Deion Sanders was college football’s hottest name this season after he infused the University of Colorado with seventy new players through high school recruiting and the NCAA transfer portal. Less attention went to the team with the second-largest overhaul: the Texas State Bobcats, who added 53 new faces to their roster.

Somehow, first-year Texas State head coach G. J. Kinne forged a 7–5 team from all those new faces, proving wrong the peers who warned him Texas State could be a career-killer. Kinne’s two most recent predecessors in San Marcos compiled a 20–63 record over the previous seven seasons. Now, the Bobcats are headed to their first-ever bowl game, against Rice University in the First Responder Bowl on December 26.

The Bobcats’ historic turnaround has earned Kinne a contract extension and a raise, and it began with a headline-grabbing upset of Baylor in September. That game showed off what would become Texas State’s calling cards: a furious offensive pace that produced 36 points and 470.8 yards per game, a fly-to-the-football defense that led the nation in tackles for losses, and special teams that returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

“It’s probably going back to the competitor I am and the confidence I have,” Kinne told me. “Even my agent was telling me, ‘I don’t know if you want to take that job. I think you’re going to be able to get something better later.’ I’m like, ‘Nope, this is the one I want. I want to go in and change it and hopefully be here for a really long time because of the location and believing I can do this.’ 

“I tell our transfers I don’t care where you’re coming from,” the 35-year-old coach went on. “People really don’t care. They just want to know if you’re going to work hard and if you care about the team. That’s what I’ve tried to do every time I’ve gone to a new place, whether playing or coaching. Just go in, work hard, and start developing relationships.”

Kinne was a hot name on the coaching carousel after his 2022 season at the University of the Incarnate Word, in San Antonio, thanks to a 12–2 record and an offense that averaged 51.5 points per game. Those who know him best are neither surprised that Kinne accepted the challenge of Texas State or that he has succeeded beyond almost anyone’s wildest expectations.

Perhaps the best way to understand the nearly miraculous job Kinne has pulled off in San Marcos is to go back eighteen years to a spring afternoon at the New York Giants headquarters in New Jersey.  The Giants had invited Kinne and a handful of other quarterbacks to their 2005 spring tryouts to fill out the team’s depth chart.

After Kinne had finished a series of passing drills, the Giants then-defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo approached with an odd request. “Hey, we’re about to work out some safeties,” he said. “Have you ever played safety?”

As a matter of fact, he had. Kinne didn’t mention the last time he played safety was during his high school days in East Texas, when he was one of the most heralded quarterbacks in the land. But if the Giants needed a safety, by gosh, he’d be happy to play some. How hard could it be? “I was just trying to create value for myself,” he said. “I knew the playbook. I knew all the plays.”

He tried out alongside six other defensive backs and was the only one offered a contract. It remains a point of pride for Kinne. Although he never got into a game with either of his two NFL organizations, the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, Kinne considers his time in professional locker rooms, watching how NFL organizations were run, to have been invaluable training for all that would follow.

“I think I’ve known forever that I wanted to coach,” he said. “I knew I wanted to play in the NFL, and then I wanted to coach. It was just whether I was coach in the NFL or college. I think it’s a little bit more fun in college. I like being the head coach and the GM. I get to evaluate, I get to sign, I get to pretty much do it all at the college level, where in the NFL, you’ve got one or two guys that do that.”

Amid countless stories his peers tell about Kinne’s people skills, creativity, and energy, his decision to accept the challenge at Texas State perhaps says more about him than anything else. Like a few million other Texans, he’d floated the Hill Country rivers around San Marcos and had been struck by the area’s beauty. With nearly 40,000 undergraduates surrounded by all that Texas high school football talent, he saw the program as a sleeping giant. “You always kind of wondered why it hadn’t happened there,” he said. For one thing, the school never joined the arms race of facilities and coaching salaries.

Kinne’s task would be winning enough games to get the university’s sizable alumni base interested in writing checks to support the program and buying tickets to build a winning team. He could look down the road where his mentor and close friend, Jeff Traylor, had built a winner at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Could Kinne do the same at Texas State?

“We didn’t accomplish all our goals this year, but I think getting to that bowl game and hopefully getting that eighth win will be a huge step in the right direction,” Kinne said.

Texas State quarterback T. J. Finley, who was previously at LSU and Auburn, threw 24 touchdown passes and had a 68.6 completion percentage. Wide receiver Joey Hobert caught eight touchdown passes and had 847 receiving yards after transferring from Utah Tech.

In rebuilding the Bobcats roster, Kinne focused on Texas high school players. His motto is “take back Texas,” and his roster has 94 Texans. His first recruiting class had an unusual breakdown of 46 transfers and seven high school recruits. “I wish we would’ve signed more high school kids,” Kinne said. “But it’s just so hard with the transfer portal to really go all high school nowadays. 

“But it’s not the reality of college football anymore,” he went on. “I think we always have to sign Texas high school kids because of the development part of it, because of the culture that you want to build. And Texas is the best high school football there is, the best coaching there is. You can get some really, really good players that maybe Texas doesn’t take or OU doesn’t take. You can still get NFL-caliber players.”

