TEMPE, Ariz. — At 5:25 every morning, Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach David Raih watches Kliff Kingsbury walk out of the weight room at the team’s practice facility, finished with his workout, right on schedule.
Not 5:24. Not 5:26.
“I mean, period,” Raih said.
Not a day goes by that Kingsbury isn’t on time.
Eight months into Kingsbury’s first year as an NFL head coach with the Cardinals, his schedule has turned heads. At work by 4:30 a.m. In bed by 9 p.m. In between, football — nothing but.
But Kingsbury’s tight schedule hasn’t kept him from hearing what’s being said and written about him. More than once during his daily training camp news conferences he has referred to an article, tweet or hot take from the day before.
“When people say stuff, he just kind of laughs and changes the subject and goes on to something else,” said his older brother, Klint.
Kingsbury’s way of dealing with the outside noise has been to just work.
After an offseason in which everyone from fans to pundits have questioned everything from his losing record in college to his pro coaching inexperience to his Ryan Gosling-like looks, Kingsbury is ready to prove his critics wrong.
“There’s a perception because he’s a good-looking guy, he’s young, he’s not married [that] maybe he’s out in the streets or a playboy type, which, after working with him for the amount of time that I have already, it’s really the polar opposite,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said.
“It’s kind of like you’re working with an old man who just wants to coach football.”
Hardly Hollywood away from the limelight
Thomas Wheat has seen a side of Kingsbury few have.
They met when both were playing sports at Texas Tech: Kingsbury was the future quarterback of the Red Raiders, Wheat a tennis player. They hit it off immediately, sharing a love of hunting and fishing. Their bond grew stronger because they had both lost their mothers early.
When Kingsbury took over as the head coach at Texas Tech in 2013, Wheat started making the five-hour trip from Dallas to Lubbock. Every visit was the same. Kingsbury would be out of the house before dawn to work out, long before Wheat woke up. Wheat would eventually get to Kingsbury’s office, where he’d shadow his friend, sit in a few meetings, work out with him and get some of his own work done.
They’d head home by 8 p.m. and swing by a restaurant to pick up dinner. Kingsbury would stay in the car, on his phone, texting away. They’d eat “real quick,” Wheat said, in the living room and then Kingsbury, who rarely took his eyes off his phone, would go to sleep around 9 p.m. Wheat would hang out in the living room the rest of the night, by himself, before crashing in the guest room.
Then they’d do it all over again the next day.
“He’s the first guy in and the last guy out,” Wheat said. “It just doesn’t add up for me [why Texas Tech didn’t win more].
“I’m just glad that the next level saw what I saw, because it proves that I wasn’t just biased because I was a close friend of his. The guy’s such a winner. I can’t believe we didn’t knock it out of the park [while he was here].”
In many ways, Kingsbury’s work ethic runs contrary to his image. Before he coached his first game at Texas Tech, he had to shut down a line of clothing that featured the phrase, “Our coach is hotter than your coach” because he felt it focused too much on him and took away from the players. In October, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Mac Engel slapped the moniker of “Coach Bro” on Kingsbury after a win over TCU. Just or not, it stuck.
And when photos like the one below emerge of him hanging out with former NFL teammate Tom Brady at the Kentucky Derby (together on the far right), it just adds fuel to the “Coach Bro” fire.
*Insert gif of me yelling Let’s Go below* pic.twitter.com/1yRGoDk9MU
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) May 4, 2019
“The ‘Coach Bro’ bit, that drives me nuts,” said David Simmonds, who has known Kingsbury since they were toddlers. “He’s a good-looking dude. It’s the persona and he wants to dress well. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“I don’t want to say he’s the antithesis of that, but he’s a motivated — highly motivated — individual.”
Simmonds wasn’t done.
“Any time somebody is young, successful and making money, our society right now is, ‘Hey, let’s take a shot at him. How can we find a way to take a shot at him?'” Simmonds said. “He’s young. He’s good-looking. Looks like Ryan Gosling. He’s 39 years old. Has millions of dollars. He’s now the head football coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Boy, let’s see how many holes we can shoot into him.”
Kingsbury’s friends and family bristle when they hear the critiques. Kingsbury isn’t one to defend himself, publicly at least. He lets everyone else do the talking. That’s not his thing. Never has been.
“It’s not my opinion,” he said. “Not my thought. I don’t think people around me see it that way.”
To some degree, Kingsbury is an introvert. He’d rather text than talk on the phone. His brother is the opposite. Tim, Kingsbury’s dad, had to learn how to text just to communicate with his youngest son.
Kingsbury has been quiet and reserved for as long as Tammi Boozer has known him, which dates back to his time as quarterback at Texas Tech from 1999 to 2002. Boozer worked in the school’s sports information office and handled player interviews.
“That’s just his personality as a whole,” Boozer said. “He doesn’t share a whole lot.”
People would ask Klint how his brother was doing after their mom, Sally, died in 2003. But Klint could never answer. He didn’t know because Kingsbury wouldn’t tell him. And Kingsbury didn’t change as he got older. Boozer would check in on him from time to time when he was coaching at Texas Tech, letting him know she and her family were there if he needed anything.
