During trying times, It’s very difficult to fathom why our lives are pushed in different directions. Some call it fate. Some call it happenstance. Some just figure, “dems the breaks.”
Whatever the compelling force is that governs our directions in life, while there can be tremendous hurt and confusion in moments of abrupt change, there is often as brighter dawn ahead that we cannot yet see until we make the walk to greet it.
What I will always treasure about you —- is your self-discipline.
Ironically, too often your Cardinals players didn’t emulate it as well as anyone would have liked —- but you never stopped urging and prodding them —- not by yelling at them in their faces —- but by pulling them aside privately and looking them in the eyes with respect.
Your players played hard, Kliff.
Of all of the Cardinals’ coaches I have watched, I think I have to go back to the Don Coryell days to remember a time when the Cardinals played hard every game. Long time Cardinals’ fans like myself are keenly aware of how many times the Cardinals came out in games and were getting blown out by half-time.
For example, I will never forget the times I stood at half-time in the hot dog and beer lines at the Meadowlands only to hear throngs of Giants fans bellow, “I love these Cardinals games, they are always over by half-time.”
Cardinals’ fans know the sorry look of a team that does not show up. We know it all to well. We know it like 58-0 well.
Not only did your players play hard, your teams were the most successful and consistent road warriors, winning a historic 8 games on the road last year and going three games over .500 in your four years, at 18-15. Your teams managed to beat the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams in their stadiums twice in your 4 years, with 2 different QBs.
There were times in the past where head coaches complained about having too play 1 pm games on the East coast. Well, no Arizona Cardinals’ teams that I know of, handled the 1 pm East coast games the way yours did.
You win by being you, Kliff.
Staying true to yourself is a testament to your self-discipline.
Your former boss just called you the hardest working coach he has ever seen.
I will never forget the HBO Hard Knocks scene in your car when you were driving to work at 3:11 am the Monday after the bye week, when you told us that as a former NFL player you always regretted not giving everything you had to be the kind of player you wanted to be.
How you then told us that when you became a coach you wanted to make sure to do everything you could to achieve your goals, so as to never have the kind of regret you had as a player.
You gave the Arizona Cardinals everything you had, Kliff.
I feel so much pride and admiration in you for that.
I also feel proud for you that you were able to be a vital part of JJ Watt’s final seasons in the NFL.
So many of your home losses were tantalizingly close —- like the last home game you coached, the 19-16 overtime loss to Tom Brady and the Bucs. Like the 25-24 loss to the Chargers on a last second 2 point conversion. Like the 20-17 loss to the NFC #1 seed Eagles, when Matt Amendola missed the game tying field goal.
But all of that now feels like fate. In the NFL, close is often not good enough, not for head coaches, that’s for sure.
You had the team trending upward for three seasons, but after what was the most calamitous off-season imaginable, all it took was one down season for you to get fired. It doesn’t seem fair.
It hasn’t been lost on me, either, that your two most difficult seasons as head coach, your first and last, were ones in which star players were suspended for the first 6 games due to PED violations. Funny how the guys who work the hardest often have to pay for those who cut corners. Not just you Kliff, but the whole team.
But, that’s where fate comes in. When something happens that doesn’t feel fair, all too often we are being nudged in a different direction and pushed toward a new destination.
It often isn’t until years later that we understand and appreciate why we were pushed down a different path when everything seemed quite good on the path we were trekking. Someone wise once said, “It’s not the road your on that matters, it’s the journey.”
I was once hired as an English teacher and head football coach at the Rivers School, a private day school outside of Boston. It's a school that hadn’t had a winning football season in ages. The program was so down that the 16 school league, the Independent School League (ISL) with schools from MA, NH, RI, had threatened to drop Rivers from the league if they didn’t improve the quality of the football team to at least make it respectable.
My former boss at Avon Old Farms School said I was crazy to take that job.
There is a long story to this...but the gist is that in my third year at Rivers, my players went 4-4. It was the first non-losing football record the school had achieved in years. The ISL never threatened to drop Rivers again and the program since then has done very well. In fact, Bill Belichick’s sons played in the program a few years after I left.
