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'Right where he belongs': Why Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury is more suited to NFL game than college football

Richard Morin
USA TODAY Sports Plus

The legend of Kliff Kingsbury lives on in Lubbock, Texas. 

Kingsbury, who is entering his third season as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, is highly regarded for his offensive acumen as a relatively young NFL coach. But those who crossed paths with the 42-year-old over the years believe he showed signs of leadership at a much younger age.

Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt remembers a story he heard from the late Spike Dykes, the longtime Red Raiders football coach, regarding Kingsbury’s poise as a redshirt-freshman quarterback in 1999.

According to Hocutt, Kingsbury – making his first collegiate start in Dykes' final game after a 14-year stint as Texas Tech's head coach – approached the soon-to-be-retired Dykes in the tunnel with the Red Raiders trailing Oklahoma 21-13 at halftime. 

Per Hocutt, Kingsbury told Dykes: “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em, coach.”

Kingsbury helped lead a Red Raiders resurgence in the second half, throwing for 259 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-28 Texas Tech victory.

“People still refer to his toughness and competitive spirit as something that makes him one of the greats to have come through Texas Tech,” said Hocutt, who has been Texas Tech’s AD since 2011. “Sure enough (Kliff) came back and won that game to send Coach Dykes out on a positive note.”

After graduating, Kingsbury had a relatively short career as an NFL player but soon found his footing as a coach. Eventually, he made his way back to Lubbock after he was named head coach of Texas Tech at just 33 years old. He spent six seasons as Red Raiders coach, playing a key role in the development of Texas Tech product Patrick Mahomes – just one branch in Kingsbury’s towering quarterback tree.

Kliff Kingsbury is seen throwing during a Patriots training camp practice.

Now, however, Hocutt believes Kingsbury is “right where he belongs” in the NFL and has the weapons around him – such as quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins – to do big things in Arizona.

“I’ve watched more Arizona Cardinals football in the last two years than at any point in my life,” Hocutt said. “We’re big Kliff Kingbsury fans and follow his career and are proud of the early success he’s had in the NFL. 

“I think Kliff is right where he belongs and is going to have a very successful career at the next level.”

Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Patrick Mahomes during a 2016 Texas Tech game against West Virginia.

Sonny Cumbie, a former Texas Tech teammate who later coached with and against Kingsbury at the college level, believes Kingsbury’s skill-set more accurately relates to coaching in the NFL because the focus is primarily on football and not the other minutiae that comes with being a college coach – such as recruiting, scholarship management and other responsibilities.

“(Kliff) doesn’t waste people’s time,” said Cumbie, a quarterback who played behind Kingsbury in Lubbock from 2000-02 and later served as his offensive coordinator at Texas Tech in 2013. “At the NFL level, it’s a business-like approach of doing football all the time and that’s what he loves. He’s able to game-plan, scheme, study offenses and do that 100 percent of the time.”

Texas Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie talks to players during practice Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas.

Cumbie, who was recently re-hired by Texas Tech as offensive coordinator after a seven-year stint at TCU, said Kingsbury harbors no ill will toward his alma mater after he was fired in 2018. In a campus news conference at the time, Hocutt cited “a three-year pattern of inconsistency” and “lapses of progress in key critical areas” as reasons for Kingsbury’s dismissal.

“He coached here at Texas Tech for six years,” Cumbie said. “When I was offered the job to come back here (for 2021), there was nothing from him but ‘I hope you guys get after it and I hope you guys win.’ It’s a situation where you were fired from your alma mater but all that came out of his mouth was hoping we would be successful. In this business, that’s not always what you get from people after a situation like that.”

Cumbie still considers Kingsbury a close friend and keeps tabs on how the Cardinals are doing, if for no other reason than to see if he can adapt Kingsbury’s schemes for his own use. 

Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray during Cardinals training camp in August 2020.

Kingsbury’s Cardinals were a disappointing 8-8 last year and missed the playoffs, but the team started 6-3 with Murray looking like a potential MVP candidate. However, the team faltered and went 2-5 down the stretch.

“Definitely towards the end we didn’t finish like we wanted to,” Kingsbury told reporters this summer. “Anytime that happens you have to look back and see what you might do differently. … We had a chance to solidify a playoff spot and obviously weren’t able to do it. I’ve got to figure out how to finish the season stronger.”

Still, the Cardinals possessed one of the NFL’s most lethal offenses in 2020, totaling more yards per game last season than the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Kingsbury said he expects the offense to take another step forward with more familiarity between the personnel in 2021.

“It took the first half of the season to really get on task,” Kingsbury said, specifically of Murray and Hopkins. “There will be a different comfort level with those guys (this season) and I’m excited where it will go.”

Hocutt said he always noticed Kingsbury’s preparation and willingness to go the extra mile at Texas Tech. And in today’s high-flying NFL game, those edges can pay dividends.

“I’ve always admired his work ethic and desire toward finding that incremental edge and advantage,” Hocutt said, “especially on the offensive side of the ball. Offensively, you always knew we were going to be prepared and find that edge against an opponent. It was fascinating to watch what Kliff’s offensive mind was able to accomplish. 

“When it comes to offensive football with the right personnel, I’m not sure there’s anyone better than Kliff Kingsbury.”