Kliff Kingsbury is set to become the new Arizona Cardinals head coach, capping a rapid rise from the college ranks that says as much about the current state of NFL coaching as it does about Kingsbury’s particular strengths.
Kingsbury, 39, had a 35-40 record in six years at Texas Tech before being fired after this past season and quickly being named offensive coordinator for USC. According to one report, Kingsbury will owe USC a $150,000 buyout to exit a job he never actually began, though the Cardinals are expected to cover that.
Meanwhile, multiple outlets reported that Kingbury’s Cardinals contract is for four years with a fifth-year option.
What explains his rise to the top less than a decade after he served as a low-level quality-control coach at the University of Houston?
There isn’t just one answer.
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Specific to this coaching carousel, where eight of 32 NFL teams dumped their head coaches after the season, Kingsbury is benefiting from a perceived weak crop of candidates.
With so much turnover, position coaches and coordinators such as Dan Campbell (Saints tight ends coach) and Dave Toub (Chiefs special teams coordinator) have been thrust into conversations they often wouldn’t be involved in.
That saturation of middling candidates made Kingsbury — perhaps no better than his competition — a hot commodity for NFL teams.
Still, Kingsbury does bring some offensive chops. He was a former Texas Tech star quarterback who was drafted by the Patriots in 2003 — though his entire NFL career consisted of a few fill-in snaps for the Jets in the fourth quarter of a November 2005 game. (He went 1-for-2 for 17 yards.)
His modest NFL numbers aside, he is valued for his ability to develop quarterbacks and offenses — something the Jets took into account when they interviewed him for their vacant coaching spot just a day before Kingsbury sealed his Arizona deal.
As the quarterbacks coach/ offensive coordinator at Houston, Kingsbury helped Case Keenum break NCAA passing records, and he got the best out of Johnny Manziel in the same role at Texas A&M.
Those achievements thrust him into a head-coaching job at his alma mater, where he brought his glitzy Air Raid offense and coached Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield (who later transferred).
The Cardinals have the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft after a 3-13 season, after which they axed Steve Wilks after one season. Kingsbury’s No. 1 goal will be guiding QB Josh Rosen after an up-and-down rookie campaign.
It’s Kingsbury’s chops on the defensive side of the ball that raise questions of whether he is ready for the NFL. His defenses routinely finished outside the top 100 in college football, with his best team defense ranking 87th in 2013.
Kingsbury also never won more than eight games in a season (in six tries) and only claimed a single bowl victory.
Still, his offensive plaudits were enough to land him the offensive coordinator job at USC after he was fired by Texas Tech. That Hollywood role seemed a good fit for the young, good-looking mastermind. However, he quickly attracted NFL interest, turning his Los Angeles role into a cameo.
Kingsbury’s age also played a role in his rise to the NFL. His Cardinals hiring comes at a time when the league is trying to hire younger coaches, as Sean McVay (with the Rams) and Adam Gase (fired by the Dolphins, but still a hot commodity) have impressed below the age of 40.
Kingsbury also will bring to the Cardinals some college concepts, which have been a catalyst in the explosive offense of the Chiefs this season.
Kingsbury may prove to be unready for the league, but his hiring is emblematic of the coaching culture of the league right now: young, forward-thinking and quarterback-driven.