Consider the Cardinals: UIW may still be one of the country's premier FCS teams in 2023
SAN ANTONIO – The University of Incarnate Word Cardinals can hear it all.
The naysayers, the doubters, those who oppose the idea that they are a quality team. The ones pointing out that so far, their 4-1 record has come against opponents with a combined 5-24 mark. The same people making note that the remainder of their schedule includes teams with a combined 8-25 record: not much better.
UIW lost five all-Americans – one being the Walter Payton award winner - it lost its leader in head coach GJ Kinne, who left for Texas State after just one season, and it has the youngest Division I head football coach in NCAA history: 30-year-old Clint Killough.
There’s an ample number of reasons that FCS talking heads have been reluctant to give the Cardinals the same flowers they did last season when they reached the national semifinals.
“We’re aware,” Killough said. “We don’t pay too much mind to the criticism, but you hear it.”
Not that they needed anymore bulletin board material.
UIW knew coming into 2023 things would be different. The tune surrounding its team would be changed. With such major shifts within the program, it’d have to earn its respect back, so the Cards have already had a chip on their shoulders.
But contrary to these popular opinions of UIW claiming that it might be overrated or undeserving of such a high national standing (currently #7), its already shown it can be the threat it was a year ago – starting from the top down.
The man for the job
Age is just a number.
As cliché as it may sound, that phrase embodies Killough perfectly. What he lacks for in years, he makes up for with a wealth of knowledge. The first-year head coach has been in college football for a little over a decade, and most of that time has been spent at UIW. From 2013 to 2015 he was a receiver for the Cardinals and just three years later he was back in San Antonio. He joined head coach Eric Morris on his staff that took over the Cardinals in 2018 and truly began the transformative shift they’ve underwent since.
He’s been a position coach, an assistant coach, an interim head coach and now officially the head coach since returning to his alma mater. He’s seen UIW on the lower end of the FCS totem pole and he’s seen it nearly at the top. There wasn’t really a question of his fit or preparedness despite his age.
“At the end of the day I care about this place, and I knew there was nobody better for the job than me,” Killough said. “As a player and assistant coach, I’ve seen everything that can take place within this program and know all the nuances that come with being at UIW, and I had some good conversations with GJ (Kinne) and Coach (Eric) Morris and some guys I worked for at Bowling Green and just decided that my confidence was in the right place, and I was the right guy for the job.”
His youthfulness has more helped than hurt.
Not that the averaged-aged coach – which lands somewhere in the 40s – isn’t ambitious, but Killough has that first-timer’s energy and passion. So much so that when he was promoted in December of 2022, he was working through the holidays.
The only day he made it home for was Christmas.
“I took one day off during Christmas Break – I spent Christmas with my family because I wouldn’t have made it to this day if I didn’t – but other than that I was the lone guy in this facility with the lights all off with chicken scratch all over my whiteboard,” Killough said.
It’s also benefitted him in recruiting, where he has a natural connection to prospective Cardinals. Not too far removed from being in their shoes, Killough can tap into their minds, relate to their desires and keep it real.
“I don’t overly try to be hip or cool or know what’s going on, but I’m in tune and cultured and I know what they care about and where their mind is at between 18 and 22 years old,” Killough said. “The biggest thing that I harp on is I tell them the truth. They are like lie detectors at that age. You can probably think back to times when you were that age talking to someone and thinking, ‘Man, that guy is full of it.’ So I really take pride in being upfront and honest. I’ll tell them what they do really well, and what they don’t do well and how I can get them better and closer to the things that they’ve dreamed about for a long time.”
That’s how he landed starting quarterback Zach Calzada to replace program record-setter Lindsey Scott Jr..
The senior was once a sophomore starter for Texas A&M due to injury, leading the Aggies to a win over Alabama. He then played for the Auburn Tigers but missed that season with an injury of his own. Jumping around the SEC behind some of the most influential programs in the game, getting him to come to the FCS was somewhat of a surprise.
But Killough’s straight-shooting approach connected with the young mind.
“It was us and some MAC schools. I know Buffalo was high on his list, and I think some people had some worries about his shoulder. But it pretty much came down to, you can go to the MAC and freeze your tail off in November and December or you can come to San Antonio and throw it all over the yard and have a blast and get national recognition,” Killough said of recruiting Calzada. “I don’t think any of those MAC QBs got the same recognition as Cam Ward or (Lindsey) Scott over the past couple of years. And he’s sensible. He’d been behind the best logos in college football. He’d been at A&M, he’d been at Auburn, so those things didn’t matter. He was just looking for the fit.”
The only place where the ripe age of 30 has hurt Killough so far has been his image to others – getting people to follow someone not typically in a head coaching role.
But he takes care of that rather promptly.
“Everywhere you get the looks like, ‘Oh, you’re the head coach? You’re a young guy,’” Killough said. “But they hear me talk and I give them that look and start going in that direction and they figure out really quick that I’m the guy.”
Don’t overlook the wins
It’s easy to look at the Cardinals lackluster schedule and write them off. The Southland Conference currently has three winless teams and the only team over .500 is UIW.
But they can only play who is in front of them, and those teams in front of them did not forget about last season where Incarnate Word won its second-straight conference title.
“We’ve aired it out as a football team, I told them we will probably be favored in every game, and we will probably get every teams best shot,” Killough said. “You don’t have the season we had last year and run up the scores the way we did without people wanting to come after you and rightfully so.”
They averaged over 50 points per game last year and that’s why their conference-opening bout versus a winless SELA team last weekend finished 33-26 down to the wire. Aside from a recent 14-13 loss to Tarleton State, that was SELA’s closest game of the year in their six contests.
Every Southland team is going to want payback, so though they are expected to win, it won’t come easy.
Plus, having talent doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed wins. It’s a tale as old as time – top players come together to form a great team on paper, whether it be the pro ranks or collegiate – and it flops. Well, Killough brought in over 40 transfer athletes this season and that same scenario could have rung true.
Instead, he’s showed some coaching chops. A new-look team with a first-time head coach, changed coaching staff, unfamiliar QB and over 40 transfers is off to a 4-1 start and only getting better with each passing week.
They weren’t guaranteed success when looking at all the variables. It’s not the same team from last season. Doubters holding them to those same standards and by those same guidelines might need to reevaluate how they are viewing UIW.
What it’s gotten – rankings and all – its earned.
“When you put a lot of talent in the room, it doesn’t always equate to wins,” Killough said. “You have to come together – you have to gain confidence in the way you work through the week and then you have to play together on Saturdays and they’ve done a great job of facing adversity and every week presents different challenges and if we’re able to key in and execute at a high level, our talent will allow us to be in every game every week and as long as we increase the left side of the dash, that’s all I’m worried about.”