Texas Tech, Clemson, and the Difference a Decade Makes

It has been 10 years to the day that Texas Tech fired Mike Leach, the winningest coach in program history. Personally, I think the matter has been litigated and re-litigated over and over, and I have no interest in arguing here whether he should have been fired or not.

While Leach’s tenure did not come with any major bowl wins or a conference title, he did leave as the winningest coach in school history. The decade from 2000-2009, coinciding precisely with Leach as the head coach, was the winningest decade in program history.

Reflecting on the current decade compared to the last one brought an interesting thought to mind. The current kings of college football, the Clemson Tigers, were in a similar position (arguably even worse off) compared to Texas Tech when the previous decade ended.

During the first 10 years of this century, Texas Tech went 85-43 with six bowl victories. In terms of perception, Tech had planted itself firmly in the second tier of the conference behind the perennial blue bloods with its consistent success on the field.

Meanwhile, Clemson went 79-47 from 2000-2009 with four bowl victories. The Tigers didn’t win more than nine games during this span. Clemson had a national championship under its belt from 1981, which precipitated an ensuing decade of great results on the field. But by the 21st century, they were in the second tier of the ACC behind Florida State and Miami, who had both been competing for and winning national championships in the 2000s.

Following the 2002 season, Texas Tech pounded Clemson in the Tangerine Bowl.

Both programs made a coaching change in 2009 – Leach fired following the regular season at Texas Tech, and Dabo Swinney completed his first full year at the helm for Clemson.

That’s about where any reasonable comparison of the two programs can end.

Since Texas Tech’s coaching change, the Red Raiders have amassed a total record of 60-65, spanning three different coaches. They haven’t had a winning season in conference play all decade. 2010-2019 was the worst decade for Texas Tech football since the program’s inception by just about any measure.

Since Clemson’s coaching change, Dabo and the Tigers are 126-27, pending the result of the national championship game against LSU. Clemson has won six ACC titles after not winning one since 1991 (for what it’s worth, Texas Tech’s last conference championship was a shared title of the Southwest Conference in 1994). They’ve reached the College Football Playoff five times, tied for the most of any team, and have compiled a 6-2 record while there, the best record of any team within the CFP. To top it all off, they are on the verge of their third national championship in four years.

Don’t get me wrong; the last thing I mean to imply is that if Mike Leach hadn’t been fired, Texas Tech would somehow be in a similar position to Clemson today. I don’t believe that to be true.

Clemson did something extremely rare. In a sport with solidified blue bloods spanning decades, some of which haven’t really done much to maintain blue blood status in a generation (Michigan, Tennessee, Nebraska…), the Tigers broke through. College football is not a sport that gives rise to a new kid on the block very often, but Clemson did it. Even more impressive, they did it during Saban’s prime at Alabama and Urban Meyer’s prime at Ohio State. It’s not as if there was some vacuum, some void waiting to be filled by the Tigers.

When I started watching football as a kid, Texas Tech and Clemson were roughly equal. Clemson was historically better, but in the decade I was taking in football Texas Tech was winning more games and beat Clemson head-to-head. In the decade since, Clemson went from the second tier of the ACC to the pinnacle of the sport. Meanwhile, my alma mater went from the second tier of the Big 12 to the cellar.

Some may take this as a message of despair or what could have been. It would be nearly impossible for Texas Tech to permanently supplant Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 the way Clemson has with Florida State and Miami (who, to be fair, fell back a ways on their own from the 2000s) in the ACC.

I’ve always been an optimistic guy, and I see a path forward for Texas Tech. The past two decades have been the worst kind of momentum swing for a fan base; the best decade of football in school history to the worst, all amidst a controversial firing, the hiring of a despised replacement in Tommy Tuberville, and the unfortunate lack of success of native son Kliff Kingsbury.

Just like the last two decades, we have a new coach to lead us into the next decade. It would be borderline miraculous for Matt Wells to accomplish next decade what Dabo Swinney has accomplished this decade, and I don’t expect that to be the case. But I do think the right head coach can put Texas Tech back in the tier of always being bowl eligible even in rebuilding years, while winning 10 games and competing for a conference title once every five or six years when the deck is shuffled just right.

Texas Tech has never played in or won a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl game. They could achieve that by finishing in the top two or  three in the conference. A victory in such a game would be a signature moment for the program. Since the Big 12’s inception in 1996, Texas Tech has never won its division or played for a Big 12 title, another achievement that doesn’t require perennial blue blood status.

There are attainable goals that would put the program in new territory this coming decade. Before we can consider winning 9 or 10 games in a season once again, the Red Raiders need to consistently win 6 or 7 and start beating the Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma States of the world more consistently. Again, I don’t know if or when or how quickly that will happen. Regardless, I am ready to turn the page and excited for what the next chapter may hold. Here’s to the next decade of Red Raider football…


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