Despite his public image, Kliff Kingsbury is nobody’s pretty boy

Kliff Kingsbury pulled into the parking lot outside the Texas Tech football offices a few minutes before 4:30 a.m. The sun wouldn’t rise for at least another two hours. By then the 35-year-old Red Raiders head coach would’ve worked out for an hour and pored over another hour of studying tape.

One of his assistants, Tech linebackers coach/co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith, pops in to say hi to his boss and jokes that Kingsbury’s inspiring him to shed 20 pounds to get back down to his old playing weight as the former Tech QB takes a quick break from perusing some NFL film that’s intrigued him. Kingsbury is a film junkie. Unlike a lot of head coaches, he doesn’t put it up on some projection screen or 60-inch flat screen. He’s just fine with watching it from a small computer window not much bigger than a business letter.

It’s the way he studied film when he first broke into the coaching business as a quality control assistant on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Houston. The perspective gives him a measure of, well, perspective. "It keeps me in check,” Kingsbury says. “Anytime you start thinking you made it or whatever, I like getting on that little screen and getting back to the basics and it’s all about X’s and O’s."

In Smith’s eyes Kingsbury hasn’t really changed from their days as Red Raider teammates even if his old QB has become something of a celebrity in the past year-plus, as he emerged as the sport’s resident heart-throb bachelor coach. After all, how many other head coaches get requests from E! Entertainment TV or from Inside Edition? Or have shirtless photos poolside that go viral?

Not that Kingsbury’s persona hasn’t helped elevate the brand of Texas Tech football or re-energize what had been something of a fractured fan base coming off the transition from Mike Leach to Kingsbury’s predecessor Tommy Tuberville, because it most definitely has. Tech AD Kirby Hocutt and the Red Raiders brass couldn’t be happier about the young guy they took a shot on some 20 months ago. In fact, they’re so enthusiastic they just rewarded him with a lucrative new deal, extending his contract through the 2020 season and paying him a guaranteed base salary of $3.5 million with yearly bonus clauses that can bring him another $1.5 million.

To Smith, the rest of Kingsbury’s coaching staff — many of whom also played for Tech –and pretty much everyone else who knew him before he became the ‘It’ head coach, he’s really an old-school grinder. Smith tells the story of when the Red Raiders played Colorado years ago and Kingsbury got drilled right before halftime on his elbow.  "It was gashed open," Smith said. "His whole leg and shoulder pads are covered in blood. So I’m looking at him from my locker thinking, ‘He’s definitely out. It looked like he just got hit by a car.’ He goes in the backroom. They stitch him up and put a huge pad on and he finishes the game."

Smith, without taking a breath, transitions into another Kliff story about the guy who Tech teammates say was their warrior QB, not some pretty boy — this one from a game against Nebraska. Kingsbury got hit in the side and had a bone sticking out from that shot. "He never missed a play either," said Smith. "He’s a Texas kid, a true son of a coach. Reminds me a lot of Steve McNair, who I played with in Baltimore, in terms of playing through injuries and being tough.” 

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Leach, now Washington State’s head coach, recalls a game against Texas A&M where he went back and reviewed the film and noted that the Aggies hit Kingsbury hard 22 times and the guy still hung in the game and threw for over 300 yards. "He was incredibly tough," Leach said.

"That (other stuff), that’s not Kliff," said Smith, who spent two years in the NFL as a linebacker. "He’s just a football guy. There’s not one time I’ve gone into his office and he’s not watching film. One day it’s Redskins. Another day he’s watching Toledo. A lot of people think he’s this Hollywood guy in it for the fame. He could care less about it. His biggest deal with that is it helps recruiting and helps the program.

"He knows how much it helps in recruiting, and right now we’re kicking butt in recruiting. I think we’re leading the Big 12 in four- and five-star guys. I think he has an old spirit. He goes to bed at like 8:30. He’s always eating right."

Said Kingsbury of his glitzy, playboy persona: "You just got to have fun with it. I think right now that we’re trying to get as much exposure for Texas Tech as we can and so there’s a lot of things that we do that are calculated. We’re trying to get our name out there and until the wins catch up with that, we’re going to keep doing it ‘cause I think Texas Tech is an incredible place. We want recruits to see it. We want the world to see what we’re all about and eventually the wins will come."

He shakes his head and laughs at some of the reactions he gets from the team like he did when the pool picture made its way around the internet . Players started texting him about it. Then, he said, he walked into a meeting and the players started clapping for him. "It’s just one of those deals," he said. "Just have fun with it. It’s part of the gig."

