In a recent article, The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel suggested that Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was the sport's Anna Kournikova. The analogy only makes sense if we believe, as Tramel clearly does, that Kingsbury is little more than a pretty face destined to be a flameout.
It is a comparison that is difficult to endorse, not only because it is a premature judgment on a young coach's career, but also because Tramel runs with the obvious proposition (cue #HOTTAKES) that a person known for their looks cannot also be known for their abilities. This is not true for Kingsbury, just at it was never really true for Kournikova.
Here's what the world knows about Anna Kournikova:
She is considered one of the most beautiful people in the world. She once posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (though she is hardly alone among tennis players there). She may or may not have married NHL star Sergei Fedorov and/or singer Enrique Iglesias. She made mad cake appearing in commercials and shilling everything from tennis shoes to sports bras.
As much as the world knows about Kournikova the star, it doesn't seem to remember all that much about Kournikova the tennis player. Nobody remembers that she broke into the world's top 50 rankings just a year after she turned pro, or that she was a top 10 player just a year after that. Nobody seems to recall that she made the semifinals at Wimbledon in her debut at that tournament, or that (with partner Martina Hingis), she was an elite doubles player who went on to win several Grand Slam doubles titles.
Significantly, Kournikova is seen as an overrated underachiever, and she's spawned endless bitter rants about her "unearned" fame and fortune. That's unfortunate, because it belittles Kournikova's talent and her on-court accomplishments, and also diminishes the intangible contributions she made to tennis.
When Kournikova first came on the scene in 1994, women's tennis had hit an all-time low. Its brightest star, Monica Seles, had been laid low by the violent conduct of a mad man, and the WTA's tone-deaf reaction to the Seles stabbing alienated audiences the world over. With Steffi Graf in an inexplicable slump, the game was in desperate need of eyeballs, and Kournikova was almost single-handedly responsible for getting casual fans to tune in to tennis. She was, in effect, the reason the WTA began to market itself as an entertainment property rather than trying compete with the men's game on absolute sports terms.
She was also indirectly responsible for tennis' Russian Revolution. Without Kournikova, there would probably be no Maria Sharapova. But where Sharapova is celebrated for her drive and determination, Kournikova is remembered as no more than a pretty face.
In the end, for all her contributions, the only tennis thing anyone remembers is this: she never won anything.
That's precisely why a comparison of Kournikova and Kingsbury is both fascinating and ridiculous.
Here's what the world thinks it knows about Kliff Kingsbury:
Kingsbury's looks are apparently a novelty. In a sport where most coaches dress like they rolled out of bed and pulled on the first clean thing they could find, Kingsbury actually cares about his personal appearance. For some reason, this is something the world of college football finds worthy of mockery.
On the surface then, the Kournikova comparison makes sense. There's no doubt that Kingsbury cultivates his image carefully, and the persona has been a boon for Texas Tech. Within days of his announcement as the new head coach, the school saw a huge increase in season ticket sales, and in 2014, for the first time in school history, season tickets are sold out.
Tramel opines that Kingsbury's new contract, which will earn him $3.1 million in 2015, is mostly the result of his image, and "unearned" on the sidelines. But is this really true?
Kingsbury's accomplishments as a new coach speak for themselves. Unlike Kournikova, he's already a winner of sorts. In his inaugural season in Lubbock, he led the team to a 7-0 start and a No. 10 BCS ranking, the highest since 2008. So far, Kingsbury is 10-6 at Texas Tech, a better initial record that nearly every current Big 12 coach in their first years at their respective institutions. (Through the first sixteen games as a head coach, only Dana Holgorsen (14-3) and Bob Stoops (11-5) were better).
He has brought a certain amount of swagger back to a program that lost some of it under Tommy Tuberville and with the cloud of uncertainty that swarmed over Lubbock in the wake of the Mike Leach firing. Recruiting too has improved under Kingsbury's watch.
The sharp focus on Kingsbury's image diminishes these accomplishments. It also keeps us from knowing what lies under the surface. For example, Kingsbury is described by his family and close friends as a deeply introverted individual. He's a workaholic who likes to be the first one in to work and the last one out. He wants to invest in people. He is flattered by the attention he gets but also uncomfortable with it.
But mostly, he's very determined to succeed at Texas Tech. In that sense, he's much more Maria Sharapova than Anna Kournikova.
Who knows? Maybe he'll have his own candy one day.