PHOENIX — Nobody beats Kliff Kingsbury to the office.
Not the janitor or the general manager.
Not the still-sleeping songbirds nestled in the trees outside of the Cardinals’ Tempe training facility, and certainly not the tardy rising sun that lags every single day some three hours behind.
When you’re Kliff Kingsbury, the new head coach of the Cardinals, time is strictly of the essence and there isn’t enough time in the day for all that needs to be done. So to cheat time, Kingsbury wakes up earlier than the morning dew, chugs down a few cups of his favorite Tier 1 coffee — “It’s as natural a blend as you can get, but it gets you going,” he says — and he speeds off to headquarters for a vigorous two-hour workout.
It usually begins around 4 a.m.
More: Opinion: Robert Kraft owed due process, but NFL must hold Patriots owner to high standard
More: Trent Dilfer’s journey, from Super Bowl to tragedy to Nashville high school coach
“Oh my God, we can’t beat him to the office,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “Obviously, he doesn’t have family so he’s here at 4 or 4:30. I don’t know for sure because I’m not here at 4 or 4:30. I walk in at 6:30 and all I know is he’s already been here for two hours. But that just speaks to his work ethic and his commitment to this football team.”
The 39-year-old Kingsbury has been on the job for seven weeks now and he’s still living in a hotel when he’s not spending the majority of his time at work.
Finding a house somewhere nearby, he said, will become a priority when it needs to be a priority, but not now.
There simply is too much to do, like watching more game film, studying more free agents and draft prospects, drawing up more plays and huddling with staff and team personnel to go over his latest ideas, whether it’s a unique practice schedule or a new concept to exploit a Cover 2 zone defense.
For Kingsbury, it’s always go, go, go and go some more. To call him “high energy” is a disservice. The man is frenetic, like a canary on caffeine. That’s why he tries to burn off some of his untethered drive with those daily predawn solo workouts.
“A lot of thinking goes on while I’m working out. It’s kind of a quiet time so I get my thoughts in order for the day,” Kingsbury said during a rare break from his duties at the Cardinals’ Dignity Health Training Center. “I’ll have my thoughts on what we’re doing that day and it’s just a good time — alone time — in that weight room or on the treadmill where I can do a lot of thinking.”
To keep all of those thoughts together, Kingsbury will literally run from the weight room to his upstairs office to jot everything down on bundles upon bundles of yellow legal pad notebooks. Unlike another young NFL head coach with whom he is often compared and is said to have a photographic memory — Sean McVay of the Rams — Kingsbury needs to take notes “because there’s only a certain amount of time and I’ve got to write it down so I can have it.”
One quick glance inside his office is telling. There are notes, big and small, spread all over the place. Some are scribbled on napkins or whatever else was handy on which to write. There are literally stacks and piles of “thoughts” everywhere you look.
“Every time I walk down to his office, it’s a complete mess,” Steve Keim, the Cardinals’ general manager, said during a recent radio interview. “And when I say that, I say it with respect because there are papers everywhere and diagrams of plays and he’s watching film — sort of like the Nutty Professor putting a plan together, and it’s exciting to see.”
Kingsbury, who spent the previous six seasons as the head coach at Texas Tech, prefers to describe his office as “organized chaos.” It may look cluttered, unkempt and out of control, he admits, but he labels every shred of information and knows exactly where everything is.
Kingsbury isn’t messy; he is meticulous. He is incredibly detailed and completely thorough, which is exactly how he and Keim went about assembling the coaching staff. Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said he’s never seen such an exhaustive interview process, noting Kingsbury would spend an entire day meeting with a potential candidate, even those he already knew, whereas “I’ve seen coaches put together an entire staff in 20 to 30 minutes.”
If it sounds as if Kingsbury is just a little bit excessive, it’s because he is. It’s a trait he and his brother, Klint, inherited from their father, Tim, a high school coach and former Marine who nearly died during his service in Vietnam when he was shot in the jaw. Tim Kingsbury was pinned down for three hours after being struck, returning fire as he waited for a helicopter ride to safety.
“A lot of our childhood was based upon his service to our country and his toughness,” Kliff Kingsbury said. “That’s what he’s about — mental toughness and doing things the right way and being on time. When you know your father has gone through something like that, he served his country and fought for his country and nearly lost his life, it impacts you and it really puts things in perspective at a young age.”
