Photo By Steven Chapman

Erratic Red Raiders Need Firm Leadership

Texas Tech concluded its fourth season under Kliff Kingsbury with a 54-35 win over Baylor to finish with a 5-7 record. All signs point to Kingsbury returning next season, but what changes will be and need to be made to help the Red Raiders get back on track?

Blessedly, Texas Tech’s 2016 football season is at an end. Despite a fairly impressive season-ending victory over the chthonic Baylor Bears, the Red Raiders finished 5-7, and are ineligible for the annual bowl buffet that rewards many a lousy team with a postseason appearance. In the past, earning a bowl berth was a genuine badge of merit. Today, failure to play in a bowl game is a stigma of shame.

So clearly, this was a bad season for Texas Tech. For the second time in Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure, the Red Raiders had a losing season. In 2015 Tech finished a shade better than .500, and in Kingsbury’s inaugural campaign, the Red Raiders went 8-5. Kingsbury’s best mark came with talent assembled by Mike Leach and Tommy Tuberville.

Still, it seems quite apparent that Kingsbury has done just enough to hang onto his job for at least one more season. Chalk up the likelihood of Kingsbury’s season five to the fact that Kirby Hocutt hired Kingsbury and is genuinely fond of the young coach. And mark it down also to Kingsbury’s Mariana Trench-deep ties with Texas Tech University and its football program. 

If Kingsbury were a head case or a jerk he would have been out of here yesterday. If he played his college ball at the University of Texas he would have packed his bags day before yesterday.

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So Texas Tech’s favorite son will be granted a reprieve. There may be strings attached. Rumor has it that Kingsbury’s continued employment as Tech’s head football coach will be contingent upon him hiring an offensive coordinator and surrendering play-calling duties to the new OC. 

So change is in the air in Lubbock, but it is half-stepping change rather than tossing out the infant with his ablution. It’s a compromise. And, of course, only 2017 will tell whether Hocutt’s measures will be sufficient to get the Tech football program out of the gutter. 

Meantime, when we look at the results of the 2016 football season, it is readily apparent that wild inconsistency was Tech football’s hallmark. You just never knew which Red Raiders would show up on Saturday, or if they would show up at all.

Scratch the win over Stephen F. Austin. Kicking around a marginal FCS program was meaningless, a glorified scrimmage. But then the Red Raiders went on the road to play Arizona State of the Pac-12. It turns out that the Sun Devils were a rather bad Pac-12 team, but on this night they were good enough to hang 68 points on the Red Raiders, and an unknown running back with a French name set an NCAA record with eight touchdowns. It was a bad loss. Humiliating even. But there have been enough of those in the post-Leach years.

Tech returned home to face mid-major Louisiana Tech. Turns out that La Tech was a decent ball-club. Arguably better than ASU. And the Red Raiders bounced back. They took care of business in beating the Bulldogs by 14. Turns out this was a solid win.

Next came conference play against the perennially putrid Kansas Jayhawks. The Red Raiders blasted the Jayhawks 55-19, but truthfully, this win wasn’t a whole lot more meaningful than the one over Stephen F. Austin.

The first real Big 12 test came next week at Kansas State. Regardless of all other factors, beating a Bill Snyder-coached team is always an accomplishment and it was beyond the Red Raiders. Still, Tech played respectably in a 6-point road loss.

Next came another swan dive back into the abyss. On homecoming the Red Raiders couldn’t be bothered to give a rip and were demolished by a good West Virginia team 48-17. It was at this point that everybody knew Texas Tech was in trouble with a double T.

The Red Raider offense came to play against Oklahoma in game seven, hanging 59 points on a proud Sooner defense, but the Tech defense was once again helpless as OU racked up 66 big ones and left Lubbock with a W. All in all, this was an improvement over the WVU performance, but that was cold comfort.

Then, just when it seemed that the Red Raiders were at the end of their rope, they rebounded with a 27-24 overtime victory at TCU. Twenty-four points?! Where the heck did this defense come from? And better still, why didn’t it manifest itself slightly more frequently?

Tech returned to Lubbock to play a bad Texas Longhorns team, and on the heels of a good win over the Horned Frogs, there was reason to believe the Red Raiders would snuff the Horns. Didn’t happen. The schizophrenic Red Raiders lost by eight to a team that got Charlie Strong fired.

The Red Raiders had taken it on the chin from a weak Texas team in Lubbock. Conventional wisdom said that they were going to get waxed by a very good Oklahoma State team in Stillwater. Instead, the only thing that stood between Tech and the possibility of a big upset was a missed extra point in the waning moments of the game. Go figure.

On the heels of this good performance beating the hapless Cyclones of Iowa State in Ames would certainly be child’s play. Ha! Tech made the anemic and milquetoast nobodies from the permafrost look like the ’85 Bears and lost 66-10. That utter implosion alone would have been enough to get many a coach fired.

But Kingsbury and his band of bipolars would have one last shot at redemption against the talented but catatonic Baylor Bears in Jerryworld. Presumably, a team that gave up 66 to Iowa State would give up 76 to the Lady Bears of Kim Mulkey. But naturally, the Red Raiders played perhaps their best overall game of the season and blasted the goodfelons by 19.

So what does it all mean? 

Clearly, the Red Raiders were thoroughly unpredictable. The coaches had no idea of what their team was going to do on any given Saturday, and nobody else did either. That volatility is symptomatic of something. 

And the bet here is that Texas Tech didn’t have a healthy locker-room. At various times players were dismissed or strung along until the season concluded. Kingsbury repeatedly gave sketchy and evasive answers to seemingly innocuous questions about his team. Something was going on behind closed doors and we’ll probably never know what that something was.

But since we aren’t allowed to know, we are forced to speculate. 

My sense is that the 2016 Red Raiders lacked firm, consistent leadership from Kingsbury and his staff. Perhaps the coaches didn’t shoot straight with players. It is possible that there was fractiousness within the coaching staff itself, with pointed fingers and one coach attempting to undermine another’s authority. And it seems likely that Kingsbury and his staff failed to provide a clear, unified message to the players regarding the reason for losses and what to expect moving ahead. In other words, the entire team was not on the same page.

These sorts of communication breakdowns and failures to engender good trust are more than capable of destabilizing a team’s psyche. This sort of environment, in turn, can produce bizarre and ultimately poor results on the field of play. And if I’m right in my assessment, it will take more than a new offensive coordinator to put things right. Rather, Kingsbury will have to completely overhaul the way he manages the social component of the football program. Easier said than done.    


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