He always had the same response: “I’m good. All good with me.”
“He would never tell me if he was having a bad day or if something was wrong,” she said.
Kingsbury wants to keep the focus on football. And while his life is consumed by the sport, his days are defined by routine, by discipline and by consistency — all traits passed along from his father, Kingsbury’s high school football coach and also a former Marine who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam. Kingsbury flips his phone over at 9 p.m. so he can wake up before dawn. He calls the routine “pretty strict” and Wheat can attest to that. Earlier this year, he and Kingsbury were in the middle of a text conversation when the clock approached 9. Wheat didn’t hear from his friend until the next day.
What is Kingsbury doing in those early-morning hours? This offseason he watched film of every play from every team from last season, Raih said.
Keim, the Cardinals general manager, had to drop subtle hints for Kingsbury to go on vacation during the team’s offseason — which he eventually did.
“[He needed] to find time to decompress,” Keim said. “I almost had to give him a little bit of advice that there are some times when he needs to step away and take a breath. He is driven. He is goal-oriented.”
Can he succeed?
As soon as Kingsbury’s name was linked to the Cardinals, the doubts about whether he was qualified to coach in the NFL poured in. And to some degree, rightfully so. He went 35-40 in six seasons as coach at Texas Tech.
“People that don’t know him are going to obviously think that,” Simmonds said. “If I didn’t know the guy, I would think the same thing.
“But people that know him know that he’s going to be successful.”
That’s because they’ve seen Kingsbury dedicate himself to football since he was young. He was drawing up plays before he was 10. He’d spend Saturday nights in high school trying to convince friends to skip parties in favor of running routes for him at 10 p.m.
He was a Heisman Trophy candidate his final year at Texas Tech and then returned to coach in 2013, when excitement after a 7-5 debut season led to the school selling out its season tickets for the first time.
By 2018, though, much of that luster had worn off. Kingsbury’s teams averaged at least 30 points a game in all six seasons, but the defense failed to hold up its end of the bargain. The defense consistently finished near the bottom in the nation. In 2016, the Red Raiders were dead last in total defense. In 2015, they were second to last. In 2014, they were fourth to last. Kingsbury was accountable for the entire team, but it’s no secret that his focus has always been on the offense. Now with the Cardinals, Kingsbury will lean on defensive coordinator and former Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph to pick up that slack.
“They had to play better defense [at Texas Tech] but they didn’t,” Kingsbury’s father said. “They tried. Had some bad luck with quarterbacks being hurt and that kind of stuff. I think people recognize what he can do and that’s why he ended up jumping from getting fired to a head coach in the NFL.”
Kingsbury can’t run from his record at Texas Tech. Ultimately, that’s on him. But he also isn’t just some guy who lucked into a few good seasons because he had Patrick Mahomes and a good offensive scheme. The coach has the acumen.
It’s different now. No more recruiting. No more grades to worry about. No more glad-handing with boosters. Just all football, all coaching, all the time.
“It’s the perfect fit for him,” said Raih, who met Kingsbury in 2013 when he was hired to his staff at Texas Tech. “It’s a beautiful thing because he knows and he’s overjoyed about it. He can totally focus on football because he is a football guy.”
“He is as happy as I’ve seen him in years,” Klint Kingsbury said.
“From what I’ve seen, the NFL is going to be a perfect place for him. Absolutely. The only thing I can tell you is watching those games is going to be exciting as anything because you never know what he’s going to do. And whatever offensive play he calls, it’s going to be something that’s going to be really well thought out.”
Mike Jinks, who was the running backs coach and then assistant head coach at Texas Tech, has coached at 10 different stops in his 23-year career. He called Kliff Kingsbury one of the hardest-working people he has ever met.
“I chuckled at the perception that people have of him, especially once I got to Tech,” Jinks said. “I’d known Kliff for a while, known him as he came up through the high school and college ranks and got a chance to coach against his father — actually coached against him in high school, so I have a pretty good idea of what he’s really about as a man.
“The whole Hollywood thing couldn’t be further from the truth, to be honest with you. He’s a grinder. That’s the best way I could describe it.”
Jinks described Kingsbury as a coach’s coach, a label — or compliment — that fits today.
“He truly operates like an assistant,” Raih said. “I just mean with humility and he just sets an example. It is so clear and every meeting on the field with the team, that it’s not about him.
“He just sets the marching orders and he leads the way, like by example. I truly mean that. Like every single day you can set a watch to him.”
At Texas Tech, Kingsbury’s assistants started to notice their head coach was beating them to the office, getting his workout done first, breaking down film and scripting practices before they had breakfast. It didn’t take long before some of those assistants and some of the players began their own early-morning workouts — not quite Kingsbury early but early enough.
Keim compared it to when young players watch veterans work: They see what it takes to get to where they want to be.
That, Keim said, is infectious.
That’s Kliff Kingsbury.
“What drives him? Hell, I don’t know, man, diesel fuel?” said Marcus White, who was an offensive analyst for Kingsbury at Texas Tech. “It’s gotta be diesel fuel. It’s just something inside him that’s just going to stop him.
“It’s just not going to stop burning. It’s not going to stop moving until he’s on top of a mountain.”