The buzz began to build late last week when former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was spotted on the USC campus. Multiple reports then surfaced that Kingsbury and USC had agreed to a deal in principle for him to become the Trojans’ offensive coordinator.
With the weekend, though, came quiet. Rumors swirled that Kingsbury was taking his time to consider his NFL options before choosing USC. The more time that went by without an answer, the more Trojans fans became uneasy that Kingsbury’s pass-happy “Air Raid” offense would not be coming to the Coliseum, despite Clay Helton’s best effort to do something bold in the aftermath of a disappointing 5-7 season.
According to a close friend of Kingsbury, the coach was simply using the weekend to guard against making a rash decision.
USC “is where he was leaning the whole time,” Eric Morris, Kingsbury’s offensive coordinator at Texas Tech from 2014 to 2017, said Tuesday. “He wanted to step back and spend a lot of time on it and sleep on it and make sure he was doing the right thing. He just got out of a six-year commitment and needed a little time to decompress.”
The noise picked up again Tuesday morning with more reports saying Kingsbury to USC was now a done deal. A USC spokesman said the school did not have an announcement to be made about the coaching staff, but the hype train had already left the station.
Morris, now the head coach at FCS-level Incarnate Word, said Kingsbury decided on USC for reasons both personal and professional. But, as much as a chance to live in Los Angeles after six years in Lubbock, Texas, was intriguing to the 39-year-old coach with Hollywood good looks, this was still a football decision.
“The biggest thing was deciding if he wanted to go the NFL route or if he wanted to stay in college,” Morris said. “With his dad being a high school head coach, he still values the relationship aspect of it and being a part of those kids’ lives at a critical time, and I think that’s really what led him to staying in college.
“And what better place … the storied program like USC where you should have a competitive advantage of getting recruits is something that all of us in this [Mike] Leach system have always wanted to do. Any time as a play-caller you can get your hands on better athletes than the rest of the conference, that’s a dream come true.”
Tuesday, on the same day that first-team All-Pac-12 honors were announced with no USC players for the first time since 2000, Trojans everywhere got to resume celebrating the impending arrival of Kingsbury.
Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart sent a tweet to Kingsbury saying, “Welcome to the Trojan Family @TTUKingsbury. Looking forward to next season!” This Leinart tweet was much different than the one he sent after the loss to UCLA two weeks ago, which succinctly said, “Embarrassing.”
“Bringing in a guy like Kliff just gives the offense instant credibility and instant identity,” Leinart said later in an interview with The Times. “First of all I think USC has really struggled to figure out what they want to be offensively with a lot of talent. Do they want to run the football? Do they want to try to be physical? Do they want to spread you out and throw the ball? It was always a mixed bag.
“He’s very creative and he’s a great offensive mind. Guys like that are the new object of everybody’s affection so to speak in football, in the NFL as well. So I think to snag a guy like Kliff, he’s just going to bring that offense an identity they haven’t had, and I think it’s a tremendous fit for USC and Kliff.”
Kingsbury went 35-40 at his alma mater before being fired after the Red Raiders lost their final five games this season. His offenses were consistently prolific running Kingsbury’s take on the “Air Raid” system he learned as a player from then-Texas Tech coach Leach. Kingsbury was Leach’s first starting quarterback there.
Kingsbury bounced around the NFL and the Canadian Football League before starting his career as a coach as a quality control assistant at the University of Houston in 2008. By 2010 he was co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In 2012, he took over as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M and helped coach Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy that season.
The next year, Texas Tech brought him home to Lubbock as head coach.
During his time at Texas Tech, he tutored numerous quarterbacks who are now NFL starters, including the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield (who later transferred to Oklahoma and won the 2017 Heisman).
Bringing on Kingsbury represents a strong move by Helton, a sign that he is willing to make major changes in the Trojans’ offense to move the program forward.
Kingsbury’s wide-open spread system, which often utilizes four wide receivers and no tight end, would have talent to work with in quarterback JT Daniels and wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-ra St. Brown. Running back Stephen Carr is a talented and versatile player who has yet to show it consistently at USC.
Could the “Air Raid” work well culturally at “Tailback U?”
“Offenses continue to evolve,” Leinart said. “That’s just the way the sport is going at all levels. Alabama was always smashmouth, run-first, and had quarterbacks that managed the game. You look at what Tua Tagovailoa did for making them a spread team. You work with the talent you have.”
Leinart, a Santa Ana Mater Dei alum like Daniels, said Kingsbury’s system will play well to Daniels’ strengths and his background at Mater Dei.
“It fits him perfectly,” Leinart said. “JT showed enough this year of how talented he is and how the ceiling is extremely high for him. There were growing pains. That was to be expected. Putting him in this system with a known phenomenal quarterback coach in Kliff Kingsbury, we’re going to see him jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and have a huge year the next couple years.”
What will Kingsbury’s offense look like with USC’s offensive talent to deploy? Morris predicted it would be more diverse than a true “Air Raid” like Leach runs at Washington State, more resembling the balanced and powerful spread offense Lincoln Riley runs at Oklahoma.
“You have to run the ball to win championships,” Morris said. “Kliff knows that. He’ll put a heavy emphasis on finding ways to run the football, but he’ll be super creative as far as getting into the screen game and throwing the football as well. It will be a fun style. They will play extremely fast. Tempo will be a huge part of it.”
Morris said Kingsbury coming to USC makes sense on a personal level as well.
“It fits his personality a lot more than Lubbock, Texas,” Morris said. “He hasn’t had a great social life over the last six years living in a small community in a college town. It’s hard for him to get out as a head coach and really enjoy himself.
“I think it will be a great change of pace for him and allow him to enjoy life a little bit and not be so consumed with football all the time. And that’s what I told him. I said, ‘Hey, you need to go out and enjoy yourself, enjoy the beautiful weather and the beautiful scenery and the beautiful women in Southern California.’ ”