Sports

How One NFL Coach Avoided the College-to-Pros Curse

Other teams can learn something from the Arizona Cardinals’ success.

The Cardinals' coach in a headset and team quarter-zip looking upward on the sideline.
Kliff Kingsbury during the second half of the Arizona Cardinals’ game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field on Sunday, in Seattle. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Every time a college football coach jumps to the NFL, it’s controversial. Nobody knows how a coach’s scheme or management style will translate, and everyone can choose their own adventure as to whether the hire is innovative or absurd. But even amid such uncertainty, the Arizona Cardinals’ hire of Kliff Kingsbury in January 2019 was a different deal. Kingsbury had just gone through a firing at Texas Tech—a respected, but far from elite program in college football—and was not even in play for other head coaching jobs in the college game’s Power Five conferences. He’d signed on for a few weeks as the offensive coordinator at USC, and suddenly, the Cardinals plucked him out of L.A. and put him into one of the most coveted jobs in sports.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The college-to-NFL coaching pipeline is full of men who won big on campus. Jimmy Johnson, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, and Chip Kelly were all hugely successful college coaches when they made their moves to the pros. Kingsbury was 35–40 in six seasons in Lubbock. The only part of the mold Kingsbury fit was that he was white, as all of his predecessors this century had been. As a convincing Domonique Foxworth argued in the Undefeated, it was beyond credulity that a Black coach with Kingsbury’s resume would’ve gotten the same look. In fact, given college’s dearth of Black coaches, he might not have even been on the outskirts of the candidate pool.

Advertisement

Almost three years later, the Cardinals are probably happy they landed on Kingsbury. They’re 9–2 and seem primed for a playoff run. Kyler Murray, the quarterback they drafted first overall a few months after hiring Kingsbury, has played up to his MVP-caliber potential. They have one of the league’s better defenses, with a mix of old and young talent. They have around the fourth-best odds to win the Super Bowl, according to most sportsbooks.

Is it all because of Kingsbury? Well, there’s a lesson in the Kingsbury hire, though I’m not sure it’s the one NFL decision-makers will actually take away from his success. The Cardinals hired Kingsbury because teams wanted a whiff of what the Los Angeles Rams had found in their head coach, Sean McVay—a young, intelligent play-caller versed in the ways of spread offenses who could make an NFL team high-flying and exciting. Once again, the coaches whom teams have deemed worthy of that mold have been almost exclusively white, and Kingsbury’s ascent might reinforce an obvious front office bias against Black coaches with similar resumes. The takeaway from Kingsbury’s sunny Arizona record should be more capacious, though. It should be that the makeups of college and NFL football are at once so similar and so different that a college coach’s won-lost record should be but a small factor in whether he’s a good fit for an NFL job. More important is an understanding of game-planning, play-calling, and the difference between coaching college and pro athletes. And maybe, just maybe, teams should broaden their searches for any coaches who have those traits.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It is reasonable, off the jump, to assume that a coach who didn’t succeed in college won’t flip a switch and win in the NFL. For one thing, it’s just intuitive; the NFL is the highest level of play in the world and the highest level of coaching. It’s not supposed to be easier than Division I. It certainly is not for players. For instance, the list of quarterbacks this century who produced better numbers in the NFL than in college was zero before mediocre Wyoming QB Josh Allen became one of the best players in the league with the Buffalo Bills. He remains an exception—as does Kingsbury. The NFL coaches arriving from the NCAA before him tended to have better, longer track records, usually with conference titles if not national ones. Others, like Bill O’Brien, had both college and New England Patriots experience. There hadn’t been a fail-upward NFL head coach quite like Kingsbury.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The smart thing the Cardinals did was to look past Kingsbury’s wins and losses, and even past the fact that he’d failed to win while having eventual superstar Patrick Mahomes as his QB. Kingsbury has always been good at one thing: drawing up passing plays. He comes from the coaching tree headed up by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, who took former BYU coach LaVell Edwards’ simple, repetitive passing offense and developed it into something with a proper name: the Air Raid. Kingsbury took the Air Raid and put his own bells and whistles on it at Texas Tech, and his teams moved the ball plenty. During his tenure, the Red Raiders scored 37 points per game, fourth-most in the Big 12, and graded well in a host of offensive categories.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

His eternal downfall was defense. Scoring 37 per game is only so much good when you allow 38, as Kingsbury’s teams did on average over his six years with the program. It’s not easy to recruit talented players to Lubbock, which one former Tech coach and current U.S. senator once likened to Siberia. The defense ultimately got Kingsbury fired. Tech’s next coach, Matt Wells, couldn’t figure it out either, and he got fired a few weeks ago, less than three years into the gig.

