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Kliff Kingsbury on Gregg Popovich & The System

Coach Kingsbury shares his thoughts on Gregg Popovich, Bill Belichick, the "family approach" to coaching and not ceding all credit to the system.

It's the men behind the system that creates real success
It's the men behind the system that creates real success

Kliff Kingsbury is in a hurry.

After all it was just six years ago that he was hired by Kevin Sumlin and the University of Houston as an offensive quality control assistant. Having spent a few years picking the brain of Bill Belichick in New England, he moved to Houston to test the coaching waters in the college game. The new job meant Kingsbury would get to spend time learning from Sumlin and Dana Holgerson, so the fact that he was pulling down a hefty $20,000 annual salary was merely icing on the cake.

That first quality control job in Houston was short lived as Kingsbury began his rapid ascent through the coaching ranks.

Few have experienced a career trajectory as steep as Kingsbury's, who is still the 2nd youngest head coach in Division I college football. But based on his demeanor and approach, one gets the sense that he's far from finished.

Fast forward to today. Coach Kingsbury is entering his second season as head coach at his alma mater, Texas Tech University. That $20,000 salary now has several more zeros behind it and the excitement in Lubbock is building by the day. The team finished on a high note by surgically dismantling the heavily favored Arizona State Sun Devils in the Holiday Bowl, and Coach Kingsbury has his hand picked quarterback, Davis Webb, poised and ready to turn heads next fall.

The Red Raiders just finished spring ball and have the makings of an incredibly strong recruiting class in 2015.

But this is playoff time for the San Antonio Spurs, so Kingsbury and I had more pressing matters to discuss.


The evolution of a system

Having grown up just north of San Antonio in New Braunfels, Kingsbury is a lifelong Spurs fan. And while he said he hasn't met Coach Popovich yet, he recently told Tim Griffin of the SAEN that he views Popovich as a coaching role model. I asked him about the myth of running a "system" which implies that you simply plug new players in and the autopilot function takes over, success guaranteed. This idea ignores the fact that the Spurs won their first championships with a smothering defense and grind it out, some say boring, style of play. And while defense will always be a priority for Popovich, the Spurs of today kill you with three pointers and precision passing. Their brand of basketball in 2014 is, gasp, exciting. Steve Kerr spoke to the system's evolution in a fantastic article by Ken Berger at

"In the early years, Pop was much more of a dump-it-inside-to-Duncan-and-David-Robinson kind of coach. Very vanilla," Kerr said. "Surround the big guys with 3-point shooters and rely on defense. You have to note that Pop has evolved a lot as a coach during his time, and the beauty of it is that he's had Duncan pretty much the whole time. And of course, Duncan has been so open to change; as Pop has changed, Duncan has changed right along with him."

The same thing happens on the football field. Adjust your system to your personnel, or perish.

"That's exactly right," Kingsbury said. "One of the biggest things I've learned from some of my mentors is how to adapt to your personnel.  If you look at our offenses at U of H, A&M, and now here, you'll see three distinctly different ways that we were able to move the ball and score points.  It is about players not plays, and you have to tailor your offense to play to their unique strengths."


Work 'em to death and then love 'em to death

A successful system at times also needs a softer edge. Excellence and enjoyment aren't mutually exclusive concepts. The Spurs like to win games and then go frogging. Kingsbury likes to win games and then win dance-offs in the bull ring.

Again, Berger explained Popovich's "family" approach.

Whether you're a 25-year-old kid from Australia, a 28-year-old journeyman from Italy or a 25-year-old rookie from Argentina (as Ginobili was in 2002), Popovich has a way of making you feel like you belong. He has a gift for personally connecting with his players in a way that somehow softens his constant harping on fundamentals, decision-making, footwork and ball movement.

"Players are human beings and they need to be aware that people care about them," Popovich said. "When somebody believes they're cared for, they're going to give more."

And Coach Kingsbury explained how his style is a reflection of Popovich's philosophy.

