|The Aggies offense is humming thanks in part to young offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. (US Presswire)|
Perhaps the only thing more intriguing in the SEC this season than the rise of Johnny Football has been the 33-year-old perfectly coifed, frogskin sunglasses-wearing, V-neck lovin' offensive mastermind who is grooming the Texas A&M freshman phenom.
As the Aggies have made their move into the world of "Big Boy football," A&M is a surprising 7-2, No. 15 in the country and leading the SEC in offense, Kliff Kingsbury has emerged as the breakout coaching star of the 2012 season. To those who have known the young Aggies offensive coordinator, none of this is surprising. To the rest of the football world that is learning about Kingsbury and this program -- thanks in large part to Johnny Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football -- the coach’s persona has reached cult hero status in a hurry.
"I knew Kliff was going to be a great coach," said West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen on Wednesday morning. Holgorsen had been an assistant at Texas Tech a decade ago when Kingsbury was the Red Raiders' record-breaking quarterback.
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In 2008, after a few years of Kingsbury bouncing around the NFL as well as stints in World League and CFL, Holgorsen -- then the University of Houston's offensive coordinator -- brought Kingsbury with him. Kingsbury, though, was still trying to keep his playing career alive.
"Playing the game meant so much to him and he had such a passion for it," said Holgorsen, "that he didn't want to give up on the dream, so he really had one foot in (coaching) and one foot out. But when that dream eventually died, he took all of that energy and effort into coaching.”
Eric Morris, the inside receivers coach at Washington State, roomed with Kingsbury when both were on the Houston staff.
"I'd hear him rustling around at 4 a.m. getting cereal so he could get into work real early," said Morris. "Kliff hates to lose as much as anyone I've ever seen. He is an ultra-competitive guy, but he's also one of the most sincere people I know."
Holgorsen attributes Kingsbury’s attention to detail as a big reason why former Cougars QB Case Keenum blossomed into the most prolific passer in NCAA history. In fact, Kingsbury also had a role in transforming minor league baseball player Brandon Weeden into an NFL first-round quarterback.
"I really learned everything about quarterbacks from Kliff," says West Virginia QB coach Jake Spavital, who worked with Kingsbury at Houston and then helped tutor Weeden.
The things Kingsbury taught Spavital (a former college quarterback himself) ranged from how you run the quarterbacks room and develop the psyche of a QB to the mechanics of the position. "When he was at Houston, Kliff put together a great quarterback (drills) tape. Weeden wasn't a polished guy at all. We got Kliff's tape and did all sorts of pocket presence drills and quick release drills and it made a huge difference in him.
"Kliff is big on how, 'it's not about the quarterback's arm. It's about how good his feet are,' and Case was a prime example of that."
Holgorsen says Kingsbury's influence has made a big difference in his quarterback at WVU, Geno Smith.
When Holgorsen left UH to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State in 2010, Kingsbury, who had graduated third in a high school class of 450 students, made the unusual leap from quality control assistant to co-offensive coordinator, a role which included becoming the Cougars' play-caller for coach Kevin Sumlin.
"Kevin and I talked about it, and it was a no-brainer," Holgorsen said. "Kliff was on the headset with me for two years, making suggestions that I listened to. We knew he was going to be great at it."
Kingsbury was. In 2011, Kingsbury's second season running the offense, UH went 13-1 and led the nation in scoring while Keenum rewrote his own Cougar records. Houston's wildly successful attack helped make Sumlin a hot commodity in the coaching world last winter. He opted for the Texas A&M vacancy over several other sizable coaching jobs.
It may have seemed like an obvious move that when Sumlin came back to College Station, Kingsbury would come too as the OC. But there were some fans and Aggie die-hards skeptical of the young OC and his system. Maybe Sumlin should bring someone older or maybe someone who had been in the SEC to help run the offense, they claimed. But Sumlin kept Kingsbury as his guy as he assembled an impressive staff.
