The long road has unfurled before Kliff Kingsbury, the challenge of guiding the Arizona Cardinals back to relevance. A quick glance in his rear-view mirror, though, and it’s hard to ignore the USC football program left choking in his dust.
“Obviously, I was thrilled to be there with coach [Clay] Helton, and thought that was an incredible situation with where I think that program’s going,” said Kingsbury, of his month-long stint as USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “But when you have a chance to be an NFL head coach … you just can’t say no.”
Kingsbury stood on a dais and addressed reporters at the NFL combine Wednesday, one of a steady stream of coaches and general managers doing their turn at the microphone before digging in to further evaluation of this year’s crop of prospects.
The charismatic Kingsbury is particularly in the spotlight because of his success in developing college quarterbacks — among them Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Case Keenum — but also because the Cardinals have the No. 1 pick.
Still, it had to be surreal for him considering the whirlwind of the past few months. In November, he was fired after six seasons as coach at Texas Tech, his alma mater, leaving with a record of 35-40.
USC, coming off a 5-7 season that put Helton’s job in jeopardy, turned to Kingsbury and his “Air Raid” system for answers, and to send the message the program was determined to recover. After true freshman J.T. Daniels was rushed into duty to replace Sam Darnold — the No. 3 pick by the New York Jets in the 2018 NFL draft — the Trojans had an abysmal season on offense.
But Kingsbury didn’t last long. By the end of the NFL season, both the Cardinals and New York Jets were eyeing him as a head coach. He ultimately left for Arizona.
Arizona general manager Steve Keim said since the Cardinals worked out Mahomes before the 2017 draft he has seen Kingsbury as a potential NFL head coach.
“A lot of people looked at it as an outside-the-box type of thing, but his ability to get quarterbacks right, regardless of scheme, regardless of talent level, he has a history of doing that,” Keim said. “To me, that was awfully appealing, aside from the fact that he’s extremely creative as a play caller.”
Scalded by the experience, USC moved on yet adhered to the Air Raid principles, hiring another former Texas Tech quarterback in Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator. Kingsbury, for one, thinks that was a good idea.
“I think looking at talent on their roster, who they’ve got coming back, and just being there for the time I was, they’re going to be really, really good,” he said. “They’ve got Graham Harrell, who’s a tremendous offensive mind, and so they’re going to be a tough out in that league. They should all be really excited for the team they have coming back.”
Then again, it’s late February, when hope still springs eternal. He’s optimistic about the Cardinals too, even though they were inept on offense last season and finished 3-13, their worst record in 18 years. They used the No. 10 pick on UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen last year but haven’t entirely ruled out the possibility of using the top pick on another quarterback this year. A comment Kingsbury made in October, when he was still at Texas Tech, has intensified the speculation. He said that if he had the No. 1 pick, he would select Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray.
“I think what Kliff said was trying to avoid bulletin board material,” Keim said Wednesday when asked about the effusive praise of Murray. “If you were at Texas Tech, I would’ve said the same thing about an Oklahoma quarterback.”
But Keim didn’t completely put the topic to rest Wednesday when asked, “Is Josh Rosen your quarterback?”
“Yeah,” he said, leaving himself a wisp of wiggle room. “He is right now, for sure.”
As for Kingsbury, he’s facing a treacherous uphill path. For every Sean McVay or Matt Nagy — offensive masterminds who made immediate positive impacts on the Rams and Chicago Bears, respectively — there are more NFL head-coaching flameouts, among them Chip Kelly, Steve Spurrier, Lane Kiffin and Josh McDaniels.
“Football is football and it’s about players more than anything,” Kingsbury said. “So if you have the right guys pulling the trigger, the right guys running the routes and the right guy handing it to you, you’re going to look pretty good.”
Did Arizona get the right guy wearing the headset? Its previous coach lasted a season. Armed with the No. 1 pick, the Cardinals are on the clock. And considering the ever-dwindling patience in the NFL, so is Kingsbury.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer