ORLANDO, Fla. — G.J. Kinne and Gus Malzahn stand steps away from each other on the UCF practice field, near the quarterbacks of course. Malzahn points animatedly at the receivers before the passing drill begins. Kinne listens, then backpedals like a defensive back, keeping his eyes on the signal-callers.
It is hard to believe Kinne is even here, let alone coaching alongside the man who first showed him what a next-level, new-age, transformational spread offense could look like. If Kinne had made different decisions about two separate transfers — one in high school and another in college — his life might look different than it does now. And he likely wouldn’t be standing next to Malzahn, one of his biggest mentors, on a hot, humid day in Florida.
Kinne and Malzahn first met in 2008 at a Tulsa spring game. Kinne, a freshman quarterback pondering his college future, could hardly believe what he saw: Motions and formations that made the self-described football junkie marvel and think, “I have never seen this before. How cool is this?”
Malzahn had designed it all.
Now, at age 32 and entering his first year as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the Knights, Kinne does not have much time to think about those “what ifs,” but it’s hard to ignore how his choices have shaped the past 15 years of his life and led to a big opportunity at UCF.
While expectations are growing with Malzahn as head coach, UCF returns one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Dillon Gabriel, who threw for over 3,000 yards in each of his first two seasons with the Knights. Gabriel and the Knights are hoping to start the season on a high note when they open at home against Boise State on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
Now that everything has come full circle, there are more than just X’s and O’s on Kinne’s mind. He has as rich a pedigree as it comes. His high school coach and four of his college coordinators or position coaches eventually became collegiate head coaches themselves, all thanks to the offenses they managed.
Kinne appears to be on his way to joining them someday, thanks to the circumstances that got him to this very point. While it may seem the thread that started it all begins with Malzahn, Kinne may never have gotten to Tulsa if not for the worst moment of his life.
“That goes back to this question,” Kinne said, “Is it a God thing that led me down this path? It definitely is. It’s kind of crazy to even think about.”
When G.J. started high school, the Kinnes moved to Canton, Texas, so his father, Gary Joe, could fulfill a lifelong dream to become a head football coach. Having only coached as an assistant at bigger schools in bigger cities in Texas, Gary Joe’s arrival in Canton, population 3,500, raised some eyebrows, especially when he announced that G.J. would be his starting quarterback as a 14-year-old freshman.
“We didn’t know them and they didn’t know us, so it was hard,” Gary Joe said. “You go to a small town and it’s usually close-knit and they’re skeptical. G.J. has always been gifted and he was clearly going to be the quarterback. There were definitely all eyes on that. You always hear he’s only playing because his dad’s the coach.”
But Canton High starting winning, including its first playoff victory since 1964. The following season, Canton went 8-2 and recruiting interest in G.J. started to pick up. Both Gary Joe and G.J. thought the program’s success had gained them more acceptance, but one man shattered those illusions in April 2005.
As Gary Joe sat in his office that morning, Jeff Robertson walked in and shot Kinne in the abdomen, then fled the scene. Robertson had previously been banned from campus sporting events following multiple incidents in which he confronted coaches about his son’s playing time.
School administrators rushed to find G.J. in class, and when he finally got to the field house, he saw the floor to the coaches’ offices covered in blood. Gary Joe was laying on the floor of the weight room waiting for a helicopter to take him to the nearest hospital, 45 minutes away in Tyler. Though Gary Joe was nonresponsive, G.J. grabbed his hand and squeezed. In those moments, he had no idea whether his dad would live or die.
“I got to say what I needed to say,” G.J. said.
Robertson never testified at his trial in February 2006 and his motive remains unknown. He was convicted of aggravated assault and possession of a deadly weapon in a prohibited place and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Gary Joe survived, but had a long recovery after losing 80 percent of his liver. He stayed in the hospital for 100 days, but was determined to coach during the football season. Gary Joe returned for the first game only four months after he was shot. Despite a setback that forced him back into the hospital during the season, Gary Joe led Canton to the state quarterfinals.
“I wasn’t going to let that beat me,” Gary Joe said. “I didn’t panic when I was shot. I think some of the things you learn as an athlete, perseverance and focusing on what’s at hand, that helped me survive. The guy who shot me, he wasn’t going to win. I was going to be back. I wanted my kids to see their dad was strong enough to get through that.”