Advertisement

NFL teams do not have to recruit players to remote towns in West Texas. OK, one has to recruit them to a remote town in Wisconsin, but like every other NFL team, even they can just pay players gobs of money to play for them. The league’s salary cap functions to make a level playing field that must feel to Kingsbury like a far cry from the Big 12, where Texas Tech’s athletic department operated with more than $100 million less per year than their rival-ish Texas Longhorns. Kingsbury does not coach defense, but his players there don’t have the kind of talent deficit his Tech players did against Oklahoma’s offenses. In Arizona, he hired a highly regarded defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, who’d just been fired as the Denver Broncos’ head coach. And the Cardinals have drafted rangy linebackers built for Kingsbury’s era of spread football, like Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins. It works fine, and Kingsbury handles the offense.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s a stark juxtaposition to Urban Meyer, who’s had a miserable first year leading the Jacksonville Jaguars. After taking Utah to a BCS bowl, Meyer won three national championships at Florida and Ohio State. But one of the most dominant college coaches of any era has not only lost a lot in Jacksonville (which, given the roster, anyone would have) but looked completely out of his depth coaching NFL players. Meyer spent his previous 15 years enjoying massive, recruiting-created talent advantages over his peers in the SEC and especially in the Big Ten. He ruled fiefdoms in Gainesville and Columbus—hiring his friends, being a general human-resources nightmare, and enjoying absolute power over his players.

Meyer’s philosophy of “the coach can do whatever he wants” has run into a bunch of problems in the NFL, where the players are grown men with union representation and the media is harder to control than in a college environment. He had to back off hiring a strength coach who’d been accused of racial abuse, got the Jaguars fined for violating collectively bargained workout rules, and became the subject of national embarrassment for not boarding a team flight after a game (a no-no in the NFL) and getting caught being unscrupulously horny in public with a woman who isn’t his wife. Meyer, who tried to crack down on leaks at Ohio State, has been unable to stem them in the NFL.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I can’t make a definitive character assessment of Kingsbury from afar. But it sure seems like his players and coaching staff have gone out of their way to describe him as someone who treats people who work for him as something like equals. “He has a good feel for the players and that’s the job—the players are the job,” Joseph, still the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, recently told ESPN. “If you can have a feel for what the players need and want, you can coach in this league outside of Xs and Os. He has a great feel for the players.” Coaches who rely on pure power are going out of style at both levels of big-time football, and I suspect that Kingsbury’s understanding of that dynamic has helped him implement his actual football program with the Cardinals. He has also handled media relations fine and has avoided public embarrassment.

Advertisement

There is no coach archetype that guarantees success. Plenty who were known for smart offensive design have failed, sometimes disastrously. Erstwhile Louisville and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s less-than-one-year tenure with the Atlanta Falcons may be the most illustrative example of the limits of just knowing football inside and out. (Petrino is back in the college game, at Missouri State.) Still, the Cardinals’ recent rise under Kingsbury is a win for open-mindedness about some characteristics that can translate to the NFL. “Winning” isn’t a holdover trait between the two levels, but “understanding football” is a key one that is—even and especially if a coach’s college circumstances made it difficult for that acumen to shine through. That means knowing how to combat NFL defenses and knowing how to turn good play calls and design into good results.

Advertisement
Advertisement

These are assets that NFL teams should want. They should consider that they might find them in coaches who don’t look like Kingsbury. There have been several Black head coaches in major college football in recent seasons who have similar knowledge of modern offense and have put together high-flying attacks in situations where winning a lot of games is hugely difficult. An equivalent to the Kingsbury hire would be if Syracuse fired its spread offense–minded head coach, Dino Babers, and then Babers fielded immediate NFL interests. To the extent that sounds impossible—Babers is not widely considered a candidate for that sort of jump—it’s because the NFL has so far been clear about who gets these chances and who doesn’t. Kingsbury’s rise in the desert shows the benefits of hiring coaches outside a narrow resume mold. It’s not the only area in which decision-makers should broaden their horizons.

Advertisement