All he does is win – Kalen DeBoer’s pedigree speaks for itself


NEW ORLEANS — Kalen DeBoer has been here before. Not in the same way Nick Saban has. But on the eve of the College Football Playoff semifinal, two wins away from a national title, Washington’s second-year head coach is very much in his element.

DeBoer’s first trip to a semifinal as a head coach was 18 years ago. The accommodations were a bit different then. Coaches shared rooms on the road. There wasn’t an army of volunteers catering to the team’s every need. And Carroll College’s 4,000-seat Nelson Stadium in Helena, Montana — the site of 2005 NAIA semifinal — wasn’t exactly the storied Superdome.

From the outside, there’s a world of difference between the stakes then and now — with tens of millions of people who will be paying attention — but the internal desire to win hasn’t changed. All-in is all-in, regardless of how many other people care.

“We understand what’s at stake here,” DeBoer said. “We win, we get to move on, we get to have the next biggest game of our life. But for right now, this is that one.”

In five seasons as coach at the tiny University of Sioux Falls (South Dakota), DeBoer built his alma mater into a bona fide NAIA powerhouse. DeBoer won as many national titles and had as many undefeated seasons as he had losses (three), amassing a 67-3 overall record with a 17-2 mark in the playoffs.

It was during those years when Washington’s current brain trust — including offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell — developed a remarkable level of trust and understanding that made this season’s undefeated run to the Pac-12 title possible.

Lengthy bus rides. Laundry duty. Meager salaries. VHS film sessions. It was all part of the process that Washington is benefitting from. Other small-school coaches hope DeBoer’s success might lead to more opportunities. It’s also a process Washington’s coaches didn’t even consider had the potential to take them to the doorstep of college football’s premier stage.

“We were consumed literally by chasing national championships at that level,” Morrell said. “I think we all thought maybe other opportunities could come, but it wasn’t a daily thing where we were talking about trying to face something bigger.”

In the 14 years since DeBoer moved on from Sioux Falls in search of a different challenge, nothing compares with the enormity of what awaits Monday, as Washington takes on No. 3 Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:45 p.m. ET on ESPN) for the right to play for the national title.

IN 20 SEASONS at Carroll College, Mike Van Diest had one of the most successful runs of any coach in college football history. He finished with 203 career wins and had a 12-year stretch — from 2000 to 2011 — that included 12 conference titles, six NAIA national crowns and two other appearances in the championship game.

He first crossed paths with DeBoer in 2002 and remembers it well.

“The year we won our first national championship,” Van Diest said.

At the time, DeBoer was Sioux Falls’ offensive coordinator, with Morrell serving as defensive coordinator under coach Bob Young, who they both played for — winning a national title together in 1996. Carroll won 20-17, but Van Diest could tell something was brewing in South Dakota.

“It wasn’t much fun preparing for Kalen, but I always enjoyed watching what he did offensively because he was just amazing,” Van Diest said. “They were always up there, No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 in total offense.”

Van Diest spent two decades as an assistant coach in college football — most notably at Northwestern and his alma mater, Wyoming — before settling in at Carroll, after which, he said, he didn’t make too many new friends in the profession. Recruiting and competing often got in the way of niceties. There were exceptions, though, and DeBoer was one of them.

Starting in about 2005, he said, when DeBoer became the head coach, their relationship started to blossom.

“He and I just struck up a friendship at the national coaches convention,” Van Diest said. “Every year, we would sit and talk about football, we’d talk our goals and dreams. He asked me where I came from, about how I worked my way up to where I came to Carroll.”

One year, Van Diest recalls, DeBoer asked him if he ever thought about going back to Division I to be an assistant. He had lived that life, Van Diest told DeBoer, and was content with where he was. But he remembers getting the sense DeBoer was ready to see what else he could accomplish in coaching.

“There’s a few of us lifers that were in the NAIA, but Kalen had a great future ahead of him, as did a lot of guys on that staff,” Van Diest said. “It was just a natural progression for those guys.

