TUCSON — Before Kliff Kingsbury made the move from Lubbock, Texas, to Arizona in 2019, Whitney Norman did the exact same in 2013, sparked by a high school visit to see a childhood friend in Chandler.
“I was like, ‘Chandler? What’s that? I’m from Texas, what is Chandler, Arizona?’” Norman said. “I come out to visit her when I was 16. It’s December and it’s 80 degrees and there’s palm trees and lemon trees in her backyard. I’m like, ‘What is this place? This is awesome.’”
Norman graduated from Texas Tech University in 2002, lining her up directly with Kingsbury’s seasons as a Red Raiders quarterback. She had been a lifelong Lubbock resident until moving to Scottsdale, but she knew she had to find the piece of the only home she’d ever known and reached out to the Texas Tech Alumni Association’s Phoenix chapter, ready to get involved.
Norman was one of hundreds of Texas Tech University alums who traveled to Tucson on Saturday for the Red Raiders’ road game at the University of Arizona, which Texas Tech lost 28-14. While some flew in from Texas for the game, Norman and Victoria Canada were part of the large contingent that made the two-hour drive down from the Phoenix area.
Canada normally works on weekends as a wedding and event planner, requiring her to record the games and demand that her friends go radio-silent about the game until after she watches. But she was never going to book an event for this particular Saturday.
“It’s been on my calendar for, like, ever,” Canada said.
A 1997 graduate of Tech, Canada helped with organizing the pregame social event for Red Raider fans, coordinating with Alumni Association president and CEO Curt Langford and Texas Tech alum Adam Latham, who moved to Tucson recently for work after falling in love with the state.
“I really like Arizona, as a whole. To me, it’s an extension of the culture and values and environment of Texas, but with that New Mexico flair,” said Latham, a 2006 graduate of Texas Tech.
It was expected to be the second game Kliff Kingsbury coached for the Red Raiders in the state of Arizona, after 2016’s wild 68-55 loss to Arizona State in Tempe. But after six years as the beloved head coach of his alma mater, Kingsbury was fired by Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt on Nov. 25, 2018. And while Tech needed four days to hire Matt Wells from Utah State as their new head coach, Kingsbury was only without a job for 10 days before being hired by USC to become its offensive coordinator.
But for all of December while he was at USC, there were constant rumors that NFL teams were interested in Kingsbury – as a head coach. Once the calendar flipped to 2019, Kingsbury was interviewed by the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals, with the Cardinals officially hiring him on Jan. 8.
In a span of 44 days, Arizona-based Texas Tech fans had gone from having Kingsbury fired from as the head coach of their college’s football team to being hired as the head coach of the local professional team.
“I didn’t really believe it was happening, truly,” Canada said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way. He’s at USC.’ When we heard, of course, we were super excited and I had about 20 people texting me. There was a lot of buzz.”
Norman relates the situation in her mind to an amicable break-up, saying, “It’s like a relationship where both people know it’s not meant to be. In your younger years, especially, you just both go about your ways. This wasn’t meant to be, but other things were meant to be, and because of Texas Tech, he is where he is.”
That sentiment is felt back in Lubbock, too, where Langford admitted there was disappointment that the Kingsbury era in Lubbock didn’t work out, but the love for him as an alum of the school has never wavered.
“Kliff is part of the family. We love Kliff and everybody wanted that to be successful,” Langford said. “We were incredibly excited when he came home to be coach. He’s a favorite son and has an exciting brand of football. I’m not a coach and I don’t know the X’s and O’s, and for whatever reason, it didn’t work out.”
But with the benefit of hindsight, that may not be a bad thing, and Langford pointed out that an old Texas Tech slogan – “From here, it’s possible” — fits aptly with Kingsbury’s two-month turnaround.
“Even though he was let go at Tech, from here, it’s possible that he’s let go at Tech and becomes an NFL head coach. Are you kidding me? It’s fun,” Langford said. “Before, I had no desire or interest in watching Arizona [Cardinals] football. Now, I’m kind of curious, and I’m watching. We want him to succeed.”
That climb fits in to what could easily be seen as a banner year for Texas Tech across the board. Former Red Raider quarterback Patrick Mahomes was the NFL’s MVP. The men’s track and field team won the national championship in June. The men’s basketball team reached the national championship game, losing to Virginia in overtime. The baseball team made the College World Series for the fourth time in the last six years. And Canada made sure to point out the school’s renowned meat judging team, which was featured by Sports Illustrated in May.
Those accomplishments are highlighting what Canada lovingly calls “an out-of-the-way school in the middle-of-nowhere,” which helps build up a unique sense of pride that Langford sees from alumni of Texas Tech all across the country.
“We serve a vast region of the state, from Amarillo down to Midland/Odessa and Abilene and all the way out to El Paso,” said Langford, himself a two-time graduate of Texas Tech and a part of the second of a three-generation Red Raider family. “We’ve really planted our flag very firmly, representing what we call, ‘the giant side of Texas.’ We have achieved so much more with less.”
Latham agreed and added, “We’re a very unique group out there in Texas. We’re diehards. We travel well together. We’re out there on an island in West Texas, out in the middle-of-nowhere, and that builds really strong bonds and unique experiences.”
Latham’s already planned a trip or two up to Glendale for a Cardinals game this season, and was impressed by how Kingsbury and rookie quarterback and top overall pick Kyler Murray came back against the Detroit Lions in Week 1.
“That game there was so exciting with the Cardinals. It was like, ‘Okay, y’all made a horrible mistake,’ and then he started making the calls,” Latham said. “He’s never coached in the NFL. In his first game, to bring it to a tie with a rookie quarterback is saying something. I think he’s going to do fairly well with the Cardinals.”
That’d be great for Norman, who runs a travel agency company that still keeps an office in Lubbock. She said she and her husband, Randy, have been fans of the Cardinals since her friend was a cheerleader for Arizona, but the new connection to their college and hometown has solidified that fandom.
“It’s all come to fruition for us,” Norman said. “Moving to Arizona, becoming a Cardinals fan before that, and now Kliff being here.”
And even while he is no longer the head coach for the Red Raiders, Langford sees what Kingsbury is doing now as him continuing to be a star representative of his alma mater.
“If he’s making a bigger impact there, that’s bearing our banners far and wide for Texas Tech in a whole new way,” Langford said.