Despite his return and the football team’s success, tension remained. People took sides over what happened, creating what the family described as an uncomfortable and oftentimes awkward environment, especially as the trial got underway. G.J.’s father had gotten shot at his very school, and yet he said he couldn’t wrap his brain around those who floated conspiracy theories about the shooting or said negative things about his dad.
“Robertson’s son was still in school, so I’d see him in the hallways,” Kinne said. “In school, people would point at kids and tell me, ‘Yeah, her mom sat on Robertson’s side.’ You know, he grew up there, he’s part of the community. His family was there, and so, just like anyone when something happens, people love that person. It was getting too weird. I had to get out.”
Before the start of the 2006 season, Gary Joe decided to take a job as an assistant at Baylor. G.J., one of the top quarterback prospects in Texas, decided to transfer to Gilmer, one of the top programs in the state. He knew Gilmer well — Canton beat the school in their state playoff matchup in 2005 and coach Jeff Traylor had a track record of developing top quarterbacks. But the circumstances surrounding his transfer were not without controversy. Kinne said he was looking for a fresh start, but Traylor was accused of illegally recruiting Kinne and forced to explain the transfer to the state athletics board after complaints from rival schools.
“I’ve said this a million times before: The easiest thing for me to do was not to take G.J. Kinne, because I knew all the heat we were going to catch for taking him,” said Traylor, now head coach at UTSA. “He was a lightning rod, and it was so undeserved. He’s such a great human. I just feel sorry for people that aren’t rooting for G.J. Kinne.”
Traylor never promised Kinne the starting job, but an injury to the starting quarterback opened the door. Kinne put together another outstanding season in 2006, throwing for 3,216 yards and 47 touchdowns with one interception. He also rushed for 400 yards and 11 touchdowns.
When his high school career ended, he ranked No. 3 in state history in passing yards. But beyond football, Kinne says he felt accepted within the Gilmer community.
“Going to Gilmer is one of the best things that happened to me just because I learned so much football and the community embraced me, and was very loving at that time,” G.J. said. “With everything that was going on in Canton, it was really cool.”
The decision ultimately changed the course of his life. A new school entered the recruiting mix, one that directly led to Tulsa and Malzahn.
Kinne was committed to Baylor, but started to receive interest from Texas while at Gilmer. This put both father and son in a bind. Then-Texas coach Mack Brown called Gary Joe at Baylor and offered not to recruit G.J. if it made him uncomfortable. But Gary Joe wanted what was best for his son. G.J. believed he would be letting his dad down if he decommitted, but also thought he had to take the opportunity in front of him, knowing full well he would be going in behind incumbent Colt McCoy.
“Growing up in Texas … it’s the University of Texas. They had just won a national championship with Vince Young,” G.J. said. “It was tough for sure, but my dad was OK with it because it was Texas, and it was Mack Brown.”
“His knowledge of the game and his ability to relate to players, those were things that were impressive. I knew it was a matter of time before he became an on-the-field coach.”
Chad Morris on G.J. Kinne
Kinne had to give it a shot. But after a year, he realized he wanted to be with a program where he would have a chance to be a multiyear starter. Kinne made a visit to Tulsa, where Todd Graham was the head coach. Graham played with Gary Joe in high school and gave him his first job as a high school coach in 1995 at Allen High.
Malzahn was in his second offensive coordinator job at the collegiate level after popularizing the up-tempo spread offense, and winning with it, in high schools in Arkansas. Kinne described an “instant connection” with Malzahn, who reminded him of Traylor. “I just felt really comfortable with him, and the plan he had for me and the offense,” Kinne said. “I knew I fit his scheme really well. I wanted to play in that system.”
Once he arrived, Kinne made an instant impression. “It wasn’t just about his talent,” Malzahn said. “He was a competitor. In all our quarterback meetings, you could tell he had a coach’s mentality. I knew he was going to be a good coach someday. That year, I was just waiting to coach him.”
Kinne had to sit out his first year at Tulsa because of NCAA transfer rules, but watched Malzahn help lead the No. 1 offense in the country and knew his turn would come. Unfortunately for Kinne, Malzahn left after the season to take the offensive coordinator job at Auburn.
Kinne had a different offensive coordinator every year he was at Tulsa, plus a new head coach his senior year. Three coordinators — Malzahn, Mike Norvell and Chad Morris — eventually became head coaches. Under Morris in 2010, Kinne was Conference USA Player of the Year. In his final year at Tulsa, under first-year coach Bill Blankenship, Kinne had 3,495 yards of total offense with 31 touchdowns.