“The more I was around Kalen, playing against him, seeing what he did year after year and the success that he had, he was going to have an opportunity to move on if he wanted to.”

DeBoer’s only two postseason losses came at the hands of Van Diest. None was more humbling than the semifinal game in 2005. On an icy field, nothing went right for Sioux Falls as Carroll won 55-0, the most lopsided defeat DeBoer has ever been a part of.

All these years later, it still stings for those on the losing end.

Upon being reminded recently of that game, Dusty Hovorka, a three-time All-American receiver at Sioux Falls and now the offensive coordinator at FCS Lindenwood, couldn’t help but let out a sigh of frustration.

“It doesn’t leave you,” he said. “Those huge losses, that stuff is still bitter. But what Kalen obviously did a tremendous job of was always adjusting.

“‘Why were we not successful? What do we have to do the next year?’ And for us, it was such a mentality [issue] because we had basically our entire team coming back in 2006.”

That was the year the Cougars broke through, winning the first of three national titles over the next four seasons as they went 56-1. The only loss — to Carroll in 2007 — was memorialized with a picture of Carroll celebrating in the mud on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in the magazine’s Pictures of the Year issue.

“It was something where we just developed such a pride,” DeBoer said. “The culture was becoming contagious and everything we did, whether it was on the field or off — it led to more and more people wanting to be a part of it, even though it was a small college.”

Those teams had three full-time coaches: DeBoer, Morrell and Jon Anderson, Sioux Falls’ current head coach. Grubb joined in 2007, when he signed on for about $3,000 to coach the offensive line and oversee the equipment that fall.

“What we’ve been able to accomplish as a group under Kalen’s guidance, it’s really lightning in a bottle and we had it at Sioux Falls for a number of years,” Morrell said. “And then we kind of broke off and everybody kind of went their own way.”

WITH THE BENEFIT of hindsight, it might seem obvious the success DeBoer’s staff had at Sioux Falls should have been seen as a precursor to more of the same at a higher level, but at the time it was not. At least not to anyone in a position to hire them.

NAIA football operates much differently than the NCAA, especially at the FBS and FCS levels. Teams have 24 scholarships to spread over the whole roster. Coaches wear many hats. Budgets aren’t remotely similar; neither is the recruiting process. Player commitment can be more of a challenge. The X’s and O’s might be where the levels have the most in common, despite the enormous gulf in talent.

It would have taken quite the leap of faith for an athletic director to hand the keys to a higher-level program to DeBoer, despite his near immunity from losing.

“I think the biggest thing is the relationships that you develop in those environments,” Morrell said. “We just created a special bond because of literally how hard everything was. It kind of puts you in that mode of never taking anything for granted. To be as successful as we were during that time frame, it came facing a lot of difficulties that you don’t face at the FBS level.”

DeBoer’s coaching odyssey first took him to FCS Southern Illinois, where he was the Salukis offensive coordinator. From there, it was on to Eastern Michigan, another OC job, this time in the FBS. His offenses there caught the eye of Jeff Tedford, who brought DeBoer to Fresno State as his OC before DeBoer got his first taste of Power 5 ball on Kevin Ball’s staff at Indiana in 2019. At each stop, DeBoer helped the program reach rarely achieved heights.

Then, after Tedford stepped down due to medical reasons after the 2019 season, athletic director Terry Tummey brought DeBoer back to Fresno as head coach.

“Having that understanding of Kalen’s success at the NAIA level really was the difference-maker because it gave you a definite understanding of his capacity to be competitive,” Tummey said. “As we know, head coaches now, you got to be able to have compassion and understanding for what these players are enduring on a day-to-day basis. That’s the part I had seen at Fresno State [when he was the OC]. He was the perfect candidate for us then.”

