South Dakota roots of Kalen DeBoer show in his work with No. 2 UW Huskies
Dec 28, 2023, 12:21 PM | Updated: 3:06 pm
(Ian Maule/Getty Images)
Kalen DeBoer got called into the athletic director’s office a few days after the University of Sioux Falls won its third national championship in four years.
The 2009 Cougars had just finished one of the most dominating seasons in NAIA history. In Willie Sanchez’s mind, DeBoer had outgrown the small, Baptist-affiliated school in South Dakota’s largest city.
Sanchez said he asked DeBoer if he had aspirations of coaching at a higher level. DeBoer, hesitantly, told him he did.
“He’s a South Dakota boy, and it seems like in the Midwest people don’t want to leave and I can understand why,” Sanchez recalled. “I said, ‘Kalen, you have more ability and should go forward.’ He said he had some inquiries, and I told him he needed to look into those possibilities.”
For good measure, Sanchez threatened to fire him if he didn’t take another job.
“I said that in a joking way,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t going to fire a guy who just won a national championship, but it was a way to kind of motivate him, and hopefully he would look for a position at a higher level, which he did. And I’m glad he did.”
DeBoer, who lived his first 35 years in South Dakota, is 49 now and head coach of the UW Huskies. He has led unbeaten Washington to the College Football Playoff in his second season, an effort that earned him coach of the year honors from The Associated Press last week. They play Texas in the semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
No one knows if DeBoer really needed Sanchez’s nudge, but the coach still appreciates the belief his old boss had in him.
“I was still pretty young, and getting a chance to go be challenged at the next level with different people was certainly something I think he saw for me,” DeBoer said, “even if I didn’t feel that way at the time.”
DeBoer’s rise through the coaching ranks began a few weeks after his meeting with Sanchez when he was hired as Southern Illinois’ offensive coordinator. It was the first of six stops over 12 years.
In nine seasons as a head coach — Sioux Falls (2005-09), Fresno State (2020-21) and Washington (2022-23) — his record is 103-11.
“It is crazy,” said DeBoer’s high school coach, Mike Busch, drawing out the last word. “It’s by no accident, either. It’s hard to win games at any level, and him and his staff, they find a way to win and their kids find a way to win and they believe.”
Though DeBoer left South Dakota in 2010, South Dakota never left him. Neither did the lessons he learned from his mentor at Sioux Falls, NAIA Hall of Fame coach Bob Young.
Young, who died last January, spoke of DeBoer often with close friend Jim Heinitz, the retired coach at Augustana in Sioux Falls. Heinitz said Young knew DeBoer had the makings of a good coach and did what he could to foster his growth.
Young developed DeBoer into an All-America receiver who helped the Cougars win their first national championship in 1996 and kept him around to coach receivers the next year. Then he helped him get an assistant’s job at Washington High in Sioux Falls and hired him in 2000 as offensive coordinator. When Young retired, he urged Sanchez to hire DeBoer as his successor.
DeBoer went 67-3 in five seasons, 49-1 in conference games and won NAIA titles in 2006, 2008 and 2009. The Cougars went 56-1 from 2006-09, with the only loss coming in the 2007 championship game. His last Sioux Falls team outscored opponents 775-158 and beat North Dakota of the Football Championship Subdivision, 28-13.
His ties to Sioux Falls remain strong.
Washington defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell was DeBoer’s teammate and later his defensive coordinator at Sioux Falls. Huskies offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb was DeBoer’s line coach at Sioux Falls and on staff with him at Eastern Michigan and Fresno State.
“I understand who they are as people,” DeBoer said. “I know that they’re relentless in their work ethic and that they want to do the same things I want to, and that’s making a difference in the people around us and the lives we touch each and every day. I know that they’ll leave the ego at the door and do what’s always best for our team.”
DeBoer grew up in northeastern South Dakota, first in Corona, pop. 69, and later Milbank, pop. 3,500. His mother, Phylis Waterfall, worked at a drugstore while raising him and his brother and sister as a single parent.
“It probably forced me to grow up a little bit quicker,” DeBoer said. “But I will say this: I always felt like I had everything. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I had people around me, my dad, too. I knew everyone loved me. I knew I was going to be safe.
“Maybe there were times where things were a little bit harder,” he added. “I think it’s all part of my journey and what what made me who I am today.”
Busch, DeBoer’s coach at Milbank, remember him as a player who would do anything to help the team win. He was a dependable receiver. He filled in at quarterback for two games when the starter was injured to keep alive a run to the state semifinals his senior year. He made plays sideline-to-sideline as a middle linebacker.
Sioux Falls’ program was underfunded when DeBoer arrived as a player. The practice field was only 80 yards and turned to mud after the lightest of rains. Until 2007, when Bob Young Field opened, home games were played off campus.
The Cougars’ dominance over DeBoer’s five seasons as head coach, and maybe Sanchez’s nudge, led to his four-year run at Southern Illinois. Coordinator jobs followed at Eastern Michigan, Fresno State and Indiana, where he first met Michael Penix Jr., now the Huskies’ starting quarterback and the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
DeBoer went back to Fresno State for his first Division I head coaching job in 2020, and he took the Bulldogs from 3-3 in the pandemic-shortened season to 10-3 with a bowl win the next year.
“He wanted to progress up the ladder of college football, and to do that, I guess, you’ve got to pay your dues,” longtime Sioux Falls radio play-by-play man Tom Frederick said. “From NAIA to the NCAA probably was not the easiest thing to do.”
Washington hired him Nov. 29, 2021, to revive a program that had fallen off. DeBoer was able to retain key talent and he brought in Penix as a transfer.
“The relationship he has with Penix, there’s mutual respect,” Heinitz said. “You can see on TV that Penix and the rest of the players are really happy for him and the success he’s having, and they share the success.”
DeBoer’s home state has a proud football history. South Dakota State is now the dominant team in the FCS and 61 natives from the state of 895,000 have played in the NFL, with seven first-round draft picks and NFL career scoring leader Adam Vinatieri among them.
The people who know DeBoer from Sioux Falls said if there were a Mount Rushmore of football in the Mount Rushmore State, he would belong up there if Washington wins the national title.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from small-town South Dakota or small-town Alabama or wherever, if coaching is your passion and you’re doing what Kalen’s doing, you’re going to make it to the top,” Busch said. “Down the road, is the NFL next for him or is another Power Five big team? Who knows? Right now it’s fun to watch the Huskies.”
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed.
• Radio broadcast details
Catch the UW Huskies in the Sugar Bowl against Texas with the live ESPN Radio broadcast on Seattle Sports 710 AM, KIRO Sports 97.3 FM or either station’s official mobile app at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The other College Football Playoff semifinal, the Rose Bowl between Michigan and Alabama at 2 p.m., will also air live. For more details, click here.
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