TEMPE, Ariz. — Kliff Kingsbury was already hot on Kyler Murray’s recruitment when he walked into an indoor football facility in suburban Dallas to meet with Murray during his junior season of high school.
He walked over to Murray and Ryan Hoogerwerf, Murray’s senior backup, while they were warming up together. Hoogerwerf gave a slight wave. Kingsbury waved back. Then Kingsbury and Murray started talking like they had known each other forever.
It felt to Hoogerwerf like the two had been in “cahoots for a while.”
“It was like they were old family friends,” Hoogerwerf told ESPN.
Kingsbury began recruiting Murray in 2012, when Murray was a sophomore at Allen High and Kingsbury the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
Now, the new Arizona Cardinals coach is looking at Murray again, though this time he’s eyeing him as the No. 1 pick in this week’s NFL draft.
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Kingsbury continued to recruit Murray in 2013 after becoming the head coach at Texas Tech — as did every other major program in America. But something between Murray and Kingsbury clicked. They found a bond. That wasn’t easy to do, said Murray’s high school coach, Tom Westerberg, because Murray didn’t trust many people.
Kingsbury and Murray struck up a relationship that, through the long recruitment process, grew stronger. Even after Murray signed with the Aggies and didn’t follow Kingsbury to Texas Tech, their relationship continued.
“I had a great relationship with him,” Murray said at this year’s NFL combine, perking up as he started talking about Kingsbury.
“He’s always been very fond of me and I respect that. I’ve always never taken that for granted. He’s always someone I can go to if I ever need anything.”
Besides both being from Texas, both being quarterbacks and both having their fathers heavily involved in their football careers, Kingsbury and Murray found common ground in their personalities. Both are quite intelligent, relatively quiet, don’t like the spotlight and share a similar air of confidence.
“Both cool guys,” said Marcus White, who was an offensive analyst at Texas Tech in 2013. “I can see that conversation going on a long time with those two.”
But Hoogerwerf saw one more thing the two had in common: their football minds.
“I think the biggest thing for [Kyler] and Kliff was the more modern coaching style of Kliff Kingsbury,” Hoogerwerf said. “I think Kyler has a very modernized football mind. He plays the game how the game is being played currently and Kliff coaches that way.
“I think that just resonated with him a lot. I can’t really pinpoint one specific thing that led to it. I just know that there was some sort of — not even hidden — respect level or admiration for Kliff that Kyler had.”
Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray shared a few words following Oklahoma’s victory over Texas Tech last November. AP Photo/Brad Tollefson
The feeling was mutual.
“I’ve known his father [Kevin] for a long time and have always kind of seen how he did things [with] Kyler, how he coached the game, how he played the game,” Kingsbury said. “As a quarterback myself, I’ve always had an appreciation for how he plays the game, how he coaches the game.”
When Kingsbury and Kyler Murray talked, it was effortless. The ease with which Kingsbury and Murray interacted still stands out to Hoogerwerf, who got the sense that Murray and Kingsbury hit it off quickly.
Murray referred to Kingsbury as “my guy Klifford.” He also talked about Kingsbury “all the time” in high school — about his coaching style, his leadership style, his character and his charisma.
Hoogerwerf, who played baseball at the University of Portland, said he hasn’t seen a player-coach relationship “as free and as loose” as that between Murray and Kingsbury.
“Being able to respect the coach that knows what he’s doing that much, as much as Kyler did, but also being able to talk to him like he’s kind of one of your boys, it was just a cool dynamic to see, especially at such a young age when we’re in high school,” Hoogerwerf said.
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But that didn’t mean it would lead Murray to Lubbock.
When Kingsbury was hired by Texas Tech, he made landing Murray his goal.
“I remember him being, for a lack of a better term — well, I won’t say infatuated — but we all have that guy that we see up and coming, that we kind of, ‘OK, that guy can really change a program,’ or, ‘That guy can really make this team go,’” White said.
That guy for Kingsbury was Murray.
White quickly pointed out, however, that Kingsbury is “a poker player, too.” He didn’t fawn over Murray — but “really liked the kid,” White said. When the Texas Tech coaches went over the stats every week from Friday night’s high school games, Kingsbury made sure to point out Murray’s numbers, White said.
At the NFL owner meetings in late March, Kingsbury said he felt Murray “understood” what Texas Tech was doing offensively with its quarterbacks.
“He knew what he could be in that system,” Kingsbury said.
Kingsbury continued to make trips to Murray’s high school until Murray committed to Texas A&M — without Kingsbury on staff. Texas Tech also brought Murray to campus “several times,” said Mike Jinks, a Kingsbury assistant from 2013-15.
The Red Raiders’ staff thought it had a chance — a good chance — at landing Murray.
“There was great interest,” Jinks said. “I think mutual interest with us. I really, really thought we were going to get him, to be honest with you.”
However, Westerberg didn’t think Texas Tech “was ever a part of it.”
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By the time Murray was narrowing his decision, Texas Tech was among the last five standing, a testament, Westerberg said, to Murray’s relationship with Kingsbury.
But Murray was the one that got away from Kingsbury, and that could change this week.
On Thursday, when the first round of the NFL draft begins with the Cardinals on the clock, Kingsbury has a chance to rewrite history and get the quarterback he’s always wanted.
“I don’t want to use the term ‘destined,’ but it’s almost in that respect,” White said. “With the comments that Kliff made about if he had the No. 1 overall pick — ‘He’s taking Kyler’ — you couldn’t even see this.
“The Cards had to come in last place, Kyler had to be the Heisman Trophy guy this year and Kliff had to get the job and now, all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Holy crap, he eluded me in high school and now it’s all on me right now. That was your decision and now this is my decision.’”