Sporting News Coach of the Year: Washington’s Kalen DeBoer is a ’20-year overnight success’

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If there is one thing Kalen DeBoer understands as well as any college football coach, then it is perfection.

This may seem a haughty way to phrase it, and it should be obvious to all of us there is no perfect team or perfect game. A team that wins every game it plays, though, long has been described as compiling a perfect record. DeBoer has been a head coach for nine years. He’s gotten through the regular season without a loss five times.

So perhaps we shouldn’t treat this latest episode, through the 2023 Pacific-12 Conference season with the Washington Huskies, as extraordinary. Except it is. 

In this century, there have been only 33 teams at what we now would call the Power 5 level – not even close to two per year – that completed full conference seasons without losing. Which is one huge reason Kalen DeBoer, in only his second season in charge at the highest level but his 25th working in the college game, is the perfect choice as the 2023 Sporting News College Football Coach of the Year.

MORE: Penix, Odunze make 2023 SN All-America Team

The Pac-12 was the most accomplished conference in college football this autumn, and Washington won 10 games in the league’s final season, including two over conference favorite Oregon, plus three more against outside opponents. A lot of the games were close, which tends to make Vegas suspicious, but the ability to consistently prevail in such confrontations may be the most underrated quality in all of sports.

Some consider it to be good fortune.

Or, to lean to the pejorative, luck.

Except it keeps happening to this guy, and there isn’t that much coincidence on the planet. The Wall Street trader who continually invests in stocks that climb higher – that is the product of hard work, intuition, nerve. So it is with the college football coach who is 7-0 this season in one-score games.

“There comes a point, when you’ve got a team like this, that you know – we knew we could beat everyone on the schedule. But we also understood that it was an extremely competitive league, and that it would be hard,” DeBoer told The Sporting News. “There are moments that, when you prepare the right way, like we have, you find a way to get it done and come through at those critical times. It’s just a credit to these guys how they’ve stuck together and continued to believe and build trust in each other.”

Kalen DeBoer: 2023 Sporting News Coach of the Year

DeBoer, 49, is one of those 20-year overnight success stories, like Hannah Waddingham from “Ted Lasso” or country music’s Chris Stapleton. DeBoer followed up an 11-2 debut season at Washington in 2022 with this season’s 13-0 dash into the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. So he’s winning in the big time at a 92 percent clip. His journey to this pinnacle has been a long one, though, and originated in places that rarely launch coaches into the big time.

The letters N-A-I-A aren’t going to show up on many of their resumes. DeBoer was a wide receiver at the University of Sioux Falls, a small private school in South Dakota whose athletic teams previously competed in the National Association for – hey, I went to an NAIA school, and I have to look up what the letters mean. National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. That’s what it is.

“It’s only been about working where I’m at, being in the present, putting everything into where my feet are,” DeBoer said. “It’s just being the best I can be, and fortunately I’ve been able to surround myself with great people to where we’ve had extreme, high-level success. It’s taken a long time, but I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything, as far as the people I’ve met, the players I’ve gotten a chance to coach, the experiences I’ve had at each level. It makes me appreciate even more what we have here at Washington, all the resources, all the staffing.

“It was never something, when I started coaching, where I had to get to a certain point, a certain level. I just love coaching.”

MORE: CFP semifinal predictions

Among the coaches in the CFP semifinals, Jim Harbaugh went to Michigan, played in the NFL and started his coaching career with the Raiders quarterbacks. Nick Saban played at Kent State and started there as a grad assistant. Steve Sarkisian played at BYU and spent one season as a community college assistant, but the connections he made as a college QB enabled him to advance to one year later to quarterbacks coach at USC.

DeBoer’s journey as a coach began right where his journey as a player ended: in Sioux Falls, a two-hour drive from his hometown of Milbank. He spent one year at his college as a wide receivers coach, two in high school football, then four as offensive coordinator for Sioux Falls, which is when this all really began to happen.

The late Bob Young recorded six undefeated seasons and reached the NAIA playoffs 10 times at Sioux Falls. The Cougars now play at Bob Young Field; when DeBoer was on the 1996 NAIA Championship team, they played only two games in Sioux Falls because they had no true home. Whereas the coaching trees that produced Harbaugh and Saban have names such as Bo Schembechler and Don James at the top, DeBoer learned much of what he knows from Young, who went 172-69-3 in 22 seasons. 

“The whole key was making the place you’re at really special – making that the big time, and realizing we’re here to give experiences and help develop young men through athletics, and football,” DeBoer said. “Playing small college, I didn’t play before more than a few thousand people, but the relationships I built, the confidence I gained by being on a team that ended up winning a national championship made me who I am today. It gave me just great moments and relationships that I cherish through today.

“He was all about people. He’s the one that really kind of showed me why we coach. He gave me my purpose.”

Actually, DeBoer was offensive coordinator  and offensive line coach for two years. Young wanted him to learn the function and importance of the line, something that hadn’t been necessary while playing receiver. 

“He knew how critical that was: to learn that position, and how that unit worked,” DeBoer said. “He just taught me a lot of those details, and that piece was very important. I still believe the game needs to be played in a physical manner if you want to win championships.”