Kinne’s other challenge in San Marcos was figuring out which players he wanted from the portal. To do full scouting reports on the hundred of eligible athletes would have been nearly impossible. Instead, he leaned on his relationships with Texas high school coaches.

“His first week on the job, we went to the Texas High School Coaches Association’s offices,” Texas State athletic director Don Coryell told me, “and they were having one of their larger annual meetings with their coaches from across the state. My intention was to introduce G. J. as our new coach, but when he walked into the room, probably forty people came up to hug him and tell him it was great to see him again. I realized what kind of network he already had in place.”

Kinne’s assistant coaching stops include SMU, Arkansas, Hawaii, and Central Florida, along with a special-projects assignment for the Eagles. Along the way, he has picked the brains of coaching luminaries like Chip Kelly, Doug Pederson, Sonny Dykes, and Ryan Day, among others. And then there’s Traylor, the most important man in Kinne’s life outside of his dad. 

Gary Joe Kinne Jr. was the coach at Canton High School in 2005 when an unhappy parent of a player shot him in the chest. G. J. Kinne was initially told that his dad had died. He hadn’t, but he’d come close. At the lowest point in his young life, the sixteen-year-old Kinne turned to Traylor, the hugely successful coach at Gilmer High School seventy miles away. “I dealt with it the best I could,” Kinne told the Athletic this summer. “It definitely changed me as a person. Anytime there’s that type of trauma involved and someone does that to your father, who’s basically your hero, it’s gonna stay with you forever.”

Kinne wanted out of Canton, saying, “I no longer felt safe there.” He and Traylor met at a Dairy Queen, where a relationship of mutual respect was born. It endures to this day. “We gave him unconditional love,” Traylor told the Athletic. “We treated him like he was one of our own from the very beginning.”

Kinne played one season for Traylor at Gilmer, throwing 47 touchdown passes in an undefeated regular season. Later, they would work together on the coaching staffs at SMU and Arkansas. Traylor’s son Jordan was a groomsman in Kinne’s wedding. Kinne’s younger brother, McLane, won a state championship playing for Traylor at Gilmer.

When UTSA and Texas State played in the second week of this season, both men called it one of the most awkward games of their lives. UTSA won 20–13. “I know for a fact that dude loves me,” Kinne told me. “I’m like a son to him. If I needed something, I know he’d be there for me. It’s just a unique situation. When we played, that was the hardest game for me because I pull for him every week, and I couldn’t that week.”

“He’s a pied piper with kids,” Traylor told me. “Kids love him. He has an unbelievably kind spirit. He loves people. And you can’t fake that stuff. That’s just who G. J. is. He’s like my own son, pretty much. My son and him are best of friends.”

As for Kinne’s coaching acumen, Traylor said: “He’s got a great football IQ. Everybody talks about him being a player’s coach and how much he loves kids, but they kind of forget he’s still got to coach ball. And the kid knows a lot of football. He’s been around some great coaches. He’s seen a lot of great things. He’s got a great football IQ and a lot of common sense. He can spot talent, he can recruit it, and he’s really good with kids.”

Kinne texted Traylor before Texas State’s victory over Baylor to thank him for all his support and encouragement through the years. Traylor did not see it until moments after his own team lost a 17–14 heartbreaker to Houston on the same day. He immediately fired back a congratulatory text.

When Kinne got his players alone in the locker room after the Bobcats’ 42–31 victory in Waco, his thoughts flashed to the furious pace of the past year, of so many players coming and going and the feeling that he might never catch up. He brought so many players into the program, in part, because so many were leaving from the roster he inherited. Some of them were players he couldn’t talk into staying.

In that joyous moment, he thanked the players who had stayed, grabbing defensive end Jordan Revels and telling him, “Man, I appreciate you for believing in us. I know you could have left, but you decided to stay and so I just appreciate you for that.”

“You get a young vibe from him,” linebacker Dan Foster, who came from Marshall, told the Austin American-Statesman. “He gives it to you straight. He’s a young coach who understands today’s football players and how we think. I feel like we’re going to win now. He wants us to practice today like we’re already champions.”

There were tough times, too. The Bobcats were 4–1 and one of the most interesting stories in college football at the beginning of October when they went on the road and allowed Louisiana to score two touchdowns in the final six minutes of a 34–30 defeat. They were routed 77–31 by Arkansas State in the next-to-last game of the season before finishing with a 52–44 win over South Alabama. Beating Rice in the First Responder Bowl would give Texas State eight wins for the first time since 2008.

“This was not an easy year by any means,” Kinne said. “There were many times I was like, ‘Whew, I don’t know. Just put your head down and go to work because it’s not looking good.’

“So we were able to come out and make the most of it,” he continued. “I think the pride you saw in the alumni and the community, especially after we beat Baylor and got to the bowl game, it’s fun now. You see people in the stands, and you see the belief and the expectations. After you beat Baylor, people are like, ‘Oh, you should win every game.’ Well, that’s the way I feel, so I get it. We’re not there yet. There were a couple of games this year where we just didn’t know how to win yet. Hopefully, next year we don’t have those games.”