"Being with him the last five years, I know Kliff's extremely smart and creative," Sumlin said Wednesday morning. "He's also really well-respected by the players, particularly our players from this area who grew up watching him play football. They knew that he was not only a record-setting quarterback, but also a really, really tough guy."
Quick aside: M first real memory of Kingsbury was from August 2002. I was covering the season opener of No. 2 Ohio State against visiting Texas Tech. Kingsbury was the starting quarterback facing a team that would eventually win the BCS title. He threw for 341 yards and three TDs, but in the process got pummeled and his team lost 45-21. The next morning I was having breakfast in the hotel restaurant in Columbus and happened to be seated next to some of the officials who worked the game. I listened to them talk about how they’d never seen a quarterback take such a pounding and keep coming back.
The Aggies have a rich football tradition, but the program truly hadn't been nationally relevant in a long time. They hadn't finished in the Top 10 in almost 20 years. They hadn't finished in the top five in over half a century. SEC fans likened Texas A&M to one of the Mississippi schools. Longhorn fans probably got a kick out of that. When Sumlin attended SEC Media Days in July in Alabama, he and the three players he brought with him were dogged by questions like. "Do you REALLY know what you've gotten yourself into?"
It's worth noting that over the previous decade the Aggies were seven games under .500 in the Big 12, a conference that wasn't as strong. But in fairness, Kevin Sumlin, a guy who was 35-17 in four seasons at Houston, is different than his predecessors in College Station. It also should be pointed out that even though Kingsbury is a protégé of Mike Leach and Holgorsen, he's also a by-product of Bill Belichick and Mike McCarthy, a couple of NFL guys who he learned from in his playing days in pro football.
One former colleague of Kingsbury's raved about the young coach's ability to craft game plans and even tweak routes depending on certain weaknesses he had unearthed in his film study. Kingsbury's eye for that was honed from his time with the Patriots. His relationship with McCarthy, who won the Super Bowl coaching the Green Bay Packers, stems from the time when the coach was the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator and Kingsbury was a backup QB. Last spring, Sumlin and Kingsbury spent four days in Green Bay with McCarthy and his staff.
"Mike is so exact and prepared," says Kingsbury. "He's got such great attention to detail and there's a method to everything he does."
Even though Kingsbury comes from the Air Raid family and employs many of the concepts of that scheme, like Holgorsen did when he went to Oklahoma State, he adapted well to the personnel there. Holgorsen relied on the ground attack more than in his previous coaching stops with the Cowboys. Kingsbury is doing that in College Station too. In 2011, his offense at Houston ranked No. 1 in the nation in passing (450 yards per game) but only No. 68 in rushing (149 yards per game). This season, in a much more physical conference, his offense at A&M is No. 19 in passing (308 yards per game) and No. 10 in rushing (251 yards per game).
Kingsbury's handling of the dynamic Manziel is what is driving things. The 6-1, 200-pound Manziel is second in the nation in total offense, producing more than 383 yards of total offense a game. That a freshman QB is performing like this is remarkable. That a freshman QB, who along with the rest of the team, is performing like this in the first season in the system and while doing it in the mighty SEC is ridiculous.
"This is a different animal," Kingsbury says, referencing Manziel. "He's fearless. He's great at buying time, but he's also able to, if he sticks his foot in the ground and takes off, he can take it the distance. He's really added a dimension for us. From week to week, we're adding in new wrinkles to the offense."
As much as Johnny Football keeps people buzzing, so has Kingsbury. It's rare these days when major college football coaches' styles become Internet fodder, but Kingsbury certainly stands out. Holgorsen references a Halloween photo of two guys dressed as Sumlin and Kingsbury. "It looked just like Kliff," says Holgorsen, laughing at his protégé becoming something of a cult hero.
