Late last Friday night, after I had finished writing for the day, I called my dad to rehash Texas Tech’s opening game victory in its baseball Super Regional versus Oklahoma State.
My dad, John Conine, played golf at Texas Tech, and I worked in the athletic media relations office all four years of college in Lubbock. We are Red Raiders. My mom, Shana Lowe Conine, too. The Conines and Lowes were regulars at Texas Tech football and basketball games from the 1960s through the 1990s. I never had a choice.
So my dad and I talk after most Texas Tech games and definitely after Red Raider victories. That was going to simply be the case on Friday following Texas Tech’s 8-6 series-opening win over Oklahoma State. And then we got a surprise as I perused Twitter, looking for a baseball highlight.
“Oh my gosh! Tech won the track national championship!” I exclaimed.
For the next few minutes, as I altered my Twitter browsing to find video of Divine Oduduru making really fast guys look slow on his way to 100- and 200-meter dash gold medals, my dad and I marveled at how far Texas Tech has come on the track. He said he remembers years when he was in school in the 1970s that the Red Raiders failed to score a point at the Southwest Conference meet. When I was in Lubbock, just before Red Raiders track coach Wes Kittley took over the program in 2000, Texas Tech was about as likely to open a satellite campus on the moon as win a track national title.
But that’s the kind of year it’s been for the Red Raiders. I mean, the men’s basketball team went to the Final Four and lost the national championship game in overtime. I had friends prematurely text me when they thought Tech had won it all. These things actually happened.
And so Twitter wars have started as certain people try to claim Texas Tech has the best athletic program, for the moment, in the state or the Big 12 or the nation, while other people fire back that such a notion is ridiculous.
For the record, let me state clearly that this column IS NOT an attempt to place Texas Tech’s overall athletic year above anyone else. Nor is it a way of defining the Red Raiders’ success such that they appear to have won some mythical prize for unique accomplishments. I actually pretty much roll my eyes at those things when I see them — from Texas Tech folks or, ahem, other people who might live around these parts — when I encounter them in the Twitterverse. On a related note, the ESPYs are stupid.
Nah, this is more of a “How the heck did that happen?” type of piece. Is there something that’s working in Lubbock these days? Yeah, I think so. A couple of things, actually.
Great leaders make great followers
It starts with the right fits at the heads of the programs. This is where athletic director Kirby Hocutt deserves a ton of credit. It’s almost as if there’s a personality type that is working, and Hocutt has populated the athletic department with them. From this side of a quadruple dip of Big 12 championships (indoor and outdoor track, basketball and baseball), it’s very clear that Kittley, men’s basketball coach Chris Beard and baseball coach Tim Tadlock were built to lead Red Raider teams to the top.
Kittley is a prime example of the right fit for the Red Raiders. A native of the West Texas town of Rule, Kittley was an NAIA All-American at Abilene Christian in the 800 meters. His track mind had even more kick than his legs, as he built his alma mater into a national track and field power as Abilene Christian’s head track coach from 1983-1999. Texas Tech caught on and hired him in 2000, and he’s done the same for the Red Raiders since then. This also makes him one of the few people, I’m pretty sure, to have stopped at more Allsup’s gas stations than me.
Tadlock is the only member of the Red Raiders’ championship trio of head coaches to have attended Texas Tech as a student. He played shortstop for Larry Hays’ Red Raider teams in 1990 and 1991. And Tadlock distributed one of the great lines in the history of Texas Tech University. In response to rumors that the University of Texas was going to come after Texas Tech’s baseball coach when Horns skipper Augie Garrido retired in 2016, Tadlock tweeted “To end all speculation, my family and I are Red Raiders.” If Tadlock has bought a beer in Lubbock since that tweet, then someone dropped the ball.
Relatively speaking, Beard has a checkered past, having graduated from Texas. But he has now spent 14 years in Lubbock, as he was an assistant coach under Bob Knight and Pat Knight from 2001 to 2011 and has been head coach since 2016. Beard has gone out of his way to honor Texas Tech basketball’s past.
He took the lead in scheduling the Red Raiders to play games in the old Lubbock Municipal Coliseum the last two seasons, bringing back former coaches and players for throwback events. He has also reminisced at times about attending Gerald Myers basketball camps in Lubbock in his youth. But, most famously, Beard frequently promotes the greatness that is Whataburger. Given his obvious coaching chops and his love for the most Texan of fast-food burger joints, Beard seems like the guy to break the state’s NCAA men’s basketball championship drought.
Along with being the right fit, the other thing these three Red Raider coaches have in common is their ability to recruit locally, nationally and globally.
Tadlock has had fantastic players from Lubbock on his roster, like current catcher Braxton Fulford from Lubbock Monterey (the same school that produced John Conine) and former infielder Michael Davis from Lubbock High (my mom’s alma mater). But he’s also brought in top-notch talent from across the country, such as current leadoff hitter Gabe Holt, from Bonaire, Ga., and former Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Steven Gingery from Huntington Beach, Calif.
Beard has figuratively laughed in the face of the logic that it’s difficult to recruit to Lubbock. He got Jarrett Culver, from Lubbock Coronado, to stay in town, and he wooed sharp-shooting guard Davide Moretti from Bologna, Italy. Beard’s current incoming recruiting class is ranked No. 16 in the nation according to Rivals.com. You know what one of Beard’s favorite recruiting weekend activities is? Taking hoops prospects to Red Raider baseball games.
All you need to know about Kittley’s vision in recruiting is that his Red Raider NCAA champions include former high jumper Trey Culver from Coronado (Jarrett’s brother), former distance runner Sally Kipyego from Kenya, and current rising star sprinter Oduduru from Nigeria.
That, in short, is the how of why several people in the last few days have commented to me on how great a year Texas Tech has had in athletics. Of course, there’s the underlying skeptical question from them, “Will it continue?” Well, brother, I’m as excited to find out as anyone.