CORAL GABLES — When outgoing Missouri coach Gary Pinkel called longtime pal Mark Richt with a tip, it took the incoming Miami coach less than five minutes to act.
After hearing ace defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski might not be retained by Mizzou’s new staff, Richt called Kuligowski to let him know he wanted him at Miami. Richt knew Kuligowski was among the best assistant coaches in the game.
Problem was, the rest of the game knew it, too.
So after a day of wondering why he was waiting, Richt called Kuligowski again and offered him a job – before hiring his superior, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“If I had a D-coordinator who didn’t want him, I figure I probably don’t have the right D-coordinator,” Richt said.
No worries there. Diaz is harmonious with Kuligowski, who believes in Diaz’ hyper-aggressive 4-3 scheme. He admires his new boss, who made sure his rock-star hire felt comfortable by picking him up at the airport (Kuligowski admits he and his wife, Mary, thought that was “pretty cool … ‘That’s Mark Richt picking us up. Nice!’”). And after several years of passive pass-rushing and relaxed run-stopping, the Hurricanes finally believe their defensive line can be a lean, mean strength.
Miami led the nation in tackles for loss in 2010, Randy Shannon’s final year, but finished no higher than 56th (2011) under Al Golden and defensive. The last four years, UM’s average rank was 102. In sacks, Miami averaged 69th under Golden and two defensive line coaches.
Missouri, with Kuligowski mentoring the D-line, finished sixth, ninth and fifth nationally in tackles for loss the last three years (Diaz’ defenses, over the last seven years, have averaged 13th in that category). In sacks, Mizzou was 59th, ninth and fourth.
Since 2009, Kuligowski has also produced four first-round NFL draft picks (Ziggy Hood, Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson and Shane Ray), two SEC defensive players of the year (Michael Sam, Ray), recruited top-flight talent like Terry Beckner Jr. (No. 2 overall in the 2015 class, per ESPN) and turned unheralded recruits like Hood, Sam and Charles Harris into SEC standouts.
Now Miami, which hasn’t had a first-rounder at the position since Vince Wilfork in 2004, hopes the coach known “Kool” can use his Midas touch on junior defensive ends Al-Quadin Muhammad and Chad Thomas, two of the highest-rated recruits at their position out of high school, former blue-chip tackles Kendrick Norton and Gerald Willis, athletic ex-basketball players Demetrius Jackson and R.J. McIntosh and others.
“I think we have some talent,” said Kuligowski, who directed Mizzou’s defensive line for 15 years, Toledo’s for five and until now, has worked under no one but Pinkel. “I think we have some guys who look how you want them to look and play like you want them to play, in terms of athleticism. Now it’s just getting them to do the right things in the right way.”
Muhammad (6-4, 250), who has not spoken to the media since the spring, has tweeted that Kuligowski is the “best coach ever.” Thomas (6-6, 265) said Monday that Kuligowski “is a wizard, because he knows the answer to everything.” Jackson (6-4, 250) said he’s “showing me how to do things with my hands I never thought to do,” a comment similar to those made by McIntosh (6-4, 280).
An early measure of progress: Miami registered nine sacks in UM’s first scrimmage of camp last Wednesday.
“So far the guys have progressed in a way I expected,” Kuligowski said. “I haven’t been disappointed. They’re working hard, they’re teaching each other the drills now, they’re making it their own. I feel we’re going to be successful because guys have bought into it.”
Richt said Kuligowski, who made $362,500 at Mizzou last season (Miami is not required to disclose salaries), has “tremendous value” as a position coach. But Kuligowski has been open about his desire to move up. While Richt revealed Monday that Kuligowski will help Diaz coordinate the defense, it’s a wonder that Kuligowski hasn’t landed a full-time promotion.
“I’ve asked myself that question a few times over the years,” said Kuligowski, who added that he’s had “some talks” with other schools – Illinois in 2015 is reportedly among them – but hasn’t found the right fit.
“God’s got a plan,” he said. “If His plan is for me to be a defensive line coach the rest of my life, if He’s got a plan for me to be a coordinator and head coach later on, great. If not, that’s OK too. I’ll keep doing what I do. I love doing it. I just want to be the best at whatever I do.”
Noteworthy: The Hurricanes used to pump out defensive linemen with Kuligowski-like frequency. Cortez Kennedy (1990), Russell Maryland (1991), Warren Sapp (1995) and Kenard Lang (1997) were first-rounders. Five Hurricanes D-linemen were drafted in 2003 alone. Since Wilfork (first round, 2004), six Miami defensive linemen have been drafted, and one of them, Anthony Chickillo, plays linebacker in the pros.