It’s now been five seasons.
The Texas Tech fan base is still not together. The scar remains despite the Red Raiders having their knife wound stitched up in December 2013.
Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt has done a tremendous job with what he’s had to work with the moment he stepped into office. Since taking over for the retired Gerald Myers in 2011, the baseball team has made its first ever College World Series appearance, the soccer team has done nothing but improve upon the year before and the volleyball team has scored a winning season after over a decade of despair. In addition, Candi Whitaker is on the brink of taking the Lady Raider basketball program back to the postseason and Tubby Smith has made tremendous strides with the men’s basketball team after tumultuous tenures of Pat Knight and Billy Gillispie.
But … the school is located in West Texas. Anyone who has seen the movie Friday Night Lights knows about football in West Texas. It’s life. The entire town of Lubbock basically shuts down when the Red Raiders take the gridiron.
Kliff Kingsbury was the tool Hocutt used to sew up a deep knife wound left by Chancellor Kent Hance. The knife was current Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville. During Tuberville’s introductory press conference he promised the Red Raider faithful “championships” and took a swipe at the previous head coach for consistently winning just eight or nine games.
Since the beginning of the Tuberville era, Texas Tech still has yet to post a winning record in conference play. Overall, the Red Raiders have posted two losing seasons in the past five years. Much of this could be attributed to the fact Tech has changed defensive coordinators every season since Tuberville’s introductory press conference.
But, the fan base is still not completely over Dec. 30, 2009, the darkest day in the program’s history: the firing of Mike Leach.
On Dec. 31, 2009, Mike Leach was due an $800,000 bonus for remaining the head coach at Texas Tech. Leach had just led Tech to an 8-4 record. The season prior, Tech tied Texas and Oklahoma at the top of the Big 12 South Division and helped the Red Raiders gain a ranking as high as No. 2. Tech had knocked off the No.1 team in the nation for the first time ever. Despite being competitive with lackluster recruiting classes in arguably the toughest division in college football at the time, Hance told Leach he needed to take a pay cut. Leach looked at other jobs. He interviewed with Hocutt at Miami (FL) and flew up to Washington. Tech eventually agreed to re-negotiate Leach’s contract for higher pay in late January 2009.
After the 2009 regular season, a controversy featuring receiver Adam James and concussion protocol came up. It was Hance’s golden opportunity to get back at Leach for winning contract negotiations. Hance, a former politician who switched from the Democrat party to the Republican party in the 80s and served as a lobbyist shortly after, convinced then-athletic director Gerald Myers to sign the pink slip and hand it to Mike Leach for insubordination.
It was obvious Hance wanted a more clean-cut image to be the face of Tech football. Tommy Tuberville demanded his players wear suits and act as a more proper gentleman in the public eye. Leach did not care about public image. His focus was academics and football. One of his players, Ed Britton, was forced to bring a desk to football practice after falling behind in classes. Leach, who had a master’s degree and a law degree, helped Tech football achieve the highest graduation rating in the Big 12 Conference. Not once did Tech have a losing season under Leach. The only time the Red Raiders featured a losing conference record came during his first season. Tech finished in the Top 25 five of Leach’s final six seasons.
After Leach was fired, protests broke out in San Antonio at Tech football bowl rallies. Fans wore “Fire Myers” pins on their shirts to the 2010 Alamo Bowl (game played on Jan. 2). One graduate even sent his diploma back to the Texas Tech Alumni Association. Perhaps some of the flame would have died had defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill been hired. McNeill, known as a players’ coach, was not offered the job after an interview. He is now the head coach of East Carolina and has led the Pirates to four bowl games in five seasons.
The fan base was divided. Some fans took the side of Hance and seemingly became happy Tech would no longer be associated with the sword-swinging, mad scientist that is Mike Leach. The other half called for Hance’s resignation. Eventually, Hance would retire from the Chancellor position in December 2013.
Under Tuberville, Tech posted its first losing season in over 20 years. Leach’s best group of players, whom many were dismissed by the new staff for “violation of team rules”, could only muster up a TicketCity Bowl appearance as the eighth placed team in the Big 12 Conference after the 2010 season. The 2010 team featured nine returning offensive starters and six on defense. Tuberville never defeated Texas nor Texas A&M, Tech’s two main rivals.
After falling to Baylor in comeback fashion in 2012, capping off a third consecutive November with a losing record, fans were calling for Tuberville’s firing. It never came. Sonny Dykes, a former Tech baseball player and son of legendary Tech coach Spike Dykes, accepted the head coaching position at Cal on Dec. 5, 2012. Tuberville bolted to non-AQ school Cincinnati three days later. Tech was not proactive and lost out on Dykes, a coach many fans wanted to see hired in place of Tuberville. That left the next option: Kliff Kingsbury.
Tech fans adore Kingsbury. He played quarterback under both Spike Dykes and Mike Leach. Kingsbury broke many passing records, featured a 2-1 record against Texas A&M as a starter, and received a post-graduate scholarship for his academic achievements. After Sonny went to Cal, Kingsbury was the perfect hire. The wound of a divided fan base had been stitched up. After Hocutt posted a vine on Twitter saying “Red Raider Nation, I’m excited to introduce to you our new head football coach,” prior to the camera swaying to a Kliff Kingsbury holding his guns up and saying “Wreck ‘em”, fans stormed to Memorial Circle on campus and celebrated with an impromptu rally.
After an 8-0 start with a top-10 ranking in 2013, Tech dwindled yet again in November. The next season Tech barely amassed four wins, just scraping past UTEP and FCS foe Central Arkansas.
The fan base now speculates whether Kingsbury was ready for the job or not. He had no previous head coaching experience. His hire was based mainly off the coaches his name had been associated with and the fact he graduated from Tech. Hocutt has hired three Tech graduates as head coaches, all of whom are still with their teams.
With Leach as head coach, Jones AT&T Stadium was similar to walking on Davy Jones’ pirate ship. As a visitor, it was filled with darkness and a rowdy fanbase which could make some NFL stadiums seem tame. Since the days of Leach, even under Kingsbury, Jones AT&T Stadium has been mild. Even the sellout crowds of an expanded stadium have not mustered the same atmosphere which intimidated visiting opponents. Under Leach, Tech was 53-11 at Jones AT&T Stadium. Since the pirate’s firing, Tech has amassed a 16-14 record in Lubbock. Three of those wins have come against FCS squads. Some of the other victories have come against Houston, Nevada, Texas State and SMU.
Sure, the wound has been stitched up. But, the only way to make it completely go away is for Kliff Kingsbury to lead Tech to a Big 12 Championship. It is what Leach never accomplished. It is the only cure. Until then, the ghost of Mike Leach still haunts Jones AT&T Stadium.
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