FRISCO — Kliff Kingsbury never makes opening remarks at Big 12 media days, preferring to get right to questions. Given his lackluster record the past four football seasons at Texas Tech, some were openly wondering if he might need to make closing remarks Monday.
He addressed his tenuous job security on the first day of the annual talkfest, but he couldn’t resist making an announcement at the outset.
“Actually, I have one opening statement,” Kingsbury said. “I’m not sure why we had Justin Bieber playing for my walk-up song, but we’ll move forward.”
Kingsbury has always been the hip-hop star of the Big 12 coaching fraternity, but he drew the line at being linked to the Canadian pop singer.
“I like Bieber, but a soft love song?” he posed later away from the podium. “I’m a little partial to anything from Drake. A little more swagged out.”
Right now, Texas Tech fans would swap some of that swag for more wins, and Kingbury’s hoping Bieber’s hit “Believe” could be the mantra for his 2017 squad. Otherwise, the league’s most photogenic head coach could be photo-shopped out of the Red Raiders picture despite a hefty contract that would require a $6.7 million buyout — the by-product of a contract extension through 2020 after Kingbury’s first season.
Hard to believe, but the boy-wonder coach who started 7-0 in Lubbock has gone 17-26 since and hasn’t posted a winning record in Big 12 play yet. Last year’s team stumbled to a 5-7 record despite a first-round NFL draft choice at quarterback. In the past three seasons, the Red Raiders have finished 125th, 127th and a dead-last 128th in total defense after allowing 554 yards a game, almost 35 yards more than next-worst Kansas.
“As a head coach, it falls on me, no question,” Kingsbury said when asked about his teams’ atrocious defenses. “I think middle of year two, we made a change where we kind of had to start over, and coach (David) Gibbs came in (as defensive coordinator). It wasn’t the greatest situation, no question, and he’s still working through that. I like what I saw this spring. So I expect to see us be improved.”
Quite frankly, it wouldn’t take much. Abysmal defense hasn’t been just Kingsbury’s Achilles heel, the failings have infected a promising program that flourished under Mike Leach but has stagnated under Kingsbury and his predecessor, Tom Tuberville. The two have combined for a 44-43 record and a depressing Big 12 mark of 22-40. The Red Raiders haven’t been nationally ranked since November 2013.
One Tech insider put Kingsbury’s chances of survival at “50-50,” but significant upgrades in facilities such as new $1.6 million lockers, a $48 million indoor practice venue and weight-room improvements, coupled with a bowl game, could keep the coach employed.
“Obviously, we know what’s at stake,” Kingsbury said. “We know we have to be much improved, but that’s part of the job. I think that everybody but the four that make the playoff every year are basically on the hot seat in college football. You’re coaching for your job every year, and we know that.”
Tech’s athletic director, Kirby Hocutt, made a huge mistake by extending Kingsbury’s contract so quickly, but he understandably wanted to lock him up in case bigger-spending suitors arrived on campus. They all lost his number in the years since, but Kingsbury’s still one of the brightest offensive minds in college football, and he’d be scooped up to be an offensive coordinator somewhere in five minutes if he ever left Tech.
His reputation as a quarterback whisperer has carried him to this level. He rode Johnny Manziel’s coattails to this job, but he has to show he’s a more-complete head coach and not just an offensive guru who can send quarterbacks such as Pat Mahomes and Davis Webb to the NFL and coach up ones named Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer. Keep in mind, though, that three of those four QBs transferred from Tech.
Mayfield and Kingsbury engaged in some vitriolic banter after the quarterback’s transfer to Oklahoma, but the two had a friendly encounter Monday.
“I don’t think we need closure,” Mayfield said. “I have a lot of respect for him, and I think he does for me. He’s all GQ-ed up today, and he asked me if I’d gotten any taller.”
Kingsbury did show up in a special tailor-made, light gray suit he received from his Dallas designer. He enjoyed jousting with Mayfield, whose visiting Sooners outlasted Tech 66-59 last season in a game that typified Tech’s fortunes. The Red Raiders lost four games by eight points or fewer in 2016 when one more stop might have made the difference.
Kingsbury will still call the offensive plays, but he has promised to be more involved on the defensive side of the ball, too. Angry over the Raiders’ defensive ineptitude, he stripped the team of all things Double-T until his players earn it back.
“Anything in the facility can’t have Double-T on it,” said junior free safety Jah’Shawn Johnson, one of six returning defensive starters, “but we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. Our defense hasn’t played well. I think everybody was trying to do other people’s jobs. Now, we get jealous if anybody makes a solo tackle.”
Just making a tackle in any form should make everyone proud. And just might keep Kingsbury employed.