As bizarre coaching fascinations go, Kliff Kingsbury is merely the latest odd NFL flavor of the month. In 2013, the Chicago Bears went to the Canadian Football League and hired Marc Trestman. He was a disaster. In 2007, late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis turned over his franchise to a 31-year-old college assistant coach named Lane Kiffin. He was a disaster. In 1995, the New York Jets gave their head coach and general manager jobs to a freshly fired Rich Kotite.
He. Was. A. Disaster.
There are many more examples of irresponsible teams telegraphing hires destined to fail, but Kingsbury is the misguided obsession du jour. Six weeks ago, Texas Tech, his alma mater, fired Kingsbury after he posted a 35-40 record and made just three bowl appearances in six seasons. On Tuesday, the Arizona Cardinals hired him — as their head coach. Not as their offensive coordinator. As their head coach.
Ignore that smudge on his résumé because there’s a slight chance he could be the next Sean McVay. In a copycat league, finding the next McVay is the newest whim.
While Kingsbury didn’t show he can win and command an entire locker room in Lubbock, Tex., he’s a handsome 39-year-old with a magnetic personality who can draw up pretty plays, develop quarterbacks and score 40 points per game at the college level.
The in-demand status of Kingsbury, who according to reports also was interviewed by the Jets, is a symptom of the NFL’s reckless and illogical hiring practices and an example of why the league will never have real diversity — not just racial but diversity of strategy and styles of play.
Kingsbury is now the poster child for failing up. For certain, he has a clever offensive mind, but after losing his job at Texas Tech, he would have been wise to take a step back, work as an offensive coordinator and rebuild his reputation. USC had hired him last month to run its offense, and that only made pro teams thirstier for his services. It would have made sense if there had been a pro and college bidding war for his play-calling services. For an NFL team, that would have been a safer way to keep up with the McVays.
But to have Kingsbury run the whole show? Why? To win a news conference or gain temporary relevance by making a questionable decision that sparks national debate? These are the lengths to which NFL teams will go to avoid giving greater consideration to minority candidates or coaches who are simply in the minority, regardless of their race, because they are humble NFL lifers and grinders who specialize in defense or special teams or any other job less glamorous than decorating the scoreboard.
In December, NFL owners made the surprise announcement that the league would strengthen the Rooney Rule, which obligates teams to interview minority candidates when making coaching and executive hires. Among the notable revisions to the rule, the league is taking measures that attempt to end the practice of sham interviews, which teams often do when they already have identified a preferred candidate. And the NFL is sharing the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s career development advisory panel list with teams to assist them in targeting coaches who should be considered for better jobs during each hiring cycle.
After the annual round of coaching firings, eight of the league’s 32 head coaching positions came open. There are three minority head coaches: Anthony Lynn and Mike Tomlin, who are black, and Ron Rivera, who is Latino. With Arizona hiring Kingsbury, Bruce Arians going to Tampa Bay and Green Bay opting for Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, there are five openings now.
I don’t mind Kingsbury getting a chance as much as the message that teams sent. Soon after the NFL announced its Rooney Rule revision, NFL insiders started writing stories that featured anonymous executives complaining about the shallow and unimpressive pool of candidates this season. It’s an interesting coincidence, isn’t it? The league had just altered a policy requiring teams to try a little harder — to be more fair — in their hiring practices, and the reaction is to muddy those waters by saying, “There aren’t enough good people out there.”
Really, there aren’t enough creative thinkers out there, except for the ones who want to disguise Kingsbury as novel and unconventional rather than a lame attempt to be like the Rams. While it’s uncommon to hire a recently fired college coach with a losing record for a top NFL job, Kingsbury feels like more of the same. He’s a coach who can relate to an out-of-touch owner desperate to sell tickets and make him think he’s doing something special. It’s crazy that an owner would be as comfortable hiring Kingsbury as, say, Kris Richard, who developed the Legion of Boom in Seattle and added imagination to a stale Dallas Cowboys defense this season.
Richard, who is black, interviewed with three teams Sunday, a day after Dallas’s first-round victory: the Jets, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Eric Bieniemy, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator and another top minority candidate, also has had several interviews. It’s wonderful that they’re receiving consideration. They earned it. But for all assistant coaches with teams in the playoffs — typically the most qualified head-coaching options — this is a difficult situation. They’re being forced to try to stand out during three-a-day interview marathons while also preparing for the next big game. It’s almost impossible to juggle effectively.
It’s also troubling that every year there seem to be just a couple of minority candidates that all the coach-seeking teams rush to interview, under difficult circumstances, before proceeding to hire the coach they really wanted. For the Rooney Rule to become more than just a speed-limit sign that franchises ignore, thorough consideration needs to be given to an array of coaches.
But why deal with that headache when Kingsbury is available? Those who defend him point to his prolific offenses, which were consistently ranked among college football’s best. They give him credit for his role in the development of Patrick Mahomes, Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel and even Baker Mayfield, who was at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma. It’s reasonable that the Cardinals would want him to groom Josh Rosen. Kingsbury can handle that task. It’s winning with the other 52 players that will be the problem.
But Arizona is interested in coach cloning, especially since it shares the NFC West with McVay. Remember when the Cardinals made a truly inspired hire by believing Arians, at 60 years old, finally deserved a chance? That took some guts, even though Arians had been awarded coach of the year honors for keeping the Indianapolis Colts together while Chuck Pagano battled leukemia. Arians, who might have never been noticed if not for Pagano’s illness, rewarded Arizona’s faith by going 49-30-1 in five seasons . But now the Cardinals have selected a misfit that the offense-loving cool kids have touted for no good reason.
A piece of advice for the six teams still coach hunting: Don’t just follow the trend. Do something truly original. Try harder. Vet the uncelebrated coaches — the Anthony Lynns, if you need a model — and find one who can stand out without failing up.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.