SEATTLE — On the field prior to Saturday’s game between Washington and Stanford, first-year Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer and Cardinal coach David Shaw got to talking. These types of chats are common before games: pleasantries, handshakes, etc. The two had never coached against each other before, but there was mutual respect for what they knew of each other.
“I’ve been hearing his name for years and, honestly, about the things that are important: integrity, his approach to the game, as a teacher and mentor of young people. Those things that I really care about,” Shaw said. “And on top of that, he’s a really good football coach.”
What Shaw didn’t realize before that conversation, though, was that they had gone up against each other in the past. It was 1996. Shaw was an assistant coach at NAIA Western Washington and DeBoer was a senior wide receiver for tiny Sioux Falls, a private school in South Dakota with about 1,000 students. The teams met in the NAIA Division II national championship game in Tennessee.
“I was blown away,” Shaw said. “I had no idea he was a player on that team. I remember that game well.”
He wasn’t just any player, either. DeBoer was the team’s star receiver and caught 10 passes for 131 yards in Sioux Falls’ 47-25 win, with a touchdown reception and a 54-yard touchdown run on a reverse. It was the first national title in school history and laid the foundation from which DeBoer would later, as head coach, build an NAIA football dynasty.
Now he’s attempting to revive the Huskies.
After a disastrous 2021 season that saw coach Jimmy Lake get fired with two games left and the team finish 4-8, DeBoer has overseen arguably the best early-season turnaround in college football. After starting the season unranked, the No. 15 Huskies (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have already equaled last year’s win total and head into Friday’s game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football, led by transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
“We’re not having a process where you have the thought where it takes three, four, five years,” DeBoer said. “Let’s go do it now. It may not happen right away, but if you don’t think that it can, it won’t.”
SIOUX FALLS WAS a bare bones operation.
In the 1996 national championship season, head coach Bob Young was the only full-time coach on staff. The assistants all had full- or part-time jobs away from campus. The football “office” was an old trailer. They didn’t have a full-sized practice field and played just two home games at a stadium shared with high schools in town. Attendance was sparse. According to Kurtiss Riggs, DeBoer’s best friend and the team’s All-American quarterback, the locker room resembled “a dungeon.”
On Friday nights during game weeks, DeBoer and Riggs had a routine. They would grab food, get in front of a TV and watch film the rest of the night. Play, pause, rewind. Play, pause, rewind.
The limited coaching meant the players had to take on a lot on their own.
“We would sit there together and just really talk through the details,” DeBoer said. “We were allowed to audible a lot and check. I think that tactical side was a piece that we just really kept diving into and it helped our success then, but it became something that I just quickly understood.”
He wasn’t set on becoming a coach at that point, but it set the wheels in motion.
In addition to playing football at Sioux Falls, DeBoer was an excellent baseball player and when his college career ended, he signed with the Canton Crocodiles, an independent league baseball team in Ohio.
“He was probably a better baseball player than he was football, and he was really good at football,” Riggs said. “He was just so powerful, so strong and he could absolutely crush a baseball. When he went and played in that league, I thought, ‘Well, that’s the last I’m going to see him for quite some time.'”
It didn’t work out that way. One day, DeBoer called Riggs and told him he had hit a ball as hard as he ever had that day.
“I say, ‘Oh yeah, where did it go out, center?'” Riggs asked. “And he says, ‘No, I barely looped it over the second baseman’s head. These wood bats, it’s way different.'”
That was pretty much the end of the line. After one season with the Crocodiles, DeBoer was released and returned to Sioux Falls to figure out what was next. He moved in with Riggs, who after a brief spell playing football in Europe was pursuing a teaching career in town.
Riggs had just accepted a job coaching a sophomore football team at Washington High School, when another school across town offered him a full-time teaching gig, meaning he had to back out. The coach, Kim Nelson, understood and asked Riggs if he knew anyone else who could step in.
“I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. My roommate has a great football mind, he just got cut from this baseball team and he’s here. I think you should take a look at him,” Riggs said.
As it turned out, Nelson was familiar with DeBoer as he had previously coached at DeBoer’s high school in Milbank, South Dakota, about two hours away.
“That was my first job in coaching. We went 8-0, won the city championship and all that,” DeBoer said. “It was just a lot of fun. Helped out with the varsity on Friday nights, but just loved running the offense, putting it all together.”
After two years, he returned to Sioux Falls to become the offensive coordinator on Young’s staff, which now had the budget for a couple additional full-time assistant coaches.
DeBoer’s starting salary: $27,000. He also coached baseball.
Young’s defensive coordinator at the time was Chuck Morrell, who led the 1996 team in tackles and now serves as Washington’s co-defensive coordinator. They went on like this for five years, until Young retired after 22 seasons.
When it was time to find a successor, Young first went to Morrell. He had been on the coaching staff longer, so it felt like the right way to do it.
“But Chuck really didn’t feel like that was the role he wanted to play,” Young said. “He said, ‘Let Kalen do it. He’s got the personality and everything that fits the head-coaching position.’ But it really wasn’t like they were just hiring Kalen, they were getting both of them, Kalen and Chuck.”
DeBoer’s new salary: $45,000.
He brought Riggs on as an assistant and hired current UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb after two seasons. In DeBoer’s five seasons as head coach, Sioux Falls went 67-3 overall, 49-1 in conference play, won three national championships and in 2009 played up two levels of competition and beat FCS North Dakota 28-13.