I thought I was doing very well at Rivers. I had the unbelievable honor when one senior class dedicated their yearbook to me. My best QB went to UConn on a baseball scholarship and wound up being the Big East Tournament Player of the Year when he hit a game winning home run over Seton Hall. My most talented TE went on to play at Northeastern University.
I was also the head basketball coach and one season my underdog team won the ISL Championship going 15-0 in the league, 23-1 overall, losing the final game in the New England Class C Championship at Worcester Academy.
So yeah, I thought things were going well at Rivers. Not so fast. I was called in one day by the new headmaster of the school and was told that they wouldn’t be renewing my contract. Apparently, for whatever reason, the new headmaster didn’t like me. Nor did the head of the board of trustees. Nor did the athletic director whom I had succeeded as head football coach.
At the time, you can just imagine my disbelief and dismay.
It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I wound up at Foxborough High School where I was blessed to have the nicest, most gracious and hard working students I could have ever wished for. I taught the last 21 years of my 38 year career there. This even happened in the second to last game I would ever coach:
What’s most meaningful to me about that stunning game was that the young man, Pat Smith, who made the 62 footer was the must unsung player on the team. Channel 5 ABC in Boston came in the next day and filmed Pat trying 10 shots from the same spot. Incredibly, on the 10th shot he caromed one in from 62 feet off the backboard this time. The ABC crew went wild.
That’s why I believe that you can take heart, Kliff. I don’t think there is any question that there are brighter days ahead for you. Your best coaching is yet to come.
You will give it your all, as you always do.
Regardless of wins and losses, the most important part of the journey is the rapport you build with the people around you. You have always had wonderful people around you Kliff. And that will never change.
Out of the blue back in October, two of my former football stalwarts and best leaders at Rivers, DE Kyle Furman and T Carl Robinson, reached out to me with this photo of what Kyle claimed was me reminding him to “KEEP CONTAIN!”
A couple of weeks later, we wound up having a great reunion at Walden Pond in Concord, MA.
it is an unbelievable feeling to see such fine you men turn into outstanding family men, dads, pillars of their communities and assiduous breadwinners. To have just a small part in their lives is such a blessing that no wins and loss record could ever possibly match.
That’s why I was especially happy to see this tweet this morning from Zach Ertz:
Appreciate you for everything coach pic.twitter.com/MWyi3JaWbg— Zach Ertz (@ZERTZ_86) January 11, 2023
These are the relationships that will never be forgotten. The ones that transcend everything else.
To reiterate, you win by being you, Kliff.
The composure you showed this season and your “never quit” enthusiasm that helped the players keep playing hard was one of the most extraordinary daily displays of character that I have ever seen.
Funny how in life a person’s greatest strength can be considered by some their greatest weakness.
Your strength and fortitude under extreme duress this season was a sign of outstanding leadership.
I saw that on the wall of your office a few feet to the right of the portrait of your extrarordinary mom, Sally Kingsbury, you had a plaque of The 4 Agreements:
- Agreement 1: Be Impeccable With Your Word
- Agreement 2: Don’t Take Anything Personally
- Agreement 3: Don’t Make Assumptions
- Agreement 4: Always Do Your Best
For anyone who has tried to live by The 4 Agreements, you know how challenging and nearly impossible it is. It requires supreme self-discipline.
Well, Kliff, of anyone I know, I would say you are staying the course with regard to The 4 Agreements amazingly well!
Whenever I am feeling sad about missing someone, I turn to my old friend Dr. Suess who wrote:
Thank you for all the hard work and dedication you put into your work every day for four years in trying to nudge a historically woeful Cardinals’ franchise in a positive direction. No one can ever take away the fact that you happened to do just that.
Best wishes to you, Kliff. Thanks for keeping the playing hard right to the end under what Ron Wolfley called the worst set of calamities in one season that he's ever seen. If you wind up being the Patriots' OC, I will drive over to Gillette to cheer you on. https://t.co/bFKSiR1t0H— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) January 9, 2023