TEMPE, Ariz. — What Kliff Kingsbury is doing — going from college head coach at Texas Tech directly to the NFL as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals — isn’t new.
But there’s a reason why Kingsbury is just the 12th head coach to make the jump since 2000 and why he’s the first since Bill O’Brien left Penn State in 2014 to take over the Houston Texans.
“There’s a huge, gigantic learning curve,” said Butch Davis, who jumped from the Miami Hurricanes to the Cleveland Browns in 2001. “You got to get in all the different things: contracts, free agency, the salary cap.”
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And that’s coming from a coach who knew what he was getting into, having spent six seasons as a Dallas Cowboys assistant, including his last two as defensive coordinator.
It’s still early for Kingsbury, who was the head coach at Texas Tech for six seasons before getting fired in November. But making the move from college to the pros isn’t an easy transition — just ask his predecessors.
“If you got a good job in college, you’re going to be favored, out of 12 games, eight or so,” said Steve Spurrier, who ended a successful run at the University of Florida to take the Washington Redskins job in 2002. “Shoot, Alabama would be favored in every one of them. In the NFL, every game is sort of a toss-up. If you can win almost all your close games, you’ll do very well if you got a pretty good team.”
Of the 11 coaches who made the jump from colleges to the pros since 2000, only Chip Kelly and Spurrier were without previous coaching experience in the NFL — though Spurrier was the head coach of the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits from 1983-85.
Kingsbury has played in the league, but he’s never coached a snap there.
“To me, it’s a different transition,” said Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who left USC for the Seahawks in 2010, of Kingsbury. “If you’ve been in the league and coached in the league and then you go to college and come back, it’s different. This is the maximum challenge for him, and he’s a great ball coach and he’s got a great system and all, and I’m sure that it won’t be something he can’t handle.
“But when you haven’t been in the league, there’s just some unique things about the makeup of the way things work and the timeframes and all of that that you have to get adjusted to, the rules are different, how we can coach guys and all that. There’s just a lot to acclimate to.”
Transitioning on and off the field
The on-field part of Kingsbury’s job may actually be the easiest.
Dennis Erickson, the former University of Miami, Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers coach, said NFL teams are running more college concepts than ever before. That may give Kingsbury, who’ll bring his version of the Air Raid to the Cardinals, an advantage.
Kingsbury’s college coach, current Washington State coach Mike Leach, doesn’t buy the argument that Kingsbury will have to adapt to the NFL schematically at all.
“OK, first off of all, I think there’s a couple of things: All this adapting, adapting, adapting, like the NFL is somehow some very special experience and you somehow need extremely special plays to play and all this other stuff,” Leach told ESPN. “Well, that’s a bunch of baloney and always has been. And that’s just a bunch of NFL guys patting their own self on the back, pretending something’s true when it’s not, because I’ve seen some very mediocre coaches from college go and have quite a lot of success in the NFL, but I think that all this, ‘Well it needs to be this type of play or otherwise it doesn’t work it in the NFL.’
“Well, think about how ridiculous that is.”
Kingsbury has been facing questions about his offense from the moment he was hired. His critics don’t think a college-style Air Raid offense can work. But Kingsbury hasn’t revealed a lot about how he’ll run his offense in the pros. He gave a hint — or at least planted the seeds of deception — last week when he said it’s not going to be wide open on every single snap.
Regardless of how Kingsbury runs the offense, Davis said weekly game planning can be easier than in college. In the NFL, he said, each team runs a variation of what everyone else runs, making it less of a challenge to prepare in just a few days. In college, Davis pointed out, each week can offer a totally different style of football, from the wishbone to no-huddle to 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust.
“All this adapting, adapting, adapting, like the NFL is somehow some very special experience and you somehow need extremely special plays to play and all this other stuff. Well, that’s a bunch of baloney and always has been.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach
Kingsbury also won’t have any limitations with his players. At Texas Tech, he was allowed to be with his players 20 hours per week, four hours per day. That limit, O’Brien said, handcuffs coaches’ ability to develop players and install detailed playbooks. In the NFL, a coach may spend four hours with them before lunch on a Monday.
Jumping from college to the NFL also relieves Kingsbury of one of the fundamental aspects of being a college coach: recruiting. That, in addition to not having any of the peripheral responsibilities that accompany representing a school’s football team, such as fundraising and meeting donors, has opened up Kingsbury’s schedule so he can just focus on football.
“That’s a huge plus for me,” Kingsbury said. “I enjoyed all aspects of being a head coach in college, but the recruiting, that’s the lifeblood of any program. That should be your focus. That may not have been my focus at times as much as it should’ve been because I wanted to coach the quarterbacks and be in the X’s and O’s and study other offenses.
“Now I get to do that and make that first and foremost, and it’s been good.”