"Our players know that as a program we are all about giving maximum effort every time we step into our building.  We talk about controlling the things we can control which are attitude and effort. We want our players to enjoy the process of becoming the best team we can be so we do try to provide a fun atmosphere for them to work, but at the same time they know that there is a line we don't cross."


But don't confuse our kindness for weakness

"There is a line we don't cross."

I've written about it before, but Coach Popovich famously cut Stephen Jackson prior to the start of the playoffs last year because his complaints about lack of playing time (and refusal to accept his role behind Manu Ginobili and Danny Green) were proving toxic. It has to be an awkward situation considering Popovich and Jackson are neighbors.

And Kingsbury has taken some fire for the number of quarterbacks that have left his program (five in four months if you're counting at home). But coaching isn't a popularity contest and not everyone is going to see the field, or log 25 minutes a game. It's a cruel reality and some would argue that it's not fair, but it's the nature of the game. Just ask Pop's neighbor.

It's critical to find the proper balance between what's business and what's personal. Popovich is a master at the task while Kingsbury is still learning, but he'll find it. There's nothing in his past to indicate that he won't.

Perhaps Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal summed up the harsh reality best.

Of course, none of the questions about how Kingsbury handles quarterbacks would have been raised, had Mayfield and Brewer not lobbed grenades with their departures, Mayfield citing a communication gap with the coach.

Something about that didn't add up. Mayfield went to quarterback meetings every day of the season, right? He's sitting in the same meeting room with the quarterbacks coach - Kliff Kingsbury.

If something bugged Baker, did it occur to him to speak up, ask for a minute when we're done here, get some clarity?

In any event, some Tech fans blame Kingsbury for losing the two, the grounds being that he should have taken whatever measures necessary to keep them happy - and around. Well, ya know what? This ain't Pee-Wee League. You don't let everybody lick the ice cream cone, just to keep them smiling.


On preparation and the obligatory Popovich & Belichick comparison

Having studied both men, and the fact that Kingsbury has a personal relationship with Bill Belichick, I asked him if he sees similarities between the two. "They both definitely have the same way of dealing with the media," he said. "The one thing about Coach Belichick that always amazed me was the level of thoroughness in his teams' preparation.  There was no stone unturned ever, and by Sunday, you had already seen any possible scenario that could come up 3 or 4 times during the week."

So there you have it. It's simple really: Understand that your players comprise the system and not vice versa. Treat your players like men and ask them to give you their all, while they see you are giving everything you have back to them. And thoroughly prepare, leaving no situation unaddressed and no stone unturned. Seems easy enough. It's worked for Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick through the years and is beginning to manifest itself in Lubbock under Kliff Kingsbury.


Kliff Kingsbury is in a hurry

Kingsbury seems to move faster than the rest of us. He's at the office by 4am and binge watches Breaking Bad late at night to unwind. Like Popovich and Belichick, he employs an economical use of the English language and his movement through a room seems effortless. Why spend 10 minutes pontificating when you can make your point in two? Kingsbury has adopted that style in press conferences because like Pop and Bill, he usually has somewhere else he'd rather be.

My interactions with him have been no different. He's friendly, but there is a definite sense of business and seriousness in the air. He answers even the lightest of questions with a matter of factness that's palpable. It's refreshing really. No fluff, no small talk, just business. I imagine reporters from Esquire and GQ that have interviewed him would agree with my observation. He's more about action than words, and he's perpetually on the move.

So before he was off to tackle the next task in his day I asked him to confirm for the world that he could beat Pop in a dance-off.

"I wouldn't go that far. I bet he can break it down," he said. "Hopefully after the Spurs win it all this year, he'll show us some moves."

Again, no fluff, no small talk, just business. He answered a question about Popovich dancing while celebrating another championship with the same certitude he'd have if I asked him to confirm that the sky was blue.

His words and delivery are in stark contrast to the image to the right of him having fun with his players as spring practice concluded, but that's what will make him successful. And if you think about it, in a way that approach mirrors the philosophy of a three time NBA Coach of the Year that he considers a role model.

But I'd still pay damn good money to see Pop dance like that.

(via Fox Sports).