When Lane Kiffin was fired as USC's head coach last month, I was asked to write a column naming five potential replacements. One of the guys I named was Kliff Kingsbury, the first-year head coach who has led Texas Tech to a 7-0 record and a No. 10 ranking in the first BCS standings.
I wrote of Kingsbury then: "If USC would interview him, he would force them to offer him the job." He's that impressive and one of the best young coaches we've seen in a long time in college football.
Everyone who has been in football is good at the X's and O's, but I have come to learn that to be a successful coach -- to be successful anywhere -- you need more than knowledge. You need good people skills and good organizational skills. You need to be the type of leader who'll be recognized and endorsed by your peers. You can be good at your job, but if you're not good with people, you're not going to succeed.
Sometimes guys who are as accomplished as Kingsbury was as a player have the attitude that it's not necessary to have good relations with people outside of their immediate circle. Kingsbury is not one of those people. He is very worldly for someone who is just 34 years old and is terrific with people. He fostered strong relationships with high school coaches in Texas, which helped him greatly once he became a head coach in college.
Of course, Kingsbury also has a great football mind. He was a quarterback at Texas Tech, and that has helped him guide several thriving passing offenses as a quarterbacks coach, with Case Keenum at Houston and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. The game plan he helped put together for the Aggies in last year's Cotton Bowl was a thing of beauty, something Sooners head coach Bob Stoops acknowledged after the game, when he said he was outcoached.
But I have no question Kingsbury is the type of coach who could succeed anywhere. If he were asked to become a defensive coordinator, he could coach defense, too. If he were asked to coach punters, he could coach the punters. His knowledge of football is outstanding, and I think so highly of him as a leader that I think he could take over any company and probably run it successfully.
What Kingsbury has done this year at Texas Tech is remarkable, especially given the injuries the team has endured at quarterback. When a coach can go through three changes at a major position and still succeed, that tells you he can be flexible and is excellent at making adjustments, a critical factor in a coach's success. I was at Kingsbury's first game as coach, against SMU, and was amazed at how well he made adjustments with a freshman walk-on QB.
This is a well-rounded, skilled young man, and an exceptional coach.
Here are three other good young coaches that stand out to me today as potential rising stars in college football, including one who is currently in the pros.
Matt Wells, head coach, Utah State: It's not easy to be consistently successful at a school like Utah State, which is considered the third school in the state behind BYU and Utah and has to go on the road every year to play against bigger schools. The 40-year-old Wells helped lead the Aggies to 11 wins as an offensive coordinator last year. This year, with Wells as head coach, Utah State has struggled at 4-4, but he has had his team very well prepared every week after it lost star quarterback Chuckie Keaton to a season-ending knee injury.
I was especially impressed by the job he did earlier this season against Air Force. Wells made several good halftime adjustments to enable the Aggies to rally in the second half.
He is a very smart head coach with a great family, and is someone who will never embarrass the institution as a coach.
Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator, East Carolina: In 2009, at age 26, Riley was called upon to call plays for Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl against a very good Michigan State defense. He inherited the responsibility because head coach Mike Leach had been fired, and Riley was elevated to become the play caller. Riley responded with a game plan that helped the Red Raiders score 41 points with 579 yards of total offense.
There is no question in my mind that Riley has all the characteristics to be a success as a head coach. He has the ability to see the whole picture and assess situations quickly while the game is going on. At 30, he is wise beyond his years with his understanding of offense, defense and special teams. Riley is an outstanding teacher and has a very good knack for recruiting players thta fit his system. Shane Carden, East Carolina's junior QB, has developed into a good up-and-coming player under Riley's tutelage.
Adam Gase, offensive coordinator, Denver Broncos: Watch the Denver Broncos' offense, and you'll notice that it'll have the next play called in to QB Peyton Manning just as soon as the pile is undone. Some guys don't have the ability to react this quickly, but Gase does. He has amazing mental quickness and is a big reason why the Broncos' offense is able to move with such great rhythm.
You don't often see an NFL coach make the transition to college -- usually, it's the other way around -- but I think Gase has the traits needed to make the change. He has a great ability to relate to young players, and he can make an impact on recruiting and teaching 18-year-old players.
If I were in the market as a college athletic director, I would love for Gase to run my program. The bottom line is that he will be a good head coach at any level.
Three Week 9 games that interest me
South Carolina at Missouri: Missouri may be the most impressive college team this year that no one expected to do well. The Tigers have seven wins, two more than they had last season. Last year's game against South Carolina was Missouri's first SEC road game, and they had just two drives of more than six plays in a 31-10 loss. Both teams will rely on backup QBs. Missouri redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, who was highly sought after coming out of high school in Ohio, won his first start last week against Florida. This will be the fourth meeting between the teams, with Missouri holding a 2-1 lead. Be sure to watch South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney. Missouri 35, South Carolina 31.
UCLA at Oregon: Oregon has won four straight against UCLA by a total of 164 points, or 41 points per game. Both teams have outstanding QBs -- Marcus Mariota for Oregon and Brett Hundley for UCLA. The Bruins lost for the first time last week, and in their last two games they have run for just 152 yards. If they're going to have a chance against Oregon they have to run the ball and control the clock. Oregon's offense averages 52 points per game, and I see the Ducks winning this one, 52-28.
Penn State at Ohio State: The higher-ranked team has won 20 of the last 22 games in this series, but Penn State has won two of its last three games at Columbus; home teams have won only one of the last six. Both teams have very good quarterbacks -- Penn State is led by Christian Hackenberg, and Braxton Miller leads Ohio State. I have the Buckeyes winning, 31-24.
Texas over TCU: TCU QB Casey pachall returns after missing five games, which should help TCU. The Horned Frogs are just 21-61 vs. Texas, but the Longhorns are still mad after a home loss last year on Thanksgiving. TCU has one of the great stadiums for college football in this country. Texas 21, TCU 17.