Nation’s Youngest Head Coach Has Thoughts on Kevin Kelley’s Hogs OC Search Hot Take

Kevin Kelley, Kris McCullough, Arkansas football
photo credit: Twitter/coachkelley1 / UTPB Athletics

The youngest head coach in college football hails from Arkansas and has already been the subject of a feature story in The Athletic that was picked up and printed in the New York Times.

Kris McCullough, a 28-year-old coaching wunderkind resetting school records with his ball control, power spread that still will go vertical on you for 70 in the blink of an eye, has risen quickly through the coaching ranks. He currently leads the Division II Texas-Permian Basin program.

McCullough is a Pine Bluff native who played quarterback at Watson Chapel High School from 2010-12 while idolizing Ryan Mallett and devising plays on NCAA Football that would eventually aid him in his coaching that could potentially one day be helpful to the flagship institution that he grew up following.

“The coolest memory was playing at Razorback Stadium,” he told Best of Arkansas Sports. “Winning there was awesome but overall, the memories with the teammates were everything. I had a staff of coaches in high school that were awesome. A legend in George Shelton, Lee Hickmott, Andy McCready, Rony Jones and others were crucial in my development as a coach. They always had great relationships with their players, but knew when to be serious.”

After graduating from Watson Chapel, McCullough attended Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, where he majored in accounting and planned to get a job working at a firm or as a CPA.

He quickly found that he missed being around football and lobbied the Reddies’ coach, Scott Maxfield, to see if he could assist the football staff.

Maxfield obliged and McCullough worked his way up while going to school, eventually being a volunteer assistant for three seasons as the Reddies won their first ever Division II playoff game in 2015. He was cutting up film and scouting opponents — none of the flashy stuff, but the stuff that a grinder does that is serious about moving up, and making about the bare minimum that he could be paid.

“Henderson State was an amazing place,” McCullough said. “I met my wife there and began my coaching career there. Scott Maxfield is still a mentor to me to this day. We talk often and he gives me advice. I learned all the ins and outs when it comes to recruiting and how to get guys to buy into a culture and each other. We had a lot of success there and they continue to do so.”

In the process, he sent out 3,500 emails to prospective schools seeking coaching employment to finally find work outside of Arkadelphia.

Kris McCullough’s Journey

In 2017, Kris McCullough graduated from Henderson State and was eager to get his career started. An Old Dominion staff member happened to read one of the aforementioned emails and he accepted a position as a quarterbacks and offensive quality control coach.

He resigned from the position prior to the start of the 2017 football season when Fairmont State in Fairmont, W.V., offered him the role of assistant special teams coach and running backs coach.

After one season at Fairmont State, the athletic director at East Central University in Ada, Okla., approached him about being the special teams coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

East Central then promoted him to offensive coordinator after the 2019 season and he was OC for two seasons while leading ECU to its best season since 2015 during the 2021 season, a 7-4 mark.

Following the 2021 season, Wisconsin hired ECU’s head coach as its running backs coach, and East Central brass gave McCullough the keys to the program. At 26, he was the youngest head coach in college football. 

“The success we had at ECU was because of everyone associated with the program,” McCullough said. “All of the coaches, managers, trainers, etc., all knew and believed what we were preaching. The kids bought into our culture and it showed. Relationships are everything and being young helps me and the staff relate to the struggles and achievements our guys face on a day-to-day basis.”

Success followed in 2022. Playing in the Great American Conference that includes six teams from Arkansas, his team went 9-3 and enjoyed a six-game winning streak. It was the best record at ECU since it won the NAIA national championship in 1993.

East Central had gone 9-35 before he arrived.

That meteoric ascent caught the eye of athletic director Todd Dooley at Texas-Permian Basin, and last December he offered McCullough the head coaching position.

The UTPB Falcons play some home games at Ratliff Stadium in Odessa, Texas, which was made famous by the movie ‘Friday Night Lights’ and the 1990 book by H.G. Bissinger that chronicled the Permian Panthers’ 1988 high school football season.

The athletic department added football only seven years ago. McCullough was able to take the town and area’s football-crazed culture and quickly drum up support for the burgeoning Division II team he was inheriting.

“It really wasn’t that difficult,” McCullough said. “We have top of the line facilities. The people here are awesome and the cities of Odessa and Midland attract those that come to visit. Three hundred fifty thousand people within 30 minutes makes this place have plenty to do. All we had to do was build relationships.”

In his first game as head coach of the Falcons, his team defeated Texas College 96-0 with a system, as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini describes it, that entails “a balanced, tempo attack with a vertical passing game and RPOs operated behind Wisconsin’s blocking schemes.”

Then, after suffering a defeat the next week at the hands of Western Colorado, UTPB turned around and trounced Southwest Baptist on the road, 86-7. The year before, the Falcons had lost to the same team by 24 points.

Even with those crazy margins of victory, UTPB led the conference in time of possession as his philosophy involves keeping the defense fresh despite being able to score quickly. They are also 28 of 36 on fourth down, which led all Division II teams in terms of total conversions and percentage (77.8%).

Eventually the team finished 10-1, entering the AFCA Division II Top 25 poll for the first time ever, and earned a Division II home playoff game as McCullough took home Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year honors. 

Graduate student and quarterback Kenny Hrncir earned the J.W. Rollins Award, given to the Offensive Player of the Year. He has completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 2,725 yards and 30 touchdowns while adding 610 yards and eight scores on the ground for 3,335 yards in total offense.

Hrncir was named LSC Offensive Player of the Week four times and set the single-season school records for passing touchdowns, passing yards and total offensive yards. He is currently ranked seventh in passing TDs, eighth in total offense (302.8 ypg) and 19th in passing yards per game (247.4) in DII.

Even though the Falcons lost to Bemidji State 10-3 in the first round of the playoffs, they had laid the foundation that McCullough wanted to establish.

Watching Arkansas Football from Afar

Like most kids growing up in the state, Kris McCullough was a huge Razorback fan from Day 1.

Now that he’s in the coaching profession, he understands what the coaches and administration are going through way more than he used to.

When he gets free time, he goes back and watches recordings of Arkansas football games and knows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think Coach Pittman is an amazing man and a guy every recruit in the country would want to play for,” McCullough said. “The love and passion he has for the sport and those young men is well known in our profession. SEC football is not easy. It takes special staffs to win at a high level. You have to surround yourself with the right coaches and staff to be successful. I think given the chance, he will right the ship.”

With Arkansas looking for an offensive coordinator, McCullough said that Hunter Yurachek should be looking for someone that can light up the scoreboard, referencing the Kevin Kelley tweet that recently made the rounds:

“I see both sides; yes, you have to be able to run the football, and yes, you need an OC that can put points on the board,” McCullough said. “You can beat a program like Ole Miss consistently, you just need the right offense and defense. Arkansas is a top-20 job, it just needs a top-20 offensive and defensive coordinator. You need to be able to run the ball with tempo and balance, whether it’s in 10, 11, 12 personnel, it doesn’t matter.”

McCullough has already been fielding offers from FCS and FBS programs alike for position coach and coordinator roles, to the point where he could probably pick and choose. He was even linked to the UTEP head coach opening this weekend after the Miners fired Dana Dimel.

For the time being, though, he’s happy where he is, with his wife Hannah and their baby and with what he and his staff are building out in West Texas.

“I want to continue to grow every year in this profession,” McCullough said. “I grew up a Razorback so it would be awesome to coach at the SEC level one day.”


Hear more from Kris McCullough starting at the 18-second mark below:

More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

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