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The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2021 -- No. 15: Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech

The former walk-on from Snyder, Texas, has played or coached for every Red Raider coach since Mike Leach. He returns home to Lubbock charged with turning the ship around.

Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2021 season and beyond.

Who: Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech

Title: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach

Previous stop: TCU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2017-20)

Why he's important: Are you familiar with the Ship of Theseus? I don't want to dig too deeply into one of the classic concepts of Western philosophy here on a football website -- visit my offshoot site, launching soon, for a full breakdown -- so I'll give you the synopsis. The ship of the Greek hero Theseus is placed in a museum. Shortly after, one board of the wooden ship begins to rot and is replaced. Then another. Then another. Eventually enough years pass and not a single item on the ship, nominally the one belonging to Theseus, actually sailed on the sea. 

The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment about the metaphysics of identity. Is the ship still the ship without any of its original pieces? If not, when did the Ship of Theseus stop being the Ship of Theseus -- after the first rotten board was replaced? The fifth? The twentieth?

In hiring Sonny Cumbie to run his offense, Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells provided his own answer.

The nature of college football is that of permanent change. In general, between 20 and 30 percent of the roster, players and coaches, turn over every single year.

The man who brought the Air Raid was kicked out of Lubbock more than a decade ago now -- more than enough time to turn the roster over three to four times. Texas Tech could be on its fourth generation of players recruited to run the triple option by now, if it wanted. 

But in hiring Cumbie, Wells announced to the world that the Ship of Theseus is the Air Raid, and no matter how many years ago Mike Leach stopped sailing the ship and no matter how many players have come and gone. The Ship will always be the Ship.  

Cumbie trails only Kliff Kingsbury among the first generation of Air Raid disciples. He declined scholarship opportunities at the Division II level to walk on at Texas Tech in 2000, Leach's first season as head coach. He didn't see the field at all in his first two years on campus and threw just 62 passes as a sophomore and junior, but finally got his turn as a fifth-year senior in 2004, where he led FBS with 4,742 passing yards and beat Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch's Cal team in the Holiday Bowl. 

That one season was enough for him to earn a living as a professional quarterback... in the arena league. He's almost certainly the best quarterback to ever wear a Los Angeles Avengers uniform. When the team folded after the 2008 season, he spent the spring of '09 as the head coach, director of player personnel and starting quarterback of the San Angelo (Texas) Stampede of the Indoor Football League. 

All the while Cumbie maintained a relationship with the program as a color analyst on Red Raider football games. In fact, he was on the mic for the pinnacle of Texas Tech football.

The pro football dream expired in 2009, and Cumbie re-joined the program in an official capacity that fall as a GA. 

The Mike Leach-Adam James incident happened that winter, but Tommy Tuberville retained Cumbie as his inside receivers coach in 2010, working under coordinator Neal Brown. Cumbie kept his job through another coaching change in the winter of 2012, serving as Kliff Kingsbury's co-offensive coordinator and outside receivers coach in 2013. 

He left after that season to coach quarterbacks and co-coordinate the offense at TCU. You remember that year. The Frogs split the Big 12 title with Baylor and inexplicably fell from No. 3 to No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings despite hammering Iowa State 58-3 in their regular season finale.

Cumbie remained in Fort Worth through December when, to quote Bear Bryant, Mama called once more.

"This place is really special," Cumbie said at his introductory press conference in December. "We're really excited to be here. It was an opportunity to come back to a place that I grew up playing in. It means a lot to myself and my family."

Cumbie and Wells never actually uttered the phrase "Air Raid" during his presser, but the subtext was there. 

"He'll create the best version of Texas Tech's offense. He'll use his years as a player here under Coach Leach and then (as a coach) under Coach Tuberville and Coach Kingsbury," Wells said. "He's coming back home to rebuild our offensive identity and our brand." 

TCU led the Big 12 in rushing last season; no other Big 12 team topped the 200-yard mark, the Frogs hit nearly 215 per game. But when asked about how he expects the offense to change moving forward, Cumbie mentioned lots of 10 and 11 personnel. "We want to be explosive and we want to throw it down the field," he said. 

Exchanging coordinator David Yost for Cumbie was the only change Wells made following a 4-6 campaign in which the Red Raiders dipped below 30 points per game for the first time since 2000. Cumbie has never worked with any coach on staff before -- he knew Wells in passing from crossing paths in D-FW recruiting -- though he did play with outside receivers coach Joel Filani. (The pair hooked up five times for 144 yards and a touchdown in that Holiday Bowl win.) 

Still, Wells and Cumbie believed they could hit the ground sprinting because of a match in philosophy and Cumbie's familiarity with the personnel in seeing the Red Raiders' offense take on the Big 12 defenses he studied while at TCU. Cumbie specifically praised Tech's talent at the skill positions and the size on the offensive line. 

"They play very, very hard," Cumbie said. "They play hard when hard when they're winning, they play very, very hard if things aren't going their way. The competitive character of this group, watching from afar, is exciting to be a part of." 

For more than a decade, Texas Tech was one of the most consistent programs in college sports. You knew what you were getting from this team: 400 passing yards, around 35 points, and between seven and nine wins. The Red Raiders went bowling 11 straight years from 2000 to 2010, and in the 21 seasons between 1993 and 2013 they missed a bowl just three times -- and went 6-5 in two of those three bowl-free seasons.

That consistency is now gone. If you remove the 7-0 start to the Kliff Kingsbury era, Texas Tech is 36-54 in its last 90 games, dating back to '13. The last time Tech finished above .500 in the Big 12 was 2009, Leach's final season. 

Not all of that is Wells's fault, of course, but it's his job to fix it. At 8-14 overall and 5-13 in Big 12 play, Cumbie is his fix -- again, the only staff change he made after last season. 

It's difficult to imagine where Tech would go from here if this doesn't work. That's why this has to work. Cumbie has spent 13 of the last 20 seasons in red and black, most of that time in the background, helping others succeed. His path is the through-line connecting all of the modern history of Texas Tech football, and never before has this walk-on grinder from Snyder, Texas, been more important.

After seven seasons away, it's on Cumbie to turn this Ship of Theseus around.