Piles of paper cover Kliff Kingsbury’s giant L-shaped desk in his office. When he’s not in the middle of work, the piles are neatly stacked, less so when he gets going.
Such organization is Kingsbury’s preferred filing system, out in front of his eyes, every sheet a grab or reach away. Many are covered with plays, the building blocks of his plan to coach the Cardinals.
This is what Kingsbury has done for much of his life, growing up in the Friday Night Lights-esque atmosphere of New Braunfels, Texas, scribbling plays on napkins when he was a boy. The stakes are higher. The end goal remains the same.
“Concepts always made sense to me, how to attack a defense,” Kingsbury said. “Those things aligned in my mind and I’ve always been fascinated by it.”
Kingsbury understands plenty question his ability to jump from head coach at Texas Tech, where he was fired at the end of the 2018 season, to the NFL. He never had a chance to coach on this level before the Cardinals called. He knows, as he said when he was introduced as coach, it’s impossible to prove anything here in April. Games are what will matter.
So Kingsbury prepares like he always has, crafting a plan to succeed as a coach in a league where it did not work out as a player, a quarterback drafted by the New England Patriots in the sixth round in 2003.
“He’ll get to the facility at 4:30 (a.m.) and won’t leave until 9 or 10 at night, and he’s not playing solitaire,” said New York Jets quarterback Davis Webb, who played for Kingsbury at Texas Tech. “He’s watching tape, he’s watching what every defense can throw at you, he’s watching other offenses.
“I’ve been around some great workers (as coaches). I’ve never seen anybody like Kliff.”
While his desk is full, the shelves behind Kingsbury’s chair – the one in which he is often leaning back in, watching and breaking down video of the game on the big TV stationed at the end of the desk – are basically empty. It’s a stark contrast a few months into his tenure as the Cardinals’ new head coach. It isn’t as if Kingsbury doesn’t have items to place there, it’s that he hasn’t had the time, not when that time is better spent preparing for what’s to come.
More pressing for the coach is his inability to yet work with his players, prohibited by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The voluntary strength and conditioning program begins next week, and that will also allow for meetings. On-field work isn’t until later this month, so for now, Kingsbury is relegated to working with the coaches and growing the piles on his desk.
The piles of paper are tangible proof the work is well underway.
In 2013, Texas Tech was trying to boost attendance at football games. It didn’t hurt that the coach they just hired was already a superstar in Lubbock, a fan favorite from his quarterback days a decade before. One of the ideas was to take Kingsbury to a sorority, accompanied by one of his assistant coaches, David Raih, and have him interact with students.
“He had to walk in and say hi, and everyone was screaming,” said Raih, who has returned to work with Kingsbury and coach the Cardinals’ wide receivers. “It was like (Justin) Bieber Fever.”
The memory brings a smile to Kingsbury’s face. “It’s not my favorite thing,” he acknowledged. “That was actually one of the better ones. It was part of the job.”
It was hard to get away from seeing Kingsbury in such a light. He wore sunglasses during games, his life measured by Ryan Gosling memes. He may have built a football resumé working with high-profile college quarterbacks he worked with, like Johnny Manziel, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes and Webb, but his fame grew on the back of his good looks and youth, and the natural swagger he brought with it.
That wasn’t a bad thing when Kingsbury was recruiting high school players, or relating to the 19- and 20-year-olds at Tech.
“He loves (the musical artist) Drake, he’s always in the know, he’s always the best-dressed guy everywhere, he wears the best suits, he’s played in the NFL,” Webb said. “There are so many things players look at.
“It’s one of the strengths he had, as a person and a coach.”
Kingsbury’s older brother Klint smiles when talking about his sibling’s public perception, saying it would be “hysterical” to project the mid-1990s Kliff as such a stud (“I won’t go any further than that.”) But Kingsbury was smart enough to use whatever people might think of him, whether it was on the recruiting trail or trying to drum up more support at Texas Tech.