Dad taught his sons that time is essential, punctuality paramount.
“Yeah, we were always early to everything,” Kingsbury says, “and were taught at a young age that the greatest way to show respect is to honor somebody’s time. It’s the most important commodity you have in the world, so if you’re late to anything, that was just not acceptable in our household.”
Kingsbury learned about compassion and patience from his mom, Sally, who died in 2005 from cancer. To this day, nothing has affected him more, which probably explains why he is so willing to give underrated players and coaches their chances to shine. He’s done it countless times throughout his coaching career, whether it involved quarterback Baker Mayfield or David Raih, his new wide receivers coach.
But what really drives Kingsbury and makes him so competitive and intense might stem from his own shortcomings. Born in San Antonio, he became a star quarterback at New Braunfels High School and would go on to dominate in college football at Texas Tech, where he finished his career with 39 school records, 13 Big 12 Conference records and seven NCAA FBS records.
As great as he was, he couldn’t make a dent in the NFL, where he tried to make a go of it for parts of four seasons, including his rookie year with Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2003. He would appear in only one NFL regular-season game, with the Jets in 2005, and complete only one pass. It still stings for Kingsbury.
“I just always wanted to play quarterback,” he says. “That was my dream, that was my Plan A and there wasn’t a Plan B. When it ended, it was like, ‘All right, what do we do now?’ So re-starting from zero, starting at the bottom, was not easy.”
There are regrets and Kingsbury blames no one but himself for not leaving his mark in the NFL as a player.
“Yeah, I think you look back and you can see where you could have done things differently or worked harder or put more focus into it,” he says. “You have such a limited time to maximize that as a player and you don’t realize it while you’re going through it. You’re enjoying all the perks of it and doing this and doing that, but just looking back on it, I had plenty of opportunities to really be a successful player and I just didn’t take advantage of that.”
Now, as a coach, Kingsbury leans on those misgivings to make sure none of his players ever feel the same way. He speaks openly to them about his own failures, reminding them the importance of seizing the moment and grinding through the process with clarity, focus and drive.
Kingsbury touched on a variety of other subjects during his interview with The Arizona Republic on Friday, including:
* On expectations that the Cardinals can average 500-plus yards and more than 40 points a game, which his college teams all managed to do since he became an offensive coordinator.
“Yeah, I don’t know if that’s going to be the numbers in this league. It’s not set up that way. But we want to be productive, offensively. We want to play to our players’ strengths and maximize who they are as players and do a good job adapting to our personnel and I think that’s the mission right now. We’re still trying to figure out what we have and put a roster together that we think can execute offensively and defensively at a high level.”
* Learning about what film can’t teach you about a player, which he will take into consideration when he and the Cardinals head to Indianapolis to scout prospects at the NFL scouting combine.
“It’s mentality, first and foremost. What type of approach do they have for the game? What type of work ethic? Do they have that dog in them, so to speak? How much do they love it? How much does it mean to them? All of those things. That’s why we’re going to Indy, to get in front of these kids and get a feel for them.”
* How he won over Bidwilll and Keim during his interview by recommending that he break down film of quarterback Josh Rosen in front of them to sell his plan.
“Obviously, I knew why they were interested in me and that was quarterback mentorship and offensive football and I wanted to make sure they knew I was passionate about our plan and their plan and I could see where we could take this thing. Josh is very, very talented, a tremendous thrower of the football. I followed him in college, watched him last year, and I just wanted to point out some things that I saw where I thought we could help. … I think he understands why I’m here as well and that we’ll be tied together on this deal, so we want to maximize together what we can be, offensively.”
* And of course, there’s the Kyler Murray question and speculation as to whether Kingsbury and the Cardinals would even consider drafting the smallish former Oklahoma quarterback with the No.1 overall pick.
“Let everybody speculate,” Kingsbury says with a laugh. “That’s your job this time of year, to have fun with all those scenarios. It’s a unique opportunity for the Cardinals and the media market here, to have the first pick and we understand that. I think it’s great, all the attention it brings to our brand. But we’ll continue to be behind the curtain and work on what we’re working on.”