Kingsbury will be trying to emulate the work that O’Brien — one of the few coaches who made the college-to-pro jump successfully — has done. He’s 42-38 in five seasons with the Texans after going 15-9 at Penn State. Only three other coaches who jumped from college to the NFL since 2000 had career winning records. By the time he landed in Houston, O’Brien had a deep understanding of how NFL and college players thought, having coached in New England from 2007-2011.
“The big adjustment in pro football is you’re coaching guys — in your team meeting room, you have a range of ages — but you have guys in there with families, that are married with kids, they’re getting paid to play the game,” O’Brien said. “I think when you put that factor in, guys that are receiving paychecks to play the game, trying to take care of their families, and these guys only have a short window to play the game. That’s a whole different, other set of circumstances relative to coaching a college guy that’s 17, 18, 19, 20 years old that you’re not paying and things like that. I think there’s some adjustments. I love both levels. I love college. I love pro football.”
One area Kingsbury may have an advantage, Davis said, is that he didn’t come from one of the Cadillacs of college football.
At Texas Tech, Kingsbury didn’t have the facilities of an Oregon, the gravitas of an Alabama or the resources of a USC. The playing field in college is unbalanced, Davis pointed out. And for someone like Kingsbury, who had to rely on his talent evaluation more than his resources to attract players to Lubbock, Texas, the transition to the NFL could be easier.
“To be honest with you, the guys that succeed in college that go up, they better be great evaluators of talent,” Davis said. “When they see a guy and they say, ‘You know what? He fits in my scheme. Other teams may not like him, but with what we’re going to do, this guy’s going to help us win games.'”
When Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone left the New Orleans Saints in 2008 after three years as their offensive coordinator to become Syracuse’s head coach, a lot of people told him he should stay in the NFL. He always responded the same way: If I can be a good coach in college, why wouldn’t I get a job in the NFL? Besides, Marrone said, his time at Syracuse familiarized him with the next generation of young men.
“It gave me a better insight into what’s going on with the players, who’s involved in their lives, how those things changed — social media — at a much younger age,” Marrone said. “So, I think I was able to take those experiences and have them help me be a better communicator with some of the players, where, if not, I would have been in my own little world. I mean, I don’t like using a phone. I don’t like text messaging. It’s something I do as a necessity, not as something that I look forward to.”
Kingsbury is no stranger to the world of younger players and is already taking steps to relate to them. He gives the Cardinals breaks during meetings every 20 to 30 minutes to let him check their phones, go to the bathroom, get something to eat or drink, or do whatever NFL players get antsy to do. It’s something he started doing at Texas Tech when he saw signs that players were losing focus.
“I’ve worked with a bunch of young men who went on to play [in the NFL],” Kingsbury said. “And the average age is 25 now, so it’s a little bit of a different dynamic, I think. So, there will be some adjustments, no question, but as far as a wholesale, ‘Hey, you have to talk to people differently or do things differently,’ that’s not really the approach I’m taking.”
But he may have to in some instances, according to his new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
“In college, the coach has most of the control, so the players are compliant by nature because you control this kid’s future,” said Joseph, who was a college assistant for the first six years of his coaching career before moving into the NFL. “In the league, it’s not that way. It’s a player-driven league. They have the power. It’s really about relationships. You can’t bully him into playing. Here, they have to want to play for you. They don’t have to. They don’t have to play for you, but they have to want to play.
“It’s a partnership, and that’s strange sometimes for college coaches.”
Would they do it again?
Spurrier, with the aid of hindsight, believes he tried his hand at the wrong NFL job. He won 12 games in two years and was fired after the 2003 season.
“I went to the wrong place,” Spurrier said. “I thought I was going to get a general manager, and I got the owner as the general manager, and the personnel director ended up being the quarterback coach because he picked the quarterbacks the second year I was at the Washington Redskins. And I did a sorry job also. That’s my story. I did a sorry job, and I needed to get out of there, so I got out.”
For years, especially in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, college coaches believed if they did well, the NFL was the natural next step, Spurrier said.
The Super Bowl was the “No. 1 apple in the sky” for coaches of a certain generation, Erickson said.
But the NFL isn’t that alluring anymore.
One reason Erickson left Miami was because of the raise he received from the Seahawks. Davis made four times his Miami salary with the Browns.
These days, Spurrier said, college coaches — at least in the top tier — make more than NFL coaches. That’s partly why no college coach had jumped to the NFL in the past five years.
“There’s no need to go to the NFL,” Spurrier said. “And the NFL is more fair. It’s a lot more fair than college ball, as we know.
“Guys have good jobs in college, and I just think they’ll be smart to stay in a good job in college.”
So looking back, did they make the right decision to jump from college football to the NFL?
“If I had to do it all over again,” Erickson said, “I would never have left college football.”