“Kliff is a very smart guy,” said B.J. Symons, Kingbury’s backup when Kingsbury played at Texas Tech. “He’s done a good job to kind of facilitate that image and kind of build his brand. I don’t think it was done by chance, but I’m not saying it’s not genuine. Early at Tech, he was kind of the small-town kid who over time, kind of grew into it with experiences he had.”
The spotlight was intense at Texas Tech. Perhaps it was natural that the aura of Kingsbury was going to grow. After his huge success in college playing QB for Mike Leach and the Red Raiders, Kingsbury went to the Patriots. His NFL dream didn’t work out – he also had stints with the Jets, Saints, Bills and, briefly, the Broncos – but the shine was still there by the time Kingsbury got back to Lubbock.
“I’ve always been very secure in who I am,” Kingsbury said. “Whatever people see they see. As long as the people who are important to me know who I am and what I am about, that’s all I’ve ever cared about.”
Kingsbury was brought to Texas Tech because he had already worked with some high-profile college quarterbacks. But it would have been naïve to think his stature as a local hero didn’t matter. Sonny Cumbie, another of Kingsbury’s backups at Texas Tech and later an assistant coach on Kingsbury’s Tech staff, said Kingsbury would’ve rather had the focus on the team and the players than himself. Reality made that difficult.
Now in the NFL, reality is different. The attention is on Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, David Johnson and Chandler Jones. The attention is on who will play quarterback. If Kingsbury wants the focus on the team, the Cardinals will have it – although Kingsbury won’t escape the spotlight.
Kingsbury will shrug it off, though. He’ll show up before dawn, in part to get in a workout before his day. When you’re both the head coach and leading the offense, there’s just more to do. It only makes sense to get some of it accomplished before the rest of the building shows up and “maybe before your attention is pointed in different directions,” he said.
“The perception is shades and in his swimsuit with ladies all around him, kind of Hollywood,” Raih said. “The truth is, this guy is focused and disciplined.”
Photos of Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury through the years, playing quarterback at Texas Tech and the NFL and then as coach.
Kingsbury was into his second season coaching at Texas Tech when he decided to hold a “dance-off” between players out at spring practice. The video chronicles what one expects – up until the end, when the coach calls wide receiver Derreck Edwards to compete, and then proceeds to shed his jacket and turn his visor backward to take part himself.
The players clearly enjoyed the moment, connecting with their coach in such a way. Kingsbury has been called a player’s coach by many of his former players. But he was able to find balance.
“There were days – multiple days -- when we had to wake up at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. and be out on the field punishment-wise, and he was holding everyone accountable,” said wide receiver Bradley Marquez, who was a member of that 2014 team. “But those times aren’t going to be published on the internet. All the gimmicky stuff, that’s what is going to be posted, which is a positive thing. But for people saying, ‘Oh, they just have fun, they don’t work, he doesn’t discipline the guys,’ there were plenty of times. They just weren’t on the internet.
“I don’t think he needed to do (the dance-off) to show he was relatable. We already knew that.”
Kingsbury knows much has changed since he played in the NFL more than a decade ago. He understands that the business side of the game is foremost. He knows, as a former player on the fringes of the roster, the pressures of everyday life in the league.
Marquez, who has played for the Rams and Lions, was impressed that Kingsbury, despite his offensive and quarterback leanings, managed to get around to both sides of the ball in practice and to all the positions. Off the field, Kingsbury would take an interest in a player’s life in the classroom and away from football.
Webb tore his labrum his sophomore year. Kingsbury was the first person he saw after waking up from surgery, wishing Webb well in his recovery. Wide receiver Antoine Wesley, who will be in this month’s draft, said he tore his labrum his junior year. Kingsbury sat Wesley down to console him, telling Wesley he’d get the best doctor and that Kingsbury wanted him back as soon as possible.
“I actually see him as a father figure,” Wesley said, adding “he was more than just a father figure. He was a friend also. Him taking that initiative meant a lot to me.”
Webb remains close to Kingsbury even now, despite the fact he lost his starting job at Texas Tech when he got hurt and Mahomes took over as quarterback. Webb understood how well Mahomes was playing, and insists he never had any animosity.