Other than the three years DeBoer spent at Southern Illinois and his lone season at Indiana, Grubb has been with him the whole time. Grubb’s the playcaller now, but as a tandem they immediately turned Washington into one of the best offenses in college football. The Huskies have led the nation in passing the past two seasons, with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Saban pursued Grubb to serve as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in the offseason, an opportunity that he turned down, but not before a sizable salary increase at Washington.

“Regardless of other opportunities, I think this [being in the playoff] was the reason I came to Washington,” Grubb said. “And I know when Kalen and I first started talking about him taking that job, and if I would go with or not, my response was pretty quick to accept the position, just because it wasn’t necessarily the onset of my career, like, hey, this is exactly what I’m going to do, I’m going to be a Power 5 coordinator, that wasn’t the trajectory at the beginning.”

It was almost surreal, then, when Grubb further reflected on his path in coaching while standing on the turf inside the Superdome, one of football’s most storied venues.

“When I was the offensive coordinator at [Iowa high school] Kingsley-Pierson, I wasn’t like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to be in a semifinal game in playoffs that didn’t exist at that point and a Power 5 coordinator,'” he said. “I was trying to figure out how to get [my running back] the ball.”

Morrell’s path since the Sioux Falls days looks a lot different. After spending 2010 as the defensive coordinator at FCS South Dakota, he became the head coach at Montana Tech, a job he held for nine seasons before leaving to become DeBoer’s defensive coordinator at Fresno State.

“I realized there’s only two people I want to work for,” Morrell said. “I want to work for Kalen or I want to work for myself.

“There’s just an incredible amount of trust. Some of that trust has been built up over the span of now, getting towards 30 years and I think every coach that works for Kalen wants to — like every coach, they want to be successful, they want to win — but then when you’re holding yourself accountable to a person that you really care about, you’re going do it at a different level and at a completely different standard.”

WASHINGTON’S SUCCESS THESE past two years raises an interesting question: Will athletic directors be more willing to tab a lower-level coach with an impressive track record?

It’s not just DeBoer, either. Lance Leipold has revived Kansas with a similar background. He won six NCAA Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater before a six-year stint at Buffalo, in which he turned that program around.

Both coaches seemingly benefitted from their time at the Group of 5 level. There could be a compelling argument that moving up levels as a head coach translates more seamlessly than going from Power 5 coordinator to Power 5 head coach.

“I think that depends on what athletic director you’re talking about,” Tummey said. “But I’ll tell you this, as a person who’s been in this position, I would value the success of being a head coach at any level just as much as that of being a coordinator at the highest level.

“And the reason why I say that is, is because when you’re a head coach, you just have so many more demands placed on you regardless of the level. To me, that training ground you get as a head coach regardless of the level is invaluable. To me, football is football.”

If hiring trends change, it would bode well for a coach like Doug Socha. Earlier this month, in Year 6 after starting an NAIA program at Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his team beat Northwestern (Iowa) to win the national title. It was a season that included 18-hour bus rides and took place in relative anonymity, but the title was celebrated by the players just as much as it will be by their FBS counterparts.

DeBoer’s NAIA history makes him revered by coaches at that level.

“I absolutely think [his success] is good for all of us,” Socha said. “We’re certainly rooting for all these small coaches that have the roots from the smaller levels to do well. Certainly, I think there’s enough proven track record out there to open up opportunities for other coaches.”

Earlier this year, after Washington beat Utah to secure DeBoer his 100th career victory as a head coach, he took a minute to reflect on what’s different at this stage of his career.

“I probably appreciate it more and more,” he said. “Each win, I really do. I think realizing that the moment that these guys are in right now is what’s special to me, and that getting these wins and the experiences that they’re going to have, the memories that they’re going to have that last forever.

“The stories they’re going to be able to tell — hopefully we’re far from being where this all ends — but I think I have appreciation for that and try to give them a dose that every once in a while, but we’re trying to keep the pedal down to where we can realize the real goals that we have for this season.”

Seven weeks later, those goals are still in play.

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