“When you’re the head coach, it goes to another level because these are your kids,” DeBoer said. “They’re not your family, but they’re my kids. You’re all in.
“It was something where we just developed such a pride. The culture became contagious and everything we did whether it was on the field or off led more and more people wanting to be a part of it, even though it was a small college.”
AFTER SIOUX FALLS’ dominant run, DeBoer embarked upon a coaching odyssey over the next decade.
At nearly every one of his stops in coaching, DeBoer helped elevate that program to historic success.
He spent four years as the offensive coordinator at FCS Southern Illinois (2010 to 2013) before a three-year stint on Chris Creighton’s staff at Eastern Michigan (2014 to 2016), where in his final season he helped the Eagles reach their first bowl game in nearly three decades.
Jeff Tedford, then an analyst for Chris Petersen at Washington, took notice of DeBoer’s offense at Eastern Michigan and hired him as his offensive coordinator when he was named the head coach at Fresno State prior to the 2017 season. In their first year together, Fresno State improved from 1-11 to 10-4, then went 12-2 in 2018 and finished No. 18 in the AP poll, the school’s best finish in over 50 years.
“That move to coach with [Tedford] was big,” DeBoer said. “You’re talking about a guy that is very well known as an offensive guru. He had done it for many years at a very high level.
“We really meshed our systems together and refined what we have today. Those two years were huge.”
In his lone season as the offensive coordinator at Indiana, where he worked with Penix Jr. in 2019, the Hoosiers appeared in the AP Top 25 for the first time in over two decades.
When Tedford stepped down at Fresno State due to health problems in 2019, DeBoer was the obvious choice to replace him, becoming a Division I head coach for the first time.
“Those 10 years were just diving into football and being able to, yes, focus on recruiting, but really talk ball with the offensive staff, professional development and meet with other staffs and cross over with your defense,” DeBoer said. “Those years just talking ball really refined and helped me build the process and the thoughts that go into game planning, playcalling and winning football games, most importantly.”
WHILE DEBOER IMPRESSED over the 2020 and 2021 seasons at Fresno State, things started to fall apart in Seattle.
The Huskies were close to a model program in six years under Petersen’s leadership, and after he surprisingly stepped down near the end of the 2019 season, Lake was the obvious choice to take the baton. He had long been considered a rising star in the industry and there was a belief he would maintain the culture Petersen built.
That didn’t happen.
“There was a lot of individualism [last year]. Guys looking out for themselves, trying to build their own stash, trying to get to the NFL,” Washington defensive back Alex Cook told ESPN at Pac-12 media day in July. “Obviously, that’s everybody’s dream, but if that’s like the only focus you have it’s sort of selfish. That’s kind of what last year was. It was a dog-eat-dog world. People competing for a certain spot and kind of just being selfish in a way, not supporting one another. If they didn’t get the starting spot, it was the wild, wild West last year.”
After DeBoer arrived, Cook said, things changed.
“We turned that around,” he said. “We’re supporting one another, no matter who is a starter and I think you’ll see a lot of changes in the record.”
Shortly after DeBoer arrived, one of the first things he did was invite players into his office, ask questions and take notes. Lots of notes. He wanted to learn who the players thought the leaders were and areas of the program they thought needed to improve. Months later, DeBoer still looks back at what he scribbled down to make sure the coaching staff is taking what was relayed to heart.
That type of attention to detail is something the players picked up on.
“Coach DeBoer, he’s more of a mentor,” Cook said. “He’s more of a father figure than a coach and he lets his coaches coach.”
First-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Jaxson Kirkland agreed.
“You can get the sense that Coach DeBoer had really been a head coach before,” he said after beating Stanford 40-22 on Saturday. “Meaning that, he lets his supporting cast around him with position coaches and everything really do their jobs and he trusts them. He doesn’t overstep his boundaries in that sense. Since February, we have had the same goals and now that we’re in the season, it’s getting closer and closer.
“So that vibe in a sense was that we really can do something special here.”
At 4-0, the Huskies have arguably been the most complete team in the Pac-12 to this point. Penix Jr. leads the nation in passing yards, has generated some early Heisman Trophy buzz and helped turn the Huskies — who don’t have USC or Utah on the schedule — into a conference title contender.
YOUNG LOOKS FORWARD to the texts he exchanges with DeBoer every week. It’s usually Young wishing him good luck, with DeBoer quick to respond with his appreciation.
The formative days are never far from his mind, and he keeps close tabs on how Sioux Falls is doing. The day after Washington’s win against Stanford, DeBoer was quick to point out USF was also 4-0 and that its head coach, Jon Anderson, had been an assistant on his staff there.
“What I’m so proud of him for is that he hasn’t really changed,” Young said. “He got the job at a Division I school and he’s still the guy he was at the University of Sioux Falls. He cherishes his background, his roots in South Dakota, where he came from.”
Not that his friends would give him an option to forget.
“I will say since he’s gotten the Washington job, it has been a little more difficult [to stay in touch],” Riggs joked. “In fact, I was out there for the Michigan State game and I had to schedule time to meet with him. I kind of let him hear about that.”
Such is the territory after signing a five-year, $16.5 million contract that is far beyond the realm of what seemed possible when they were rolling back video tape in the Sioux Falls trailer.
Nothing better represents how far DeBoer has come than his swanky new office. It looks into 70,000-seat Husky Stadium with Lake Washington in the distance and what the school has deemed “the greatest setting in college football.”
As DeBoer said, “Who’s going to argue it?”
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