Caple: Kalen DeBoer has 100 wins, but hasn’t forgotten 11 losses
Nov 16, 2023, 6:22 PM
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Many of the victories are memorable, though they number 100 now. The UW Huskies’ Kalen DeBoer has been successful enough as a head coach, in nine seasons at three schools, that some of those wins blend into one another, or at least would be difficult to recite in order.
When the career ledger reads 100-11, the right side of that hyphen nestles more permanently into the brain: postseason defeats in the ice and mud, regular-season losses that thwarted conference-championship aspirations, and even a few others played in empty stadiums.
From the University of Sioux Falls to Fresno State to the UW Huskies, DeBoer easily recalls each of the 11 games he’s lost as a head coach — a diminutive figure relative to his 100 victories, but a list impossible to forget.
“I know every opponent. I can rattle them off real fast,” he said. “I probably can give you the score, or at least the difference in the score, for each of them. Because I know what I was thinking as we got down to the wire.”
Some taught important lessons, or served as building blocks toward great achievement. Others just hurt.
Here’s what DeBoer remembers about the setbacks strewn among 100 triumphs.
• Oct. 15, 2005: Morningside College 27, Sioux Falls 26 (Sioux City, Iowa)
After five seasons as offensive coordinator, DeBoer became head coach of his alma mater in 2005. The Cougars started 6-0 before he sustained the first of his three losses in five years, and the only one he would incur in the regular season.
“It was a one-point game,” DeBoer said. “I want to say it was 27-26, or 28-27, something like that. I remember we fumbled on the goal line, going in, in the final minutes. I remember thinking, ‘we probably have to go for two.’ But we didn’t punch it in, so that was a heartbreaker.
“We actually had a puller go the wrong way, and then a clean shot on our running back. Nice day, though. I remember it. It was a nice day. Probably in October, if I’m guessing.”
“I want to say it was two top-four teams in the country, so it was a battle. We were both highly ranked. I think they just flipped us after that game, if I remember right.”
The loss snapped Sioux Falls’ 40-game winning streak in league play.
DeBoer did not lose another, finishing his five-year tenure with a 49-1 conference record.
• Dec. 3, 2005: Carroll College 55, Sioux Falls 0 (NAIA semifinal, Helena, Mont.)
Before DeBoer established Sioux Falls as a preeminent force in NAIA football, Carroll held the distinction to an even greater degree, and was in no mood to relinquish the throne in DeBoer’s first season.
Carroll steamrolled the Cougars en route to a fourth consecutive national title.
“We went 11-2, the same as last year (at Washington),” DeBoer said. “55-0. National semifinal game. Helena, Montana. Not proud of this — I don’t know what we could have done differently with a minimal budget — but there was major snowfall the day before. So we had a walkthrough on a different field, and the game field was covered with snow. They pushed it off the next morning. It was in the teens, as far as the temperature. It was pretty much an ice-skating rink.
“These guys were four-time national champions, including that year. They were the better team. Probably would have beat us — well — but probably not 55-0. I could tell pregame, just with the shoes we had on compared to what they had, that they had done this many times, over many years. They had certain shoes that they wore. And we were just slipping all over the place. It was ugly. We couldn’t even field the ball and stand up straight, it was that slick. It got away from us in a hurry.
“They were a really good football team. We had some battles with Carroll over the years. They were No. 1 in the country, and they deserved it.”
After the game, DeBoer told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader: “It’s tough today, but we’ve got a lot of talent coming back. We should be in pretty good shape.”
Indeed, the Cougars graduated only eight seniors that year. But DeBoer remembers boarding the team plane, thinking: “We just got beat by 55. What is the mindset of these guys, knowing we’ve got a lot of returners? Can we bridge that gap?
“I learned a lot about the guys being able to just flush it and get back to work and be focused. The next year, we won the national championship. We went 14-0. I learned how comparing scores never means anything. We knew we didn’t get beat by 55 points — I mean, we did, but we didn’t. So comparing scores means nothing. (Carroll) lost some of their better players, too, so that makes a difference.
“There was an understanding that, OK, they are the benchmark. They are the team. We’ve got to really dig in and get back to work in the offseason.”
Sioux Falls didn’t lose again for another two years and 12 days. When it finally did, a familiar opponent dealt the L.
• Dec. 15, 2007: Carroll College 17, Sioux Falls 9 (NAIA championship, Savannah, Tenn.)
DeBoer: “Eight-point game in the championship against Carroll. I think it was 17-9, because we had a fighting chance. It was in a downpour on a grass field in Tennessee. We had a high-flying passing game. Probably one of the top-two worst surfaces and toughest games we’ve ever played when it came to weather, rain-wise.
