By Christopher Kamrani, Bruce Feldman, Kennington Smith III and Chris Vannini
The man chosen to succeed the greatest college football coach in the history of the sport is from rural South Dakota, who certainly some Crimson Tide fanatics have never heard of. At least until the last 72 hours.
Kalen DeBoer, known within the industry as both a program builder and excavator, told his staff at Washington he’s accepting an offer from Alabama for Nick Saban’s former coaching job, team sources confirmed Friday. DeBoer met with his Washington team Friday afternoon to explain why he’s making the move, the sources said.
News of the hire was officially announced by Alabama on Friday evening.
“Following coach Saban is an honor,” DeBoer said in a school statement. “He has been the standard for college football, and his success is unprecedented. I would not have left Washington for just any school. The chance to lead the football program at the University of Alabama is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
DeBoer, 49, went 25-3 in two years at Washington, leading the Huskies out of the frustrations of a 4-8 campaign under a previous coaching regime in 2021. Saban, who won six national championships while in charge of the program, shocked the sporting world Wednesday afternoon when it was announced he was retiring at the age of 72.
DeBoer, Washington and its revitalized fan base were not even 48 hours removed from the heartbreak of a 34-13 loss to Michigan in the College Football Playoff national championship Monday night in Houston.
“Kalen DeBoer has been an outstanding leader of our football program and what he accomplished in two seasons on Montlake will forever be a part of our storied history,” Washington athletic director Troy Dannen said. “We are sad to see him leave and we did all that we could to keep Kalen at UW.”
While the pool of candidates to replace Saban ranged from former trusted assistants like Texas’ Steve Sarkisian to those groomed under him like Oregon’s Dan Lanning, the list was slowly whittled down throughout the swift process undertaken by Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne.
On Thursday morning, Lanning — a former graduate assistant under Saban — announced on social media he was staying in Eugene. Sarkisian is close to finalizing a contract extension to stay with Texas.
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Eventually, it came down to DeBoer, Florida State head coach Mike Norvell and Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Earlier Friday, Norvell and FSU agreed to a new deal.
In DeBoer, Byrne went with what some might perceive to be an unconventional hire, a man who has never coached in the SEC. At some point this fall, DeBoer hired college football coaching superagent Jimmy Sexton who represents a majority of coaches in the SEC, including Saban.
“Coach DeBoer has proven he is a winner and has done an incredible job as a head coach at each of his stops,” Byrne said Friday. “One of the things I told our team the other day is we are going to get someone who is not only a great coach with the Xs and Os, but also someone who cares about his players and someone I’d want my sons to play for, just like I would have wanted them to play for Coach Saban. We got that in Coach DeBoer.”
As seen in the last two days, several dominoes needed to tip in the direction of Byrne going all the way to Seattle to find his Saban successor.
There will be no rebuild or extraction from the depths for DeBoer in Tuscaloosa. This is strictly a contend-for-and-win national titles every single year operation he faces. At Washington, DeBoer installed an offense that became the most entertaining in the sport in 2023, highlighted by a Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback in Michael Penix Jr., three future NFL wideouts and the best offensive line in the country.
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“I think it goes to how he’s wired,” former Washington coach Chris Petersen said last month when asked what makes DeBoer such a great coach.
“Kalen is strong in his convictions. He knows what he wants to do. He’s calm. He’s poised. ‘So-and-so just got hurt. So-and-so is gonna transfer.’ I know it bothers him. But it’s not the end of the world, and he’s fluid,” Petersen continued. “Like how do we keep adjusting and adapting? Those are the things that really jump out to me. Yes, he’s a really good offensive mind. Yeah, he’s a good organizer. That is lower on the totem pole of what makes him special, in my opinion.”
DeBoer was hired in November 2021 after two years at the helm at Fresno State, where he went 12-6 and tutored future NFL quarterback Jake Haener. From 2005 to 2009, he won three NAIA national titles with Sioux Falls and had the program in the title game all five years in charge. From 2010 to 2019, DeBoer bounced around the country at various levels as an offensive coordinator from Southern Illinois (2010-2013), Eastern Michigan (2014-2016), Fresno State (2017-2018) and Indiana (2019).