The attitude he’s striving to instill in Lubbock, though, is anything but surface or shallow. He is adamant that he never wants Texas Tech to "take a back seat to anyone." He’s been dogged in driving home that message in how he and his staff work and the energy they bring to practice and meetings. 

"I don’t want them to ever think lower than Big 12 championship," Kingsbury said. "I think sometimes on a national scale people see Texas Tech as that team that wins one big game a year and screws up somebody else’s season. Well, we need to think bigger than that and that’s been my goal since I got here."

Kingsbury, the 2002 National Football Foundation Academic All-America Player of the Year, attributes his work ethic and toughness to his parents. 

"It was always, in our household, if the bone’s not sticking out, you’re going to keep playing," he said. "That was just the mentality. He wanted us to be tough and then he coached that into us growing up."

“He” is Kingsbury’s father, Tim, a former high school football coach and old Marine who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam. 

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"They were in the jungle apparently and they got ambushed, and he hit a trip wire and got shot through the jaw," said the younger Kingsbury. "He had to sit there through a dog fight, for like three hours he said, and then they got him out of there. Fireworks and things like that — he still doesn’t take part in ‘em and you can still see the lingering effects."

Tim Kingsbury, who retired after a very successful run at New Braunfels High at 51 so he could watch Kliff play at Texas Tech, prefers not to talk about his military days. "That’s old news," he said. "I don’t make too big a deal about that. I was shot in the jaw, but there were a lot of people who got hurt back then."

The elder Kingsbury says Kliff’s mom, Sally, was the really tough one in the family, especially with the way she kept fighting cancer. She had a soft tissue sarcoma that started in her leg, then progressed to her lungs and went from there. 

"She was a strong lady," Tim Kingsbury said. "She was very courageous. She just kept battling back after every surgery. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be, but she was a real inspiration."

The family started a foundation — the Sally M. Kingsbury Sarcoma Research Foundation — which Tim says has raised over $160,000.

Kingsbury’s parents both were teachers. His mom taught government and economics. His dad, in addition to being a football coach, taught world history and US History. The skills they established to teach have also enriched their son’s ability to communicate and connect with his players since there is such carryover. Being the son of a Texas high school football coach also has provided Kliff Kingsbury with quite a primer for the career he’s chosen. 

"It’s an incredible honor," he said of being the son of a Texas high school coach. "I think people that are from the state know how big of deal that is and know how the life those coaches lead and the stress they’re put on in these small towns where that’s all they got is football. So I always appreciated the way he handled himself. He was always harder on my brother and I and we knew that."

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Smith, who before coming back to Tech spent three seasons as an assistant with the New York Jets, sees some similarities in Kingsbury to his old boss Rex Ryan. "They’re both such players’ coaches," Smith said. "People are just drawn to them. He really is a lot like Rex. Players respond to Kliff and I think that’s 90 percent of coaching." 

Smith brings up a story from last season as an example of why the players like Kingsbury so much. Smith watched back the replay of Tech’s game against TCU. In it, he noticed a moment where a Horned Frog player screws up and TCU coach Gary Patterson really gets in the guy’s face. Not long after that, Smith says, Tech’s DeAndre Washington breaks what would’ve been a 49-yard catch-and-run for touchdown with the score tied 10-10 late in the game. Only Washington started to celebrate the touchdown a step too soon and dropped the ball, which ultimately nullified the play and put the ball back at the TCU 15.

"Kliff pats him on the head and said, ‘Alright brother. Next play.’ We end up scoring and winning the game. (Stuff) like that," Smith said, "is pretty cool. It gives me goose bumps." 

To Tech players, Kingsbury is so much different than any other head coach. "He makes you feel like he’s one of us," said star QB Davis Webb. "He can relate to anybody on and around our team. That’s the coolest thing about it. He relates to us better than anybody I’ve ever been around."

Asked if he thinks he can sustain this pace and this vibe 10, 15 years from now as the guy working out every bit as hard, if not even harder, than his players, Kingsbury said if he can’t, "then I’ll get out of the profession." He said he doesn’t see himself as some Joe Paterno where he’s coaching even into his 70s.  

"This is the part that I love,” Kingsbury said. “It makes you feel like, as close as I can to being a player, and so I think that’s why I do it. I love just bringing my energy and getting around the players and putting the best products out there we can."

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.