“One thing we learned from that game — we just needed to ramp up our offensive line. The next year, we played Carroll in very similar conditions, but this time it was in Atlanta, again on a grass field that was really muddy, and we really bulldozed. We bolstered our offensive line, and our run game was dominant. We had a quarterback that could run, Lorenzo Brown. A couple things fell into our lap with some transfers that came to us, offensive-line wise.”
Despite losing in the 2007 championship game, DeBoer felt his team grew from what it accomplished the game prior, when it won, 11-10, in the semifinals against Missouri Valley College. The victory required a 99-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter in frigid conditions.
“That’s what really took it to another level, that you should never walk off the field with any regrets,” DeBoer said. “If you just keep fighting and keep swinging — they don’t always go your way, but you can at least live with the results, if you and your team gave it everything you had, from your preparation to how hard you play the entire game.”
DeBoer didn’t lose again at Sioux Falls, winning his next 29 games to claim two more national championships and finish his tenure with a 67-3 record. Eager to climb the coaching ladder, he left after 2009 and spent the next 10 seasons as an offensive coordinator — four at FCS Southern Illinois, three at Eastern Michigan, two at Fresno State and one at Indiana — before becoming head coach at Fresno State in 2020.
• Oct. 24, 2020: Hawaii 34, Fresno State 19 (Fresno, Calif.)
After going unbeaten at home in five seasons at Sioux Falls, DeBoer lost his first home game at the FBS level.
“COVID. We had a month and a half in winter training, from the end of January to March 12, working with our team,” DeBoer said. “I was still hiring some staff at the end of January. We didn’t see our team from March 12 until right around Sept. 25, is when we gave the call for guys to come back to campus. I remember we played on Oct. 24, because it was my birthday.
“There were just so many loose ends. Hawaii had the same thing, the same situation. We were a whole new staff. There were coaches still trying to get to know who some of these players were. We were installing everything with no spring ball.
“We lost by 15. I remember us thinking we were two scores away. We had 18-20 practices to get ready for that game. We were really simple, offensively, defensively, just trying to get a team on the football field. They kind of ran away there in that game, at the end.”
Jake Haener threw for 289 yards with three interceptions, and lost a fumble.
• Dec. 5, 2020: Nevada 37, Fresno State 26 (Reno, Nev.)
“We hit COVID,” DeBoer said. “We had no positive tests until like Week 4, and we had two weeks in a row where it killed us, and we had to cancel our games. Then we went on the road to Nevada, and we bussed. We took extra buses so that we weren’t on a plane, because it was kind of rampant around the team.
“The day of us leaving, we had a long snapper actually have a false positive (test), but because you couldn’t re-test a false positive, it knocked out our kicker. Our other long snappers were out. We ended up having literally tryouts for long snapper, before we got on the bus to head out on Thursday. Our wide receiver ended up having to be the kicker, including kicking off. We got two punts blocked in the first quarter, and then we just quick-kicked the rest of the game with Jake Haener.
“But our guys, they battled and battled and battled. In the third quarter, we still had a chance to take the lead. And Nevada was a really good football team. They were really good that year. They had guys that are in the NFL. I just remember being really proud of our guys for how they battled through some really tough times. You’re just trying to get a team on the field.
Nevada finished 7-2 after beating Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
• Dec. 12, 2020: New Mexico 49, Fresno State 39 (Las Vegas)
This was a COVID-era classic: New Mexico had relocated to Las Vegas due to local restrictions, and Fresno State was barely able to field a team.
“We were down to like maybe 35 scholarship players that traveled,” DeBoer said. “I think we traveled low 50s for that game, as far as that trip. Just COVID had hit us. We had no one to even put on the football field.
“Even if we’d won that game, I just knew we couldn’t even put a team together to finish out, even if we get into a bowl game. We just spent a lot of time after that game meeting with our players and trying to get things put into order for the next season.”
Fresno State finished the season 3-3, and DeBoer learned something about playing shorthanded.
“Last year, when we were playing in that Arizona State stretch, it felt a little bit the same, with so many guys out,” he said. “I kind of draw upon that. Like, man, you’ve got to really work hard as a coach to just keep bringing life to these guys, because there’s guys that are out — or guys that were trying to practice, but they just were limping around. They want to do it, but their bodies aren’t letting them.
“That’s where it falls on us as coaches to be that strength, keep trying to pump belief and help them be confident going into those games.”
But also: “The ones in the COVID era, I just kind of choose to forget those, anyway.”
• Sept. 4, 2021: Oregon 31, Fresno State 24 (Eugene, Ore.)
