Connection between a coach and standout players sparked UTPB’s historic season

Photo Courtesy of UTPB Athletics

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The 2023 football season will always be remembered as the first time the UTPB program won the Lone Star Conference and hosted a game in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Many will discuss how a 28-year-old head coach led the Falcons to unprecedented heights. Others will reminisce about a quarterback transferring to UTPB with his head coach to lead the offense.

While the relationship between Kris McCullough and Kenny Hrncir played a vital role in the Falcons success this year, the relationship they developed with senior linebacker Hayden Kelly has keyed the team’s accomplishments.

“The moment I took the job, I got on the phone with a couple of the defensive guys, asking them to give me time to earn their trust,” McCullough said. “One of those guys was Hayden Kelly. I knew we had to earn their trust over time. The returning leaders of this team gelled with the new guys so fast because everyone wanted to win.”

It wasn’t a certainty that Hrncir would be the quarterback at UTPB when McCullough accepted the job. Hrncir entered the transfer portal after leading East Central to a win in the Fun Town RV Heritage Bowl against Texas A&M-Kingsville and the announcement that McCullough was leaving for UTPB.

But McCullough was set on recruiting the only person who’s played behind center during the young coach’s tenure as offensive coordinator and head coach. The choice for Hrncir became easy once he met Kelly.

“Kenny and I have a great relationship. We’re in the office all day together. We go eat lunch together,” Kelly said. “I spend more time with Kenny than I do anyone else. We’re always discussing how to keep the offense and defense together to create something special.”

“We’ve become best friends this year,” Hrncir added. “If we’re not eating lunch together, we’re playing ping pong or finding some way to compete against each other. It’s a blessing to have a true friend in my life. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to take care of the defensive side of the ball.”

Hrncir and McCullough have developed a close bond since the coach first began recruiting the quarterback at Needville High School around 2018.

“We’ve had a player and coach relationship for so long that it’s turned into just a friendship,” Hrncir said. “We’ve grown together so much since he recruited me - me as a player and him as a coach, but mostly as men. These last five years have been critical for me in figuring out what to do in life, and he’s been there throughout all the ups and downs.”

“I tried not to cry during Senior Day today,” McCullough said following the Falcons 42-14 win over Central Washington. “Kenny’s the only quarterback I’ve had as an offensive coordinator and head coach. He’s going to be missed on the field next year. It’s so hard to replace guys like Kenny and Hayden.”

Fortunately for UTPB, Hrncir and Kelly will continue to be around the program next year, with both players set to join McCullough’s staff as graduate assistants when the 2023 season concludes.

“When I make hires, I try to keep it in-house first. Those two guys are some of the leaders that got us through the transition and helped the team gel,” McCullough said. “When you pull up to the office and Kenny Hrncir and Hayden Kelly are already there; those are the kind of guys I want to work with me. You know these guys will be special in the coaching world.”

Will Hrncir and Kelly continue to beat McCullough to the office when they join the coaching staff?

“Of course, Kenny and I have already started to plan our morning workouts, so we will be nice and jacked to start each day,” Kelly said.

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