SEATTLE – Kalen DeBoer arrived at the University of Washington one year ago as something of a nomad, which is how it works in the college coaching world for the upwardly mobile as they ascend the ladder. DeBoer had held five jobs in the previous 10 years, none longer than four years. I asked him at his introductory news conference last November if he viewed Washington as a destination spot where he could put down roots.
Before he could even answer, DeBoer’s wife and two daughters in the audience began nodding their head vigorously. DeBoer replied, “Yes, absolutely,” and then added with a laugh, “My whole family is going, ‘Yes.’ ”
On Tuesday DeBoer took a major step toward firming those roots, signing a contract extension with Washington through 2028. Mind you, that doesn’t ensure he’ll stay that long, because another truism of the coaching world is that if another school wants you badly enough, it will find a way to make it happen. And conversely, if your program plummets, they’ll find a way to get rid of you before the contract expires.
But it provides the framework for a long and happy relationship, one that has succeeded far beyond the expectations of most people when DeBoer arrived as an under-the-radar selection to repair the regression of the two-year Jimmy Lake regime. I’m sure there will be revisionist history on this as DeBoer racks up more wins, but there was some initial disappointment that athletic director Jen Cohen hadn’t landed a bigger name.
Now it’s hard to imagine how Cohen could have made a better choice. DeBoer embraced the Husky culture from the start. At his introductory news conference, he reached out to Husky alumni, promising them that they would always have a place, and a voice, in his program. He reached out to state high school coaches, assuring that he would work immediately to build relationships that weren’t built merely on his desire to pluck the best prospects, but on respect for the job itself.
And most important, DeBoer went to work almost immediately in winning over the Husky players whom he had inherited. They were disillusioned by the dreary 4-8 season that had just ended with a humiliating loss to Washington State in the Apple Cup, yet it was clear that there was more talent on hand than that record indicated.
It was imperative that DeBoer project to the squad that he was the right person to turn around the Husky fortunes. In the revolutionary new world of the transfer portal, Washington could have had a mass defection that would have crippled the program. They lost a few key players, but the vast majority saw something in DeBoer that made them stay – and now they almost unanimously swear by their coach and the values with which he imbued the program.
The season itself has been an unqualified success. Oh, you could (and should) wince at the brutal loss to Arizona State, and how if the Huskies had not stumbled against a verifiably bad Sun Devils team, they’d be right in the heart of the College Football Playoff picture. But in its totality, a 9-2 record with wins over Michigan State, Oregon State and Oregon, all nationally ranked at the time, is nothing sort of staggering. The Huskies have an outside shot at a berth in the Pac-12 title game, but they might actually have a more realistic route to the Rose Bowl if USC bypasses the Granddaddy for the CFP.
I think back once more to DeBoer’s introductory news conference, where nearly everything that was promised has come to fruition.
Cohen said in her opening remarks, “We were looking for a coach that cared about the development of men both on and off the field, that knew how to instill and inspire a championship culture, and bring a little innovative football to Montlake.”
That last remark drew applause from the nonmedia members in attendance, and proved prescient. Following the staid, uninspired attack of former offensive coordinator John Donovan, DeBoer and his offensive coordinator, Ryan Grubb, have embodied the promise he made that day:
“I love finding a way to make something just a little bit better that can put a game away or be a difference-maker. Attacking and explosive is what I’d like to really think we’re going to be. … We’ll have a lot of stuff that is simple to us but looks complex to our opponent.”
The Husky offense has been all of that, guided masterfully by the quarterback they lured from Indiana via the transfer portal, Michael Penix Jr. – the transaction that jump-started the process of turning 4-8 into 9-2 and counting.
It’s hard to imagine that the innovation of the Husky offense, unveiled for the world to see in 2022, won’t lure top-flight quarterback and receiving recruits (and/or transfers) to Washington to be a part of that system. In college recruiting, success breeds success; youngsters want to be part of a winning program and a high-powered offense; once you start that cycle in the positive direction, it can be self-sustaining.
At his introductory news conference, DeBoer also said he didn’t see why the Huskies couldn’t win right away:
“I think in college football right now, winning and losing at this level, it’s such a fine line. And if we can get the culture where it needs to be and get the energy and excitement amongst the players, and every day we’re making strides, it’s amazing how far we can come quickly.”
The DeBoer family appears to be settling comfortably into Seattle life. One of those daughters in the audience mentioned earlier is a plum recruit of Husky softball coach Heather Tarr’s nationally ranked program. And now DeBoer himself has given a strong sign that he’s here for the long haul.
One other thing DeBoer said that day one year ago is that persistence and consistency would be a key to Washington’s success: “Persistent is how you get there, and consistent is how you stay there.”
The best news for Husky fans entering a huge game in Pullman on Saturday – a far cry from the desultory Apple Cup of 2021 – is that DeBoer, so persistent in rebuilding the Washington football program, is acting like someone who wants to stay here.
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