"I used to make fun of him on a daily basis," Holgorsen says. "It's the v-necks, that 5 o’clock shadow, him always having GQ magazine around. Kliff's a skinny-jeans kind of guy. It's just who he is. And it's the guys that don't change when they're put into new situations I have a lot of respect for.
“He brings a tremendous amount of energy. You can see it with the whole Johnny Football thing there now. He lets that kid be himself. There’s a little (smack)-talkin’. I see some Kliff in him, and it’s channeled in the right way.”
Spencer Hall, the brains behind the satirical college football website Everyday Should be Saturday, sees Kingsbury as "a budding meme." Hall's site even created a music video off a highlight that included the fired-up assistant smacking his head coach on the butt after A&M scored another touchdown.
"He's definitely our first really 'bro' football coach," says Hall, evoking a term of image-conscious GQ-ish dude. "There are some guys who are 'bro-ish' but he's alpha bro-ish. He's wearing the long sleeves. He's got his hair just right. He has the sunglasses on at all times. He's got what appears to be a carefully nurtured 5 o’clock shadow. He's all about the v-neck. He's an innovator on and off the field. He's the evolution of the Air Raid. He's casual like the Air Raid guys but he still wants to put some style on it and look good. The guy looks like a ladies' man. And, he's also really good at his job.
"I think this is the appeal of A&M in the SEC. The Aggies do things a bit differently. The SEC tends to be dominated by the shadow of (Nick) Saban. It's khakis and a polo and the Pro-Set run. But that's not what A&M does and they're really fun to watch. I don’t see (Alabama offensive coordinator Doug) Nussmeier smacking Nick Saban on the ass after they score a touchdown."
Sumlin laughed about the video Wednesday morning.
“My wife and kids showed it to me," he says. "That's just our coaching staff, but it's not like we go around here doing that all day in the hallways. Those things you see on the sidelines are the genuine excitement about moving the football and scoring touchdowns. I think that kind of excitement is contagious with our players.
"The kids like it. People come up and tell me, 'These aren't your grandpa's A&M Aggies,' and I laughed at it. Being in Houston, that's how we did it. Some people get on me about Kliff's hair or being untucked or the sunglasses, but if you're comfortable with who you are, and you're successful, why change? The kids see that's who we are and they really respond to it."
Kingsbury isn't Sumlin's first cult hero assistant. Holgorsen was one of a kind too.
"Everybody asks me about Dana or Kliff, but those guys have been like that ever since I've known them. Kliff is such a hard-working guy. He's the first one in our office. He's very disciplined and the players love him. He's going to be an excellent head coach one day."
Says his pal Morris, who Holgorsen also notes got "a little converted" over to Kingsbury's style, "He's a little preppy. His dad was a really successful high school coach. Kliff wants to be someone that has his own style and swagger."
Kingsbury laughed when asked about his image. He jokes that if A&M had been losing it would've made him a good heel especially since he was a Red Raider. In reality, what the former Academic All-American has done is mesh his own personality while taking something from every coach he has been around, including Sumlin, who is known as one of the game's best leaders.
This weekend, the Aggies visit No. 1 Alabama, the biggest test of all for A&M's potent offense.
"They have great talent and they give you so many different looks," Kingsbury said of the Tide. "It's hard to figure out where they're coming from. Schematically they do more (that LSU)."
Texas A&M put a scare into Florida and LSU this season before the SEC heavyweights rallied to overtake the Aggies.
"We haven't played a complete ballgame yet," Sumlin says. "We really didn't finish against Florida. We got way ahead of Louisiana Tech but struggled in the second half. We flopped around against Ole Miss. We had a couple of blowout wins where our starters didn't have to play much in the second half, and when we played LSU we turned the ball over in the second half. I'm telling 'em, 'We don't have to play a perfect game, but we do have to play a complete game.'"
And if, somehow, the Aggies go into Tuscaloosa and upset the top-ranked Crimson Tide, A&M's young quarterback may jump to the top of the Heisman race and its young offensive coordinator's stock will soar almost as high.