Before Tech’s bowl game that December – with Webb on schedule to officially graduate with a year of eligibility remaining – Kingsbury told Webb he was too good to stick around at Texas Tech as Mahomes’ backup, that he needed to find a place to play and get to the NFL. Kingsbury helped Webb find a landing spot. Webb transferred to the University of California, where he had a huge 2016 season and ended up a third-round draft pick of the New York Giants.
“I’m forever grateful for everything he did for me and everything I learned from him,” Webb said.
Marquez’s best Kingsbury story didn’t even concern Marquez. It was 2013, Kingsbury’s first season as Tech’s coach. Marquez recalled a teammate who, after a long catch-and-run, dropped the football just before the goal line, costing the Red Raiders a touchdown in a tie game. (Marquez declined to give any specifics, although it wasn’t hard to find DeAndre Washington’s 48-yard near-touchdown reception against TCU in 2013.)
“I don’t think anyone on the field feels worse than the guy who dropped the ball,” Marquez said. “Kliff that day, he didn’t say anything. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll get the next one,’ in a situation where a coach really had every right to get in his face and yell. He understands mistakes are made.
“That was one of those moments, it was a reflection of him and showed what he was like – and we ended up winning the game.”
The idea was to play football, not coach. Kingsbury had seen his father, Tim, coach high school football for many years and didn’t think that was for him. Quarterbacking was different. But he didn’t catch on at his many NFL stops, and closed out his playing career with a season in NFL Europe and one in the Canadian Football League.
Coaching wasn’t initially an option – maybe he’d get into real estate, Kingsbury thought – until it was. University of Houston offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who had been on the Texas Tech staff when Kingsbury played there, called to ask Kingsbury to work as a quality-control coach in 2008. Two years later, Kingsbury was only 30 when he was named co-offensive coordinator at the school. Kingsbury wasn’t yet 32 when he became Johnny Manziel’s offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. He became Texas Tech’s head coach at age 33.
“I’ve never really gotten into any of the age deal,” said Kingsbury, who doesn’t turn 40 until August. “I was only officially a coach for a few years before I became a head coach, so it’s all a learning process and that’s what I envisioned. Regardless of age, I try to evolve and work on my craft every year.”
Maybe the Patriots had been ahead of the curve at the outset of Kingsbury’s playing career. Kingsbury spent his rookie season in New England on injured reserve, but he still helped the eventual Super Bowl champions and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis by helping break down video.
“Kliff always had the qualities that would make a successful coach,” said Symons, who became Texas Tech’s starting quarterback the year after Kingsbury went to play in the NFL. “Everyone knows Kliff’s story … but one thing that was undeniable, Kliff as a teammate, you always saw that he put in more work than anybody. That’s been said when he was a player and as a coach and it’s been well-documented how much he likes to study and all that, but he really set that tone.”
The quarterbacks Kingsbury has worked with have confidence in his NFL coaching future. Mahomes backed him – “I think he can be a great NFL coach” – and Webb, albeit thinking Kingsbury was going to be an NFL coordinator prior to a head coach, believes the same.
To think there won’t be a learning curve will be naïve. It’s one of the reasons Vance Joseph makes sense as defensive coordinator, coming off two years as the Broncos head coach. Cardinals scout Adrian Wilson, the former Pro Bowler and Ring of Honor member who was brought in by team president Michael Bidwill and GM Steve Keim as a third voice in the coaching interview process, said he liked Kingsbury's "confidence in terms of him having self-awareness that he will need some type of help.”
Kingsbury’s confidence goes beyond that, of course. His belief system is simple – work hard and options will be there. Work hard, and eventually, things will turn your way.
“I don’t read things, I have people sort out my mail and e-mails,” Kingsbury said. “I’m a positive-vibe person. I just don’t let the negativity get near me.”
In some ways, the grind in the office and the piles of important papers on his desk are just the adult version of Kingsbury’s life as a kid, when older brother Klint recalled Kliff watching ESPN constantly and throwing footballs toward the ceiling in bed before he went to sleep.
“To be on top of football, to be an NFL head coach,” Klint said, “it’s absolutely incredible.”