's more to it than swag," one Power 5 head coach said. "It can't just be swag. It can't just be sending letters to Beyonce or whatever."

After spending several days around the program, in meetings and practices, the level of discipline would surprise some of those critics. Kingsbury rarely yells, but he consistently and concisely gets his point across to the players. When it comes to running the program, Kingsbury is more Marine than frat boy. Despite the relative closeness in age, there's a parental quality to the relationship.

"More than anything, they don't want to disappoint him," said Kenny Bell, Kingsbury's right-hand operations man. "It kills them when they do. You can just see it."

After a Monday practice in September, with the team encircling him, Kingsbury addressed players' missed classes and some complaints of rowdiness and rudeness from the cafeteria staff.

"That s--- has to stop. This is the last time I'm saying this," he said. "I'm not going to be embarrassed. I'm not going to have it. Y'all f---ing got me?" A loud "yes, sir" boomed back from the players.

Even with the staff fighting to eliminate it, a poisonous attitude still threatens the program. Last month, TCU scored 82 points on Texas Tech in Fort Worth. The following day, Kingsbury said several players had "tapped out." They quit, in other words. As a result, TCU set a Big 12 record for points in a conference game.

Kingsbury held individual meetings with those players during the ensuing bye week, questioning their competitive desires. The results surprised the staff: The players seemed generally unaware that they'd quit.

"Maybe it's the culture here, or just kind of a reflection of some things in society in general, but they didn't see it as that," Kingsbury said. "They just thought, 'Oh well, we're going to lose anyway.'"

The same coach who implored Texas Tech to transcend swag said he knows Kingsbury to be "a tough hombre." Kevin Sumlin knows, too.

It's why Sumlin gave Kingsbury his first job in coaching in 2008, when Sumlin was the head coach at the University of Houston. Sumlin had filed Kingsbury's name away because of the way he played. Back in 2002, when Sumlin was A&M's offensive coordinator, Kingsbury torched the Aggies for 474 yards and five touchdowns in a double-overtime win. The performance, too, was about more than stats.

"I don't know how many times we sacked him, but we hit the s--- out of him," Sumlin said. "I couldn't believe how tough he was. You want to know the day that Kliff Kingsbury impressed me? That was the day."

Coming off a failed NFL career, Kingsbury started as a lowly quality control assistant; he made $400 a month and lived on now-West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen's couch. Four years later, he was Sumlin's offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, coaching Johnny Manziel to a Heisman Trophy.

There's reason to hope that, in time, Kingsbury can similarly transform his players' attitudes.

"We've got to somehow get past all that," Kingsbury said last week. "That resilient, tough, West Texas chip-on-our-shoulder vibe, we have not re-established that."

The influence of new leaders is as important as whatever the staff can do to teach those currently on the roster. Texas Tech's 2015 recruiting class is perhaps the most important Kingsbury will have in terms of culture change.

And, yes, it would help if there were some good football players arriving, too.

The staff is hopeful that QB signee Jarrett Stidham embodies both needs. The Elite 11 participant, a native of Stephenville, Texas, will enroll in January and participate in spring practice. Standing on the sideline before the Sept. 20 Arkansas game, Stidham said he chose Texas Tech over Baylor because of the opportunity "to do something that had never been done" in Lubbock.

And that's the essence of the staff's recruiting pitch. It's rooted in hope, no doubt, but it's worked in places such as Stillwater, Oklahoma, and Waco, Texas, in recent years. Why not Lubbock?

"We've sold it as a unique opportunity to come in and be part of the class that is the first class to win a Big 12 championship and do something that hasn't been done," Kingsbury said. "That's been our selling point. It's exciting for kids because there's not too many chances in life where you have a chance to do something that's a first."

Last year, when "College GameDay" was at Florida State, country singer Jake Owen served as a guest picker. Host Chris Fowler asked Owen to predict the outcome of the Oklahoma State-Texas Tech game.

"I have a hard time pulling for a team where I feel like the coach spends more time looking in the mirror than [coaching]," Owen said. "The guy's a runway model, right?"

Owen later felt bad about the joke and sent an email to Hocutt to apologize. Hocutt put Owen and Kingsbury in touch. Kingsbury laughed it off -- a reaction that impressed Owen.

But it was a very public example of a popular opinion: Kingsbury is discounted as a coach because he resembles Ryan Gosling.

An Oklahoma City columnist referred to him as "Anna Kournikova" earlier this fall: "Good-looking, but can't coach" is the common refrain.

"It comes with it. I guess it's better than people saying he's ugly and he can't coach," Kingsbury said, laughing. "But no, I've heard that. You see the guys on 'GameDay' or whatever, making comments. It's motivation to show that you can. We know what we have here. We know what we're doing and where we're heading."

Kingsbury continued, "This has been a tough year for everybody, but there's people all over the country who have these situations. You can look at a Gary Patterson or a Dan Mullen. Dan Mullen's two games away from getting fired last year, you know? If they don't beat Arkansas in overtime, they're probably going to fire him. They win those two, win their bowl game and they go on a run.

"Gary goes 4-8 [in 2013]. He's one of the top coaches in the country and has been for a long time. This year, they're in the running for the playoff. Everyone goes through it. You've just got to stay consistent."

Sumlin is another example. The Aggies' up-and-down season in 2014 has led to vacillating opinions. One week, Sumlin is a candidate for a handful of NFL jobs, the next Chip Kelly. The next, his career résumé is critiqued.

Organizationally and philosophically, Kingsbury takes a number of cues from Sumlin and his program. They're mirror images: Middling or struggling programs in the present, both pointing toward the future.

"Everyone talks about how cool he is and how he looks and his demeanor and everything else," Sumlin said, "but in 26, 27 years, I haven't seen anyone who works at the game any harder than him. And I've seen a lot of coaches.

"I think people just think he kind of shows up and does some things, and that's not the case."

During a time when even Big 12 flagships Oklahoma and Texas are grappling for position in the conference, currently taking a place in line behind Baylor and TCU, it doesn't project all that well for a program near the bottom like Texas Tech.

But even amid the exhaustion and tension in the building of a 3-7 team, don't tell that to an ever-optimistic Kingsbury. On the day before the Arkansas game, one that would see the Hogs gash the Red Raiders for 438 yards and seven touchdowns on their home turf, Kingsbury offered a quote from Winston Churchill.

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm," Kingsbury said, recalling the former British prime minister's words.

The line has served him well, probably too well, this fall.

"I try to live by that. It isn't always easy," Kingsbury said. "But you have to bring the same fire, same energy."

Every day, those who aren't fearless have to behave as if they are.