LUBBOCK, Texas – Tommy Tuberville arrived at Texas Tech feeling certain he could take the Red Raiders to college football's elite.
He'd done it at Auburn, including an undefeated season in 2004, and said a Big 12 title would be a good first step in taking the Red Raiders to new heights.
Three years later, Tuberville's team is close to pulling it off. A win Saturday at No. 4 Kansas State would put the No. 15 Red Raiders into a tie for the conference title with four winnable games to close the season.
That's a considerable turnaround from last year, when the Red Raiders had their first losing season since 1992 and didn't go to a bowl. The offense held its own but the Red Raiders defense couldn't stop anyone. After downing then-No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman, Texas Tech lost its final five games.
Fans grumbled at the calamitous finish, but now they're delighting in the team's success and that's slowly erasing the memory of former coach Mike Leach — a guy who drew attention to Lubbock and won five bowl games with the Red Raiders.
This season, following back-to back top 25 recruiting classes, Tuberville has a team he likes. That includes a defense that's making news as much as the offense and is ranked seventh nationally after finishing near the bottom last season.
"I think that this is more the team that we want in terms of being a team that we can play on both sides," Tuberville said. "I don't care whether we're a team that just plays over our head on either side of the ball. We've just got to play consistent."
He highlighted inconsistency on offense and defense last week when the Red Raiders beat TCU 56-53 in triple-overtime, saying the Red Raiders must "play much better" this weekend. Tuberville is 6-5 overall and 2-2 at Tech against top five teams.
One coach who knows Tuberville well — Texas A&M-Commerce coach Guy Morriss — isn't surprised at the team's success this season.
Tuberville, 58 and in his 17th season as a head coach, is a good judge of talent and surrounds himself with good people, said Morriss, who faced Tuberville's Auburn teams during his two years at Kentucky.
At Auburn, Tuberville had eight consecutive winning seasons (2000 through 2007). The Tigers won a Southeastern Conference championship and five SEC West Division titles or co-titles.
Players seem to have embraced Tuberville style, Morriss said.
"He strikes me as a guy who really believes in the word 'team,'" he said. "The way you do that is with the discipline and execution. That's part of being a team. That's what team is all about, and I'm sure that's what he preaches."
Safety Cody Davis said players knew a season like this one was possible after Tuberville was hired.
"The results are finally being seen for the work he's done since he's gotten here," said Davis, who has three interceptions and leads the team in tackles (56). "It's more a workplace environment and focused on one goal, so I think he's definitely built the team around that and finally the benefits are paying off."
Red Raiders quarterback Seth Doege, who threw 13 of his 28 touchdowns this season in wins over West Virginia and TCU the past two weeks, said players have bought into Tuberville's businesslike approach. From the outset, he said, Tuberville never looked back, though he realized winning over Leach fans would take time.
"I think he fled the (Leach) shadow once he took the job," Doege said of Tuberville. "That was his mark. It's his team, it's his program. I really enjoyed coach Leach and I still think he's a great coach. But it's coach Tuberville's team, and this is where we are now."
Tuberville was hired in January 2010, just a couple of weeks after the university fired Leach amid allegations he mistreated a player with a concussion. Time for recruiting was short but Tuberville wasn't without talent, Morriss said.
"It wasn't like he was totally starting over," Morriss said of players Leach left behind. "The cupboard wasn't totally bare."
Morriss has seen Tuberville work a room at Texas High School Coaches Association. The Arkansas native has a good sense of humor and draws plenty of laughter. And he's a "charmer" as a recruiter, he said.
"The thing that impressed me is he takes his job serious," Morriss said. "He's a veteran and he knows how to stroke people, how to talk to them."
Tuberville did the same after taking over at Texas Tech. He crisscrossed the state on dozens of trips to meet with alums and boosters, a part of the job that Leach disdained.
"That's exactly what your boosters want — they want a piece of the head man and Tommy has the personality to do it," Morriss said. "He understands the importance of doing it. You have to schmooze with the people who are going to support your program."
Texas Tech (6-1, 3-1) has won the last two games in Manhattan, Kan., but the Wildcats (7-0, 4-0) ended a five-game skid to the Red Raiders last season in a 41-38 win in Lubbock.
Asked which team might win, Morriss figuratively punted: "I'm not going to get in the middle of that one because I know Bill Snyder pretty good, too."