If DeBoer’s path toward coaching excellence began at  Sioux Falls, then his track toward this moment began when he accepted the opportunity, in 2010, to become the offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois. There were four seasons there, three at Eastern Michigan and two critical seasons at Fresno State under offensive savant Jeff Tedford. All of that led to a shot at the OC position at Indiana, his first taste of high-major athletics.

“There came a point at Sioux Falls where there wasn’t much more we could do,” DeBoer said. “We had won 29 straight games and I think 55 of the last 56. I just felt like I needed to have new challenges, and the right opportunity came along.

“There was maybe a piece, too, where I knew if I wanted maybe to experience being a head coach at a higher level, I needed to coach at a higher level. It was hard when you were an NAIA player, and a coach, and that’s all you’ve done. It’s hard to make a name to get into the next level. Being at an FCS school was something I was ready for and excited about. I saw that as an opportunity to go test myself, better myself and learn along the way.”

It did not hurt at all to get Big Ten experience on his resume through a single season at Indiana in 2019, with the Hoosiers improving from 88th  in scoring among FBS programs to 43rd and delivering their first winning season of the decade, and only their second of the century, with an 8-5 mark that included a win against rival Purdue.

He probably would have gotten the head coaching job at Fresno State without all that, given the impression he made in his two years under Tedford. But he met a young man at IU who, through the magic of the NCAA’s transfer portal, would come to define the first two seasons DeBoer has coached at Washington.

When quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was looking for a new home after a disappointing, injury-wrecked 2021 season in Bloomington, he remembered his work as a sophomore under DeBoer. Penix told The Athletic the coach’s “all football” approach always impressed him, and he knew he’d visit UW as soon as DeBoer got the head coaching job. After less than a weekend on campus, he shut down the process and committed to the Huskies.

MORE: 2023 Consensus All-America Team

Penix threw for more yards in his first season at Washington than in (parts of) four seasons with the Hoosiers. In two years, the total is 8,859 yards, which is more than such UW legends as Jake Locker, Brock and Damon Huard, Warren Moon and Sonny Sixkiller compiled in their careers.

“He’s a genius offensively, and he’s a genius with quarterbacks,” Dave “Softy” Mahler of the Washington radio network told SN. “Look at Jake Haener, for example. Everybody will look at Michael Penix and say, ‘Where’s the other Heisman Trophy contender that Kalen DeBoer has coached?’ Well, first of all, he hasn’t been in FBS that long. But Jake at Washington really did nothing, but then he went to Fresno State and became an NFL quarterback under DeBoer. There was no part of me whatsoever watching Jake at Washington thinking one day he would be in the NFL. But here he is.

“What he’s done for Michael Penix: Michael was good at Indiana, when he was healthy, but he wasn’t this good. He comes to Washington and all of a sudden he’s being talked about as a Heisman candidate and a first-round pick.”

Mahler reserves his grandest praise on the topic of DeBoer for his dealings with people, and with people in the media. In afternoon drive time, Mahler and co-host Dick Fain deliver a sports radio show on 950 KJR. One day a year ago, they were doing a show from the program’s recruiting lounge and were tucked into a corner behind a pop-a-shot machine. DeBoer noticed that and told them to do the program from his office.

“I’ve never had a head coach offer to do something like that before. Ever,” Mahler said. “The trust that he has in people. Who knows if that’ll one day go away, once he gets used to the bows and arrows that come along with college football, but he’s amazing in that regard.

“He has no ego. If he does, I haven’t seen it. He doesn’t mind the spotlight. He’s not uncomfortable in it. But he doesn’t crave it.”

One of the great players in Washington football history, College Football Hall of Fame member Lincoln Kennedy met DeBoer while preparing for a Fresno State-Oregon game he was calling for the Pac-12 Network. DeBoer made such a strong impression – in their conversation, and in losing by only a touchdown to a Ducks team that won the Pac-12 North and finished 10-4 – that when the UW job opened after the season and DeBoer was mentioned as a candidate, “I was really impressed.”

Everything that’s happened since affirmed his initial impression. Kennedy has been pleased with how DeBoer has connected to the program’s proud history and alumni base and by how resourceful the team has been in tightly contested games.

“We needed to have somebody to build a program, not somebody who’s just a flash-in-the-pan hire, one of those,” Kennedy told TSN. “The big thing today for U-Dub – he’s only been there for a couple years so far – it’s important especially to alumni like myself to want to see some consistency. In today’s world of college sports, it’s not always that easy. Especially with the transfer portal and NIL, he has to be able to compete on that, and I think he’s been able to do that and still keep a program going strong.”

There were a variety of reasons UW needed a new football coach in the autumn of 2021. The guy who had been in charge, Jimmy Lake, had been suspended near the end of that season following a sideline incident with a Huskies player that led to the coach apologizing afterward. In his second season, the team was 4-8, with two of the three conference wins coming against last-place teams.

DeBoer turned that around to 11-2, a second-place Pac-12 finish and an Alamo Bowl win over Texas. It’s possible we’re a year late with this award.

Sonny Dykes, though, won it with a 2022 regular season at TCU every bit as perfect as the one Washington produced in 2023. Perhaps that’s the standard now for The Sporting News Coach of the Year. It is not easy to remain unblemished, but it’s almost getting to be routine for Kalen DeBoer.

Almost.

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