The 5: Resume highlights for Kliff Kingsbury as Cardinals head coach
They replaced a bartender-by-trade and quarterback-whisperer with an all-business, defensive-focused football man. The latest head coach of the Arizona Cardinals is likewise hardly comparable to his predecessor.
Arizona has named former Texas Tech head coach and current USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury as its head coach. He will replace Steve Wilks, the defensive guru who led the Cardinals to a 3-13 record in the first year after the team’s former head coach, Bruce Arians, announced his retirement.
Kingsbury is an out-of-the-box hire. He doesn’t have NFL coaching experience and at 39 years old held just one lead job in the college ranks.
But there was a reason his phone was reportedly ringing off the hook after Texas Tech fired him following the 2018 season. Kingsbury quickly landed a prime college gig as the USC Trojans offensive coordinator before it became clear a big-time NFL job was also an option.
Here’s what drew Arizona to Kingsbury despite his lack of NFL coaching chops.
Head coaching experience
Kingsbury lacks any NFL coaching experience, but six years as Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach gives him an idea of managing a football team from the top.
His record at Texas Tech is arguably the biggest red-flag. Kingsbury went 35-40 overall and just 19-35 in Big 12 play from 2013-18. Only twice did Texas Tech post winning records, and that was at the front-end of his time there (2013, 2015).
The Red Raiders went 1-2 in bowl games under Kingsbury, beating Arizona State in the 2013 Holiday Bowl. They additionally fell to LSU in the 2015 Texas Bowl and to South Florida in the 2017 Birmingham Bowl.
Kingsbury’s player-friendly personality related well to college-aged players, and now the challenge is winning over an Arizona locker room that includes several established NFL stars, including cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive end Chandler Jones.
Of course, the appeal in hiring Kingsbury comes with the NFL taking on more offensive concepts from the college game.
While Kingsbury’s record mars his appeal, the offensive numbers certainly reflect on him more favorably.
A branch off Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s tree, Kingsbury deployed the Air Raid offense that has taken over much of the college football landscape.
Under Kingsbury, Texas Tech was a top-25 scoring team in all but one of the coach’s six seasons.
How translatable is the Air Raid to the NFL?
That’s hard to say. What is certain is that quarterbacks nurtured in the spread, quick-pass system (from Baker Mayfield with the Browns, to the Rams’ Jared Goff, to last year’s Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles with the Eagles) have succeeded at the next level.
While that’s all promising, the biggest challenge for Kingsbury is hiring the right defensive coordinator. He didn’t do that with the Red Raiders, who never finished better than 83rd in defensive S&P rating. In two seasons, Texas Tech was in the bottom five of major college teams.
Nonetheless, successful 2018 seasons by young play-calling head coaches like the Rams’ Sean McVay and the Bears’ Matt Nagy pushed hires like Kingsbury further into the realm of possibility. Both of those coaches have leaned on veteran NFL defensive coordinator to handle that side of the ball.
The most appealing highlight on Kingsbury’s resume is his eye for quarterback talent.
Kingsbury coached Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum at Houston as offensive quality control coach (2009) and then offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (2010-11). Two of those seasons were top-five in most passing yardage production in NCAA history.
After Kingsbury followed then-Houston coach and current Arizona Wildcats head coach Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M, the pair coached Heisman winning quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2012. That was Kingsbury’s single year with the Aggies before he earned the head job at his alma mater, Texas Tech.
And it’s in Lubbock, Texas, where Kingsbury recruited a series of highly-talented quarterbacks. Walk-on freshman Baker Mayfield earned snaps in 2013, but when he got hurt and replaced by Davis Webb, Mayfield elected to transfer to Oklahoma, where he’d win the Heisman trophy in 2017.
Webb spent three years with Texas Tech before transferring to California, where he played a single season.
Mayfield went No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft while Webb went in the third round in 2017 (87th overall) to the Giants. Webb is now with the New York Jets.
And finally, we get to Patrick Mahomes, the 23-year-old Pro Bowler who took the NFL by storm in 2018 with the Kansas City Chiefs. He threw for 11,252 yards, 93 touchdowns and 29 interceptions in three years under Kingsbury at Texas Tech before leading the NFL in quarterback rating this season, his second as a pro.
That’s good news for the Cardinals, who targeted Kingsbury with the development of quarterback Josh Rosen as a top priority.
Kingsbury can be credited for five of the top 15 individual seasons in which a college quarterback threw for more than 5,000 yards. Keenum (three times) and Mahomes (once) eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark, but so did Kingsbury as Texas Tech’s quarterback in 2002.
That helped earn him a brief NFL career.
Kingsbury spent time with the New England Patriots (2003), New Orleans Saints (2004) and New York Jets (2005) but only threw two passes with one 17-yard completion in his career. He then played American football in Germany and Canada from 2006-07 before joining the coaching ranks with Houston in 2008.
Those years in the NFL, as little as Kingsbury played, are important if he’s to successfully impart his offensive philosophies with an NFL twist.
Marketability and relatability
Let’s just say Kingsbury will draw eyeballs for reasons beyond his hire being unconventional.
Kingsbury is aware that he looks like Ryan Gosling, especially when he wears Ray-Bans.
His age certainly could help him relate to players, too. It’s shown with examples like the 32-year-old McVay that with the right personality, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
That’s crucial for Rosen, who demands explanations from his coaches and himself is a character beyond the football field.
The Cardinals need a personality to win the press conference, especially after the ever-serious Wilks struggled to win over fan support amid a season that went south from the get-go.
After that, it will be on Kingsbury to hire the right staff around him and find answers for a team with talent at some positions and gaping holes at others.