The dream began with a picture of two friends posted on social media. There Kliff Kingsbury sat, trying to pick himself up after the most disappointing moment of his football life, with Los Angeles-based sports journalist Arash Markazi, a USC graduate. Markazi captioned the picture, taken at a Manhattan Beach establishment, with a hint that the man to his left might just end up his alma mater’s new offensive coordinator.
“I was just hoping that would be a fit,” Markazi said, “not really knowing if anything was happening.”
The USC football internet mafia did a collective double take. Kingsbury, the architect of consistent top-10 offenses at Texas Tech and the man who molded the likes of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Johnny Manziel, was in L.A. only days after being fired as head coach of the Red Raiders? Rumors then began circulating that Kingsbury was seen on campus. Could it be that USC coach Clay Helton was going to take a swing at the biggest name on the coaching market?
Within a week, Helton and USC athletic director Lynn Swann had reeled in Kingsbury, one of the only coaches who could galvanize a fan base that was largely devoid of hope after a frustrating 5-7 season.
“He’s always wanted to live by the beach,” Markazi said.
Tuesday, a month later, the dream ended with a triumphant tweet from the Arizona Cardinals announcing Kingsbury as their new head coach, followed by a USC release that included nothing but a quote from Helton, who chose to take the high road:
“I am happy for Kliff,” Helton said. “Any time you get an opportunity to be an NFL head coach, it is special. He is a talented coach, that’s why we brought him here. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Kingsbury’s month as USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is one that will live in infamy, which is remarkable considering the fan base never even got to lash out at him over one questionable play call. He didn’t really do much of anything. He hit the road recruiting, selling some talented wide receivers that there were enough balls to go around for all of them in his version of the “Air Raid” offense. He started checking out some potential homes. He went back to his hometown of New Braunfels, Texas, for Christmas with the family. By the time the calendar hit 2019, word leaked that the New York Jets and Cardinals wanted to speak with him about their head coaching openings.
This came as a shock to some, given that Kingsbury was just let go by a college football team — his alma mater, no less — for going 35-40 in six seasons as head coach. But it was only shocking if you didn’t know the developing hot trend in the NFL, which is to hire a young offensive innovator, in the mold of the Rams’ Sean McVay, and hand him the keys to the kingdom.
Did USC have any inkling that NFL head coaching openings were a possibility for Kingsbury? That part is unclear. But, once reports surfaced of the interest, things started to get weird. A buzz persisted that Swann was blocking Kingsbury from interviewing with NFL teams, an unprecedented move by a college athletic director. Whether that was true or not, it didn’t stop Kingsbury from interviewing with the Jets on Monday and the Cardinals on Tuesday.
The Cardinals, a franchise with the worst offense in the NFL in 2018, heard enough from Kingsbury in a few hours to offer him the job. Kingsbury accepted.
If you weren’t privy to all the rumors of what was happening behind the scenes at USC, there was nothing surprising to any of it: A college offensive coordinator at a traditional power jumped at the chance to lead a NFL franchise.
But this is USC, and this is L.A., where drama rules. And it will be hard for the Trojans to control the spin after losing Kingsbury.
The only thing Helton and Swann can do is nail the hire of Kingsbury’s replacement and trudge onward toward 2019 and what will be an awkward opening of the renovated Coliseum.
Where Helton goes with the hire will be telling. If he stays down the “Air Raid” path, it will appear that he was interested in the system as a fit for USC’s talent and not just the buzz that came with hiring Kingsbury. If he chooses a new offensive coordinator who does not espouse principles similar to the “Air Raid,” it will appear that Helton was after the hot name and show the program to be rudderless in its vision for the future.
USC, of course, is known as “Tailback U” for a reason, and there is a segment of the fan base that will always prefer “student body left” and “student body right” as key parts of the Trojans playbook. For Kingsbury, that contingent seemed open to change.
But the 2019 Trojans remain a logical fit for the “Air Raid,” even without Kingsbury. JT Daniels played in a similar system at Santa Ana Mater Dei and would relish the chance to sling the ball around. USC’s wide receiver corps, which just added five-star recruits Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford to a stable of talented returners, has the depth to come at opposing secondaries in waves. Running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai can catch the ball out of the backfield. Plus, USC’s offensive line has struggled in recent years and could benefit from a system predicated on the quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly.
After making the splash hire of the college football off-season, Helton is back to Square One.
The Kingsbury dream is dead. Who’s next?
“USC has always attracted the best coaches in the country from all levels,” Helton said. “We will spend the upcoming weeks finding the best possible fit for USC and our program.”