Learning under a new offensive coordinator every year could be enough to drive a young quarterback out of football. But Kinne learned from each coach, storing away what he liked and what he didn’t, knowing one day all the knowledge he gained would be put to good use.
It happened again in the NFL after he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles. Chip Kelly, who had big success with the no-huddle spread at Oregon, was head coach at the time, and Kinne felt right at home as soon as he opened the playbook. Though Kinne was the fifth quarterback on the roster, he saw an opportunity to help the others. He lived with Mark Sanchez, whom he had first met when they were with the New York Jets the previous season. Having played in pro-style offenses his entire career, Sanchez was new to the spread.
“I was fighting for my spot [in 2014], but at the same time, it goes back to knowing I wanted to be a coach, working with those guys,” Kinne said. “Because I had run these concepts before, and none of these guys had run them, that was my way of helping the team.”
Kinne made the practice squad, but Kelly asked him to move to receiver in 2015. There was one caveat: the Eagles still wanted him in the quarterback room with position coach Ryan Day to help, in yet another connection to a future head coach. Kinne knew his professional football days were numbered, though. He started to think more about coaching, since he was essentially doing it every day.
Watching his father fight for his life back in high school hardened G.J.’s resolve about his future: He would keep pressing forward to one day become a coach. There was too much pride at stake, but more than that was the unwavering belief coaching was the intended plan for him, and absolutely nothing would stop him.
Many of G.J.’s coaches, including his father, got their start on the high school level. But G.J. was adamant he would not coach high school. Not after what happened to his father. But his conviction to coach remained strong. “My dad always told me, ‘Play as long as you can, the coaching is going to be there,'” G.J. said. “‘And the more experience, and the more networks you can build, that’s going to help your career in the long run.'”
He had connections in the NFL, but he also had connections on the collegiate level. Morris hired him as a grad assistant at SMU. This would prove to be the first of his Tulsa connections on his collegiate coaching path.
“His knowledge of the game, and his ability to relate to players, those were things that were impressive,” Morris said. “I knew it was a matter of time before he became an on-the-field coach and he definitely could translate that knowledge to his players.”
Kinne went with Morris to Arkansas as an offensive analyst, then took an opportunity to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Graham at Hawaii. Tulsa connection No. 2. After just a year, Malzahn called. He continued to follow Kinne’s career, and when he got hired at UCF, he wanted someone familiar with his offense and comfortable with allowing Malzahn to call the plays. Tulsa connection No. 3.
“I had my eye on him,” Malzahn said. “Even though I wasn’t able to coach him, we developed a bond. It’s one of those coach-player things, especially with the quarterbacks. You get real close.”
Since his arrival, Kinne has worked on the coach-player relationship with Gabriel. The two hit it off right away. Though Kinne only spent one year in Hawaii, that experience has been invaluable beyond being a coordinator. Gabriel is from Hawaii, and the connection has helped them both.
“After being in Hawaii for a year and being around that culture, he understands where I come from, small lingo, why I act the way I act, and that’s something I’m super grateful for,” Gabriel said. “I didn’t have that since high school and now that I do, he’s someone I can go to and talk to about anything really.”
Though Malzahn will be calling plays this year, Kinne provides the type of input Malzahn needs because he is so familiar with the system. Gabriel described the dynamic at play between the three of them in the film room, where they have spent hours going through concepts and plays headed into the season.
“That’s something I’m really thankful for because they’re very accepting of my thoughts and really liked what I was thinking, and we’re on the same page the whole time, which is hard to come by,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel said Kinne is constantly challenging him in the film room with questions about his progressions, or the different defenses he might see, or what he should do if he starts to feel pressure. In essence, Kinne has pushed him to think faster and more critically about not only what he has to do but anticipating everything that could happen when the ball is snapped.
Kinne believes his accuracy is already there, comparing Gabriel to Nick Foles and Sam Bradford, among the most precise quarterbacks he has been around. Their work together on film study has also impressed Kinne, considering Gabriel is learning an entirely new offense.
“Some of the stuff we’re doing from a protection standpoint, that maybe they didn’t do in the past, the way he was able to pick that up, and the questions he was asking, they were NFL questions,” Kinne said. “These are the questions that guys five, 10 years in the league are asking, not necessarily a guy who hasn’t done this before, so that was something that was very impressive.”
Kinne is also learning from Malzahn, the way he did all those years ago at Tulsa. The next step in his career evolution awaits, and chances are, Malzahn can help him get there, too.