Fresno State beat UConn, 45-0, in its season opener, then traveled north for its first of two games against Pac-12 opponents.
“Couple turnovers ended up swinging the game,” DeBoer said. “We fumbled in the fourth quarter and then they scored to win it. Our guys fought their tails off. We had played one game, so we didn’t really know who we were, but our guys went into a hostile environment and played some ball. Really found out what we were made of.”
He was encouraged to see players so upset about losing, even as big underdogs. And the next time Fresno State found itself in a tight game on the road against a ranked Pac-12 team, it broke through for a landmark victory.
“That’s where I knew we had a chance to have a really good football team — they were really in the locker room, I don’t want to say frustrated, but really disappointed,” DeBoer said of the Oregon loss. “Knew that we had a chance. But we did point out a lot of the positives, and how far we had come, and that if we just keep plugging away and keep improving, the team was capable of doing some great things.
“We were hurting after that game, because there was some big effort, and we had it in our grasp. Then two weeks later, we go and beat UCLA. So we learned a lot, and found a way to finish.”
• Oct. 2, 2021: Hawaii 27, Fresno State 24 (Honolulu)
The Bulldogs won three straight after their loss to Oregon, and were favored by 10 points in Honolulu.
DeBoer cringes at the memory.
“It’s probably the one game, looking over all the years, that just eats at you,” he said. “We win that game, we’re probably in the conference championship that year. It was a disaster trip. Our plane got delayed because of mechanical issues — like seven hours late — so we’re pulling into Hawaii past midnight.
“We just could not finish off different drives. We turned the ball over (six) times in the game, including the last drive, which would have won it. The guys battled. They kept playing, a lot like what you see from our team (Washington) right now. But we just couldn’t overcome the mistakes. That one hurt.”
• Nov. 6, 2021: Boise State 40, Fresno State 14 (Fresno, Calif.)
The Broncos used five sacks and three Fresno State turnovers to hand DeBoer the second-most lopsided loss of his career.
“Sellout at home. It ended up getting away from us,” he said. “We went for it on fourth down sometimes in our own territory, in long situations, and they put up some late scores. I remember the early part of the game, we’re down by a score. And DaRon Bland, who’s having an amazing year right now with the Cowboys, had a 100-yard (interception) return for a touchdown, and would have given us all the momentum. We got called for a push in the back on the return that brought us way back to the other side of the field. Just couldn’t overcome it.
“They just beat us. They played better than us that day. That was one of the game-changing plays that might have got us over the hump early in the game. But they just beat us.
“That was a heartbreaker. We just needed to win one of those two, or get a break from another team. We finished strong that year.”
The Bulldogs finished 6-2 in Mountain West play, one game behind San Diego State — whom they defeated head to head — in the division standings. SDSU defeated Boise State in the final week of the season to clinch the division title, then beat Utah State in the conference championship game.
DeBoer left for Washington before Fresno State defeated UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl to finish 10-3.
• Sept. 30, 2022: UCLA 40, UW Huskies 32 (Pasadena, Calif.)
• Oct. 8, 2022: Arizona State 45, UW Huskies 38 (Tempe, Ariz.)
Over a two-week span last season, Washington went from 4-0 and ranked in the top-15, to 4-2, unranked and playing worse defensively than it had in years.
“I think after the UCLA game, guys were hurting,” DeBoer said. “I think after the Arizona State game, it was more that guys were upset. (We) understood that we had our backs to the wall a little bit, with what we were going through at the time (injuries). But the difference was being crushed against UCLA, emotionally, because we were doing some good things and feeling confident about it — just feeling like, ‘hey, we can be a special team.’”
DeBoer said the prevailing message after the loss to ASU — which finished 3-9 and had already fired coach Herm Edwards — was: “We cannot give into this. Remember this feeling the next time you step on the football field for practice tomorrow, and what are we going to do about it? How are we changing this? Are you going to give in, or are you going to fight?
“The fight that you see in our team now, it started right after that.”
The UW Huskies, of course, have not lost since, and hold the second-longest active winning streak in FBS at 17 games.
Even after the ASU loss, DeBoer said, “we still knew we were going to have a very competitive team, and be strong. It was just a matter of how strong. What we carry from that time right there is, it doesn’t matter who you don’t have, or what the situation is. Making excuses doesn’t matter. It’s a loss.
“That’s what we keep remembering as we go through this year, because there have been times — I think about the Arizona State game this year. Were we missing three of our top five receivers? There were a lot of guys down. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to find a way to win, because in the end, the score is what people remember.
“The excuses mean nothing. No one cares. That’s really the way we have looked at it.”
This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.
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