From South Dakota to the Superdome: How Kalen DeBoer put Washington in the national championship conversation

If you were going to craft a syrupy feel-good tale to counteract the knives-out free-for-all of college football in 2023, you could start right at the very top. When a coach inherits a 4-8 program and overhauls it so dramatically that it reaches the College Football Playoff in two years, that’s worth noticing. And when that coach is an itinerant go-where-the-job-is lifer, an overnight success two decades in the making, a product of the country’s most overlooked region, well … you’ve got yourself the ingredients for a fine little tale of ambition achieved and effort rewarded.

Monday evening, Kalen DeBoer will lead the Washington Huskies into the Sugar Bowl to face Texas with a spot in the national championship game on the line. It’s the culmination — so far — of a career that’s spanned half the country, one coaching gig at a time. While the entire sport of college football barrels forward into an uncertain future, DeBoer represents the best version of a throwback.

(Yes, DeBoer’s university is one of the kaiju stomping college football’s old order into wreckage. Let’s put that fact aside for the moment.)

Washington right now has, by far, the longest odds to win the national championship. But DeBoer has faced much longer odds to get to this point, starting with the state of his birth.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Most Americans know South Dakota — if they know it at all — as “one of those Dakotas up there at the top of the map” and, maybe, as the home of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. DeBoer was born and raised in Milbank, a tiny town literally on the other end of the state, just five miles from the Minnesota border. Growing up in that kind of environment breeds some specific qualities in a person.

“There’s a sincerity, a down-home approach to everything we do that keeps things simple when we communicate,” says Dale Lennon, DeBoer’s former head coach at Southern Illinois and, himself, a North Dakota native. “We’re trustworthy. And there’s a common connection that exists when you’re from a place that normally doesn’t get a lot of attention.”

DeBoer, 49, played his college ball at the University of Sioux Falls, where he set school records for receptions, receiving yardage and touchdown receptions. After he graduated in 1997, he put down the helmet and grabbed a whistle, joining the staff as a coordinator. He worked his way up the coaching depth chart and took over as head coach in 2005. The very next year, he led Sioux Falls to the first of three NAIA national championships in four years. Over his five years at Sioux Falls, he posted an astounding 67-3 record and won NAIA National Coach of the Year three times.

Those are the kinds of numbers that make the country pay attention, and at the 2010 American Football Coaches Convention, DeBoer introduced himself to Lennon. As it happened, Lennon had an opening for an offensive coordinator, and so he extracted DeBoer from South Dakota.

“He spent the first three or four months in Carbondale (Illinois) living in my basement,” Lennon says with a laugh. “But it was very comfortable. And he hit the ground running.”

Lennon’s first assignment for the young coach from South Dakota: Go recruit in Chicago. It was quite the culture shock, but as Lennon recalls, DeBoer already had all the necessary qualities in place to succeed.

“He was very humble. He had already won a couple of national championships, but he comes into the staff ready to learn, putting himself in position to learn from everyone who’s been there before,” Lennon recalls. “When you’ve got that kind of sincerity, you can make connections in the South Side of Chicago or in South Dakota.”

DeBoer spent four years at Southern Illinois, then kept wandering the coordinator’s path: three seasons at Eastern Michigan, a couple seasons at Fresno State and a year at Indiana before finally getting the chance to lead his own team, again at Fresno State. He spent two years there, going 3-3 in the COVID season of 2020 before leading the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record and a victory in the New Mexico Bowl in 2021.

That turnaround put him on the radar of Washington, which was adrift in the post-Chris Peterson era and coming off a 4-8 season in 2021. Huskies officials noticed how DeBoer’s 2021 Fresno State team upset then-No. 14 UCLA — which beat Washington that year — and kept within one possession of then-No. 11 Oregon. DeBoer’s offensive schemes at Fresno State transformed Washington transfer QB Jake Haener into a bomb-throwing QB worthy of a fourth-round NFL Draft pick, the same way he turbocharged Indiana’s offense in his one season there as offensive coordinator.

Washington turnaround

Washington hired DeBoer in November 2021, after Iowa State’s Matt Campbell turned down a reported $7 million annual offer. The concerns about DeBoer’s prospects — no Power Five head coaching or recruiting experience — were understandable, but he blew away those concerns almost immediately.

DeBoer’s 2022 Huskies reeled off four straight wins, including a victory over then-No. 11 Michigan State, before back-to-back losses to UCLA and Arizona State killed playoff hopes. But the Huskies ended the year with wins over No. 24 Oregon State, No. 6 Oregon and — foreshadowing — No. 21 Texas in the Alamo Bowl. The Huskies finished the year eighth in the AP poll.

There aren’t many ways to improve on that kind of season, but Washington found the best way: going undefeated. The Huskies blew through all 12 regular-season games and the Pac-12 championship, beating five ranked opponents, including three in the top 10, and going 7-0 in one-possession games.

They won in blowouts, and they won with gambles like a fourth-and-1 in the Apple Cup, 1:07 left in the game, score tied, ball on their own 29-yard line — season on the line, in other words. Instead of a punt or even a dive, Washington executed this:

… and won the game a minute later with a last-second field goal.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else in the country that’s gone through what we went through,” DeBoer said after winning the final Pac-12 championship. “We won four games against four top teams here in November, and now in December. That’s tough to do. We did it at home. We did it on the road. We did it in wind, we did it in rain.”

The Huskies threw up some impressive numbers in their run, averaging 37.7 points per game. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. — who played for DeBoer at Indiana — led the nation with 4,218 yards, and wide receiver Rome Odunze ranked second with 1,428 yards. It’s no surprise, then, that Huskies led FBS in passing offense and ranked fifth in yards per play. That’s the kind of overwhelming offense that keeps a team in every game.

“Two years and we keep saying it; if it’s close, we’re gonna find a way to win,” DeBoer said in October after the Huskies’ first win over Oregon. “We’re built for this. We’re made for this. We’ve been through some things. We’ve learned from them. We take the lessons we’ve learned and apply them and you can see it.”

Washington’s bravura 2023 performance earned DeBoer the AP’s Coach of the Year honors, the first time a Washington coach has received the award. He received 30 of 52 first-place votes and outdistanced Florida State’s Mike Norvell, Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz and Arizona’s Jedd Fish.

DeBoer’s rise isn’t a surprise to those who have known him along the way. “Kalen has the ‘It’ factor, a natural leadership quality that I think the players respect and rally around,” Lennon says. “He can make things happen, he has sincerity, intelligence, he’s very approachable … He’s the type of coach you want to play for.”

So much so that DeBoer is already fashioning the Huskies teams of the future. DeBoer has already secured Penix’s likely successor: Mississippi State transfer Will Rogers, who ranks second all-time in SEC career passing yards. Washington may be leaping into the tiger pit of the Big Ten next year, but they’ll be one of the bigger tigers going in.

For his part, DeBoer traces all his success back to his South Dakota origins. “I think building a team, a championship-level team really goes to the roots of Sioux Falls,” DeBoer told “In Play,” a South Dakota Public Broadcasting podcast, last month. “Love and trust for each other, doing anything for the team first, and then the individual accolades will come.”

Washington will have its chance for both individual and team accolades starting Monday night in the Sugar Bowl. It’s been a years-long road to get here, but only a few days remain between DeBoer and his greatest achievement yet.

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