At each stop, DeBoer’s offensive philosophy predicated on capitalizing on open space for playmakers and freedom for the quarterback has been among the top in the country.
“I think there’s a foundation of what the system is, but it’s got a lot of flexibility to be able to grow and evolve. It’s always going to be around our personnel. It’s going to be quarterback-driven,” DeBoer told The Athletic before the Sugar Bowl win over Texas. “The quarterback is going to be able to take us as far as he can with what his skills are and his understanding of the offense. But in the end, it’s going to work around the players that we have. We’ve done it with the strength of our team being the tight ends, we’ve done it with the strength of our team being the running backs, the receivers, we’ve had success in a lot of different ways.”
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Over the past two years, the Huskies went 10-1 versus Top 25 teams. DeBoer is 12-2 all-time against ranked opponents. He’s also been dominant against his contemporaries in the sport and some who were in the mix for the Alabama job. He was 3-0 against Lanning, 2-0 against Sarkisian and 1-0 against USC’s Lincoln Riley.
Washington was the No. 1 passing offense in the country in 2023 and 12th overall in total offense. Despite Alabama also qualifying for the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide offense was not what it had been in recent years. It ranked 56th in total offense and 68th in passing offense.
Before the national title game, Washington defensive lineman Faatui Tuitele told The Athletic that DeBoer fixed a broken locker room.
“Our culture was really damaged during that time, but then coach DeBoer came,” he said. “Everything has been so amazing. He really changed our culture for the better.”
At Alabama, the culture has been Nick Saban and contending for titles since 2007. But those who know DeBoer well believe he is uniquely made up for such circumstances.
“Kalen has a humble swagger to him,” said a former Washington staffer who spoke under condition of anonymity. “His temperament is very unique. He doesn’t swear. He stays very steady all the time.”
What will Alabama look like under DeBoer?
Recruiting and retention of Alabama’s roster is of the highest priority, as evidenced by wide receiver Isaiah Bond entering the transfer portal Friday. The best way for DeBoer to do that is to assemble his coaching staff with the same urgency that the head coaching search had.
The first question is which of Alabama’s current coaches will DeBoer retain? Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who interviewed for the head coaching position this week, is of particular interest and secondary coach Travaris Robinson, a valuable assistant and recruiter within the Southern footprint is likely a high-priority coach for DeBoer to keep on staff.
Three assistant coaching positions are vacant: wide receivers, outside linebackers and defensive coordinator. The wide receiver position is perhaps the most important position to fill, as securing that position as soon as possible will help Alabama’s chances of regaining the commitment of 2024 five-star Ryan Williams, who decommitted from Alabama amid Saban’s retirement and is signing during late signing day in February.
Overall, finalizing the coaching staff and mobilizing to retain the current roster and start recruiting the 2025 class is DeBoer’s first major assignment as Alabama’s coach.
What’s next for Washington?
Regarding what’s in store for Washington, it remains to be seen if DeBoer is going to bring offensive coordinator and longtime coaching partner Ryan Grubb with him to Tuscaloosa. Ironically, Saban offered Grubb the offensive coordinator position last offseason, but Grubb turned it down to see how far the 2023 Huskies could go.
Regardless of whether Grubb moves on, Washington will be a different team next season. A slew of stars are departing, including Penix and wide receiver Rome Odunze, though former Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers has transferred in. UW is also heading to the Big Ten, where the competition will be tougher and the Huskies will be at a financial disadvantage, not receiving a full conference share.
Grubb would be an easy internal promotion. Potential outside names could include Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell, Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch, Kansas head coach Lance Leipold, Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan, Washington State head coach Jake Dickert, former Auburn/Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin and New Mexico head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
But new athletic director Troy Dannen just got to Seattle from Tulane in October, meaning this search could go in numerous directions.
(Photo: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)