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Kliff Kingsbury works the video controls and provides running commentary to Texas Tech's quarterbacks as, on a screen at the front of the meeting room, Texas A&M rolls to a game-winning touchdown against Ole Miss. Wearing a gray hoodie over a V-neck T-shirt and a pair of selvage jeans with the cuffs rolled just so, Kingsbury looks like the best-dressed QB in the room, or maybe GQ's vision for a chic assistant coach. He is neither. The 33-year-old is the Red Raiders' coach, earning $2.1 million a year and charged with leading his alma mater to its first Big 12 title.
Texas Tech fans have had fun with Kingsbury's molasses-tinged New Braunfels, Texas, accent, his looks and his youth. They even created the Twitter hashtag #OurCoachIsHotterThanYourCoach. ("A liiiiiiittle creepy," Kingsbury says with a laugh.) But since leaving his job as the Texas A&M offensive coordinator in December, the coach who could still pass for an undergrad has been showing off his Ph.D. in the Air Raid offense that Tech will implement this fall. Narrating the video, Kingsbury curses himself for calls he should have made and chides Aggies QB Johnny Manziel—four months removed and 440 miles away—for balls he should have thrown. As he shows the five QBs the 20-yard pass to Ryan Swope that sealed the victory, Kingsbury hits play-rewind-pause-play in rapid succession until all the Red Raiders in the room can identify the signal from the sideline that started the play and recite the blocking scheme, receivers' routes and read progression. Then, as Swope makes the catch, Kingsbury hits pause again and points to a group of white-clad young men celebrating on the sideline. "Look at those guys," Kingsbury says, pointing at Texas A&M's Yell Leaders. "I was surprised, but those guys do work."
The quarterbacks crack up. For those who don't speak College Student, Kingsbury was referring to the all-male cheerleading squad's popularity with the ladies. Kingsbury speaks the language fluently. So does most of his staff, which includes co--offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie, 31, and Eric Morris, 27; Kenny Bell, a 24-year-old accounting grad who oversees the office staff and helps athletic director Kirby Hocutt manage an eight-figure football budget; and Danielle Bartelstein, 28, a former elementary school teacher who directs recruiting.
At some schools the media-guide section on coaches touts the staff's combined experience and has a group photo full of gray hair. Others, like Texas Tech, have embraced youth. In the next few weeks three head coaches and 30 coordinators under 35 will open spring practice. "Football is really becoming a young man's game," says Kingsbury's ex-boss, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. "Particularly college football, because of the energy level it takes to recruit and continue to evolve."
Kingsbury now runs the team he quarterbacked just 11 years ago. P.J. Fleck, who was born 25 days after Ronald Reagan was elected president, has taken over at Western Michigan. Kingsbury's replacement in College Station is Jake Spavital, 27, who has already coached one first-rounder (Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden) and most likely a second (West Virginia's Geno Smith), and will now be in charge of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Meanwhile, at Auburn, Gus Malzahn will entrust much of his offense to 29-year-old coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who first worked with Malzahn as a seventh-grader.
To a young coach taking on bigger responsibilities, youth is seen as an advantage rather than a handicap. "It's like the guy who created Facebook," Kingsbury says. "It doesn't matter how old you are if you're great at your job. College athletics is one of the few places still holding on to [the notion that] you've got to be older, you've got to be wiser. Well, not in business. Not in any other sector."
The young coaches stressed that it isn't the amount of experience but the quality of it that matters. Most have already bounced around frequently and built diverse résumés. "I was never one to say I wanted to arrive there at 55 or 60," Fleck says. A former receiver at Northern Illinois who played two years for the 49ers, he had held five jobs at four stops over six years when Western Michigan called. That had given him time to cross several items off the bucket list he keeps in a binder on his desk: See all the monuments in Washington, D.C. Go to a BCS title game. Coach at a BCS program as an assistant. Be an assistant in the National Football League.
Ultimately Fleck's travels allowed him to cross off the most ambitious item to date: Be the youngest head football coach in Division I-A.
When chasing that last goal, Fleck heeded the advice that former Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak gave him. Novak, who got the NIU job in 1996 at 50, reminded Fleck that no matter how old a head coach is when he's hired, he won't enter knowing exactly how to succeed. "You don't know when you're ready," Fleck says. "You're just ready. And you'll never be ready until you say, 'I'm ready.'"
A key, according to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was hired in 2006 as a 31-year-old, is bringing in trustworthy assistants who can match the coach's energy. Kingsbury has done that. He hired five former Tech players because he wanted coaches who loved Lubbock and could sell it to skeptical recruits. Kingsbury lured Bartelstein away from TCU, in part because the former schoolteacher has a gift for putting recruits' parents at ease. And he hired Bell to manage the staff thanks to a deep trust forged during long hours at Houston, where Bell was an unpaid volunteer and Kingsbury was a lowly offensive quality control assistant.