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After A Year -- And Career -- Kliff Kingsbury Keeps Learning

Cardinals coach "doesn't blow smoke" as he negotiates NFL path

Coach Kliff Kingsbury has put himself in a good position learning the NFL game heading into his second season.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury has put himself in a good position learning the NFL game heading into his second season.

Perhaps it was fitting that Kliff Kingsbury finished his first season as an NFL head coach at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, less than 12 months after he had been in the building – for a recruiting breakfast -- in his brief pre-Cardinals job as USC's offensive coordinator.

"To be on (the field) coaching the Cardinals against the Rams was pretty surreal about how quickly things can change in a year," Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury was a coach who, for most of the season, preferred to stay in the moment. He preferred to leave the reflections – self and otherwise – for later, because there were games to play.

But from the time he arrived, Kingsbury's self-awareness has been on display. In many of his answers, in the ways his coaching evolved, in the way his players talked about him.

"I just try to show up and work hard and be consistent and put the guys we have on our roster in a position to be successful," Kingsbury said. "I think that's the job of any coach. I have a great appreciation for our roster. They bought in and worked hard and practiced hard for a college coach that had a losing record, and they could've easily went the other way."

A new coach's arrival naturally brings with it a feeling-out process, particularly with veteran players. But Kingsbury – his age, having just turned 40 in training camp, no doubt a help – made himself approachable and, more importantly, willing to listen.

Larry Fitzgerald noted that Kingsbury is willing to laugh at himself and be self-deprecating, qualities with which not every coach is equipped.

"He is not a know-it-all," the wide receiver said. "Some guys you ask a question and they give you an answer just to give you an answer. He doesn't do that. 'You know what, Fitz, let me get back to you.' Then he'll get back to me, 'I want you to do it like this.' He doesn't blow smoke. You really respect that about him. From day one he told me, 'You have to earn your opportunities.' The transparency and honesty, that's all you can ask for."

Kingsbury was a rookie NFL head coach, but he was not a rookie head coach – something he made sure to emphasize a few times as the season wore on. There were things to learn in the pro game. He knew that. But it didn't wipe away what he gained at Texas Tech, particularly because Lubbock was the place where he went to school and was a football star.

"That's your alma mater and you love (it) and you're passionate about the kids and all that," Kingsbury said. "You get fired from there, you get some scars and you learn some things about yourself."

What Kingsbury learned was consistency in his approach was crucial. He couldn't be defined by wins and losses, because there is more to it than that. If anything, the NFL has helped in that regard. A 9-7 team can find its way into the playoffs, or even, as the 2008 Cardinals proved, a Super Bowl. A couple of losses in college, your chance to win a title disappears.

When he was at Texas Tech, "it's like the whole weight of the world is kind of weighing on you when you lose," Kingsbury said. "I definitely let them affect me early on."

Kingsbury seemed past that in his first NFL season, remaining even-keeled much of the season. He deflected blame away from specific players nearly every chance he had. He absorbed blame much of the time. He understood he didn't know everything.

"It's a very ego-driven business, for players and coaches alike," center A.Q. Shipley said. "There have been numerous times where he's come over to the sideline and said, 'Hey, that was on me. You keep doing what you're doing, and we'll get it rolling.' As players, you love hearing that. You love knowing your coach has your back, and that he's going to do everything he can."

A few days after the season had ended, the coaching staff was given some time off. But Kingsbury was in the building late one afternoon, working out by himself in the weight room, the Hurricane Chris song "A Bay Bay" booming from the speakers.

The learning curve might not be fully negotiated yet, but after a season, Kingsbury seems to have found his place. It’s where it has been his whole coaching career, spending much of his time at the facility one way or another, figuring out what's best for his team and understanding it isn't just about him.

"I don't ever say, 'Man, I had them that week,' " Kingsbury said. "It's usually, 'God, I sucked.' I'm more critical of myself than patting myself on the back. The players made the plays.

"(Kenyan) Drake takes the ball 80 yards, that's not a good play call, that's a good effort, and the O-line blocked their tails off. It's about players, not plays."

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