LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Texas Tech offensive coordinator Zach Kittley remembers everything about telling his dad his future was going to be in football.
Wes Kittley was fine with it, even though his life’s work was track and he coached the first NCAA team championship in men’s athletics with the Red Raiders.
Dad is thrilled now because he shares a lunch room in the athletic complex with his youngest son and gets to check out football practice whenever he wants.
“It’s just a dream come true for me and his mother, and his brothers,” Wes Kittley said. “Zach is beloved in this town. We kind of say this in the Kittley family, ‘We’ll die for you if we know you’re for us.’”
There has been a Kittley coaching at Texas Tech since 1999, when 8-year-old Zach was watching Kliff Kingsbury play quarterback for the Red Raiders.
When Kingsbury was hired as coach a decade ago, the younger Kittley remembers where he was when he heard the news — and what that Texas Tech student told his dad, sitting next to him in a restaurant.
“I told him, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to go work for this guy and learn from this guy,’” said Zach Kittley, who was helping his dad with the track program at the time. “He said, ‘This is your deal and you’ve got to go approach it and attack it.’”
Wes Kittley gave his son the phone number of Texas Tech assistant Sonny Cumbie, another former Red Raiders QB. But that’s it. Dad wasn’t going to call in any favors for his son.
Before long, Zach Kittley was the graduate assistant whose only job was helping Kingsbury. Dad says his son was getting to the office before Kingsbury, a noted early riser who was usually there by 5:30 a.m.
“And they noticed that,” Wes Kittley said. “And Kingsbury just said, ‘Wes, this kid, I got to have him for myself.’ I knew he’d learn a lot, but I didn’t realize he’d learn a lot so quickly.”
Zach Kittley had a full-time offer in an off-the-field role with the Red Raiders when his allotted time as a graduate assistant expired. Instead, he went to lower-division Houston Baptist to call plays.
The highlight there was a 35-33 loss to his alma mater in Lubbock with the Huskies as huge underdogs, when Bailey Zappe threw for a school-record 567 yards with four touchdowns.
“Part of taking that job to me was, ‘Hey, let’s go call plays at 26 and make a lot of mistakes while I’m really young,’” Zach Kittley said. “I’m still not sure what it is now, but there’s not a lot of Division I offensive coordinators at 26 years old.”
The chance to return to his alma mater came at 30, after three years at Houston Baptist and one at Western Kentucky. Cumbie had agreed to be McGuire’s first offensive coordinator, but then took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech.
McGuire’s next move was obvious, considering he had been suggesting to Zach Kittley for a year that he might want to hire him if he became a head coach. Then there was the introductory news conference.
“I didn’t really have a relationship with Joey,” Wes Kittley said. “I never did until the press conference and then I just went up to him, never met him, I said, ‘Hi, I’m coach Kittley.’ He said, ‘Your son’s a rock star.’”
The legend will grow with a few more Saturdays like this past one, when McGuire had enough faith in Kittley’s offense to go for it on fourth down eight times, converting six in a 37-34 overtime victory over rival Texas.
“Where I fell in love with him, we’ve been talking a lot over the last couple years, but in the interview, he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to find our best 11 players, I’m going to get them on the field, and we’re going to score a lot of points,’” McGuire said.
Zach Kittley said Kingsbury is the first Texas Tech player he remembers watching after his dad was hired to coach track. He wanted to work for him because Kingsbury had just been at Texas A&M with 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
It didn’t take Kingsbury long to start pairing his Texas Tech quarterbacks with the younger Kittley.
“He’s the first one I ever really let just take over the quarterback room,” said Kingsbury, the Arizona Cardinals coach who was hired by the NFL club not long after getting fired at Texas Tech in 2018. “He was like 22 or 23, and we had Patrick Mahomes and all these guys, but he was that good at his job.”
Leaving Lubbock was never easy for Zach Kittley. He was miserable trying to start a college basketball career at Abilene Christian, where his dad ran track and coached for 15 years. That didn’t last long.
“You’d think I sent him to New York City,” said Wes Kittley, who led the Texas Tech men to the 2019 NCAA track title. “He just wanted to get back to Lubbock.”
When he took the Houston Baptist job, Zach Kittley said he was choking back tears as he left his office for the last time.
He was at his parents’ house when McGuire called to offer Zach Kittley the job that brought him back home. Soon after, Zach Kittley took a Sharpie to a Texas Tech football helmet for his 63-year-old dad, who has a picture of it on his phone.
“What a blessing to be able to work together again,” the son wrote. “Let’s make lots of memories.”
On game days in Lubbock, some of those memories come from the track coach’s office in the southwest corner of Jones Stadium. Maybe it should be called the Kittley family suite, since his mom, Linda, is there.
“Just being able to see him more and my mom more … is very special,” Zach Kittley said. “And just being able to say that there’s two coach Kittleys here at Texas Tech is a really cool deal.”
Doesn’t even have to be all track.
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed.
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