Former Northwestern football coach Kyle Richardson often told his players the last few years that they never knew who was watching, and to act accordingly.
Richardson got a real life example of that when a Greenville-area number called his phone on Friday, March 11. It was Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney ringing to see if Richardson was interested in a new position the Tigers had created. Richardson didn’t answer initially but after getting back in touch with Swinney, became the newest addition to the Clemson coaching staff.
“People will notice,” said Richardson. “I had no idea coach Swinney was watching me from afar. I had no clue.”
Richardson accepted the Clemson job - he’ll be an offensive assistant coach - last Wednesday night, then told Northwestern coaches individually on Thursday morning. Careful to keep the news prematurely out of the media, Richardson told the team later that afternoon.
“The guy I was going to work for had to match up philosophy-wise with what I’m about off the field, and he does to a T and I knew that,” he said. “I’ve told a lot of people in the past that there’s one guy I would jump for and that’d be coach Swinney.”
Richardson leaves a deep imprint on the Northwestern football program.
He brought the Air Raid offense when he was hired as Jimmy Wallace’s offensive coordinator in 2007. Richardson helped produce a run of top-notch high school - and eventually college - quarterbacks. Will King, Justin Worley, Mason Rudolph, Dupree Hart and the latest, Gage Moloney, have all thrived under Richardson’s stewardship.
Records fell like ancient empires.
King broke the school’s single game passing yardage record in Richardson’s first game as offensive coordinator in 2007.
A Barry Byers story in The Herald from that year said former Trojan Bart Blanchard held Northwestern’s single-season passing touchdowns record (22) up to that point. Northwestern starting QBs have thrown for 41, 50, 42, 64, 27, 41, 64, 24 and 47 touchdowns in the nine seasons since the Air Raid was installed at the school. Rudolph - converted from a gangly wide receiver into one of college football’s top QB prospects - is indicative of Richardson’s coaching ability and eye for talent.
Multiple players caught over 100 passes in a season, including Hart, who - despite playing quarterback his senior season - owns the state’s career receptions record. He broke A.J. Green’s mark as a junior. Hart was indicative of the kind of player the Northwestern program produced: great athlete, excellent student, better person.
Wednesday, Richardson was quick to credit his coaching staff.
“This came from hard work, it came from a staff that just busted their tails for me and for this program, and I owe them a lot,” he said. “There was a lot of people that helped me get to this point and I’m very thankful for it.”
There was substance behind the showy stats.
Richardson’s Win Today philosophy erected an academic and moral scaffolding around the players, ensuring they handled their school and community obligations with as much attention as those on the football field.
On the field, Northwestern went 107-24 since 2007 with three state championships and six title game appearances. Richardson was 58-14 as a head coach with two championships and three title games total since 2011.
The last two seasons were probably Richardson’s best coaching jobs. In 2014, he moved Hart to quarterback to salvage that season, only ended by an overtime loss to Byrnes in the second round of the playoffs.
And this season, he spurned his pass-first inclinations and whipped up an offense that mirrored the kids he had: powerful, unselfish and eager to take whatever the defense allowed.
Richardson gets full marks for integrating a number of new faces into a machine-like unit, including Moloney, who only showed up days before fall practice started, and freshman Jamario Holley and sophomore Jordan Starkes, who finished as the team’s top two receivers. All of those players - plus college-bound bulldozing running back Jerry Howard and diesel defensive end Logan Rudolph - return for whoever coaches Northwestern next season.
After losing the 2015 opener, Northwestern won 14 games in a row, including a 50-point pounding of Lexington in the 4A Division II state championship game.
The first possession at Williams-Brice Stadium was so very Richardson’s Northwestern: 80 yards in seven plays and less than 2 minutes, culminating in a 15-yard touchdown pass to a backup receiver, Tyler Morgan.
The Trojans led 42-7 at halftime, leading to 24 of the most anticlimactic second half minutes of high school football the state has seen. Northwestern held Lexington’s ruthless running offense to just 40 yards, forced five turnovers, and a backup offensive lineman even caught a touchdown late in the game.
It was as perfect a performance as the Trojans produced under Richardson in what turned out to be the last game he coached for the school. If it was a final statement, it shouted, “I’m ready for the next challenge.”
Richardson is already working at Clemson and per NCAA rules, can’t talk directly about any of his former players. He was in Rock Hill Wednesday for the 2015 championship team’s ring ceremony. Richardson recently plunged a For Sale sign into the yard of his house that he bought two years ago; his wife and two daughters will join him down at Clemson after the school year is over.
There will be a time for Richardson to get wistful, maybe a little emotional about the past nine years. But there is too much going on right now and he’s too excited about the opportunity in front of him.
“I came home as a baby with a tiger paw on my chest and now I get to put a tiger paw on my chest and get to go to work every day at Death Valley,” said Richardson, sitting in his already cleaned-out Northwestern office with the lights off.
“Yeah, it’s a dream come true.”
What’s Kyle Richardson’s job at Clemson?
Richardson will be an offensive assistant coach, similar to what former Byrnes coach Bobby Bentley did at Auburn for a few seasons before joining Will Muschamp’s South Carolina staff recently. Richardson is prevented from partaking in off-campus recruiting or any on-field coaching; instead, he’ll be involved with the Clemson offense’s behind-the-scenes work. He has to learn a completely new offense, but that should come easily as he’ll be heavily involved with the Tigers’ film operations.
Clemson added another former high school coach, Grayson (Ga.) High School’s Mickey Conn, to the staff last week. He’ll have the same job as Richardson, just on the defensive side of the ball. Both were no doubt sold by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on his track record of promoting from within the program.
“It was one of those opportunities where it looks good, sounds good and we both jumped on it,” said Richardson.