How Kalen DeBoer turned Washington football into a powerhouse

Every Athletic Director wants to hit a home run when they hire a football coach. The outcome is typically the defining product of the AD’s tenure, for better or worse. Of course, there is no simple formula for what will make a candidate successful in a big-time college football job.

Many questions arise for an athletic director when making a potential career-defying hire. Should the AD look at the resume? Is it better to be a successful lower-level coach or an assistant at a great program? Is it more about skill set? Do you highlight the predominant offensive scheme of the day or opt for an ace recruiter? Someone with regional ties or a national profile? Someone who eats, sleeps, and drinks football or someone who balances his job with a family? Do you build a “winning culture” by installing rigid discipline or relating to players on their level? The AD job is difficult because none of these questions have the right answer, and even if they did, the answers are always changing.

Even when an AD gets the hire right, it’s not always so easy to say why. Former University of Washington AD Jen Cohen indisputably picked the right candidate when she hired Kalen DeBoer away from Fresno State to succeed Jimmy Lake’s short and regrettable tenure at Washington. At the time, DeBoer looked like a solid candidate, but not the sort of home run who could bring a 4-8 team to the College Football Playoff in two years and win AP Coach of the Year. In fact, many Husky fans were holding out hope for a late breakthrough in negotiations with Iowa State coach Matt Campbell until the moment the school officially announced DeBoer’s hiring.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at San Diego State

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So what makes DeBoer special? Why have the Huskies undergone such an immediate and dramatic turnaround under his leadership? As with hiring any coach — there’s no simple formula or explanation — but a complex combination of factors that have made him the right coach for the right team at the right time.

Watching the Huskies play, it’s clear that a major component of DeBoer’s successful mix is his mastery of the offense. DeBoer’s history with offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb goes back to their days at NAIA Sioux Falls (where DeBoer went 67-3 with 3 NAIA Championships), and the close relationship has paid dividends on the field. Grubb, like DeBoer, was not an obvious first choice for most Husky fans as the OC. The UW faithful wanted a bigger name with more recruiting pull under the assumption that DeBoer would serve as the architect of the offense. Instead, Grubb has been one of the best assistants in the country and even rejected overtures from Nick Saban at Alabama last summer to remain with the Huskies.

The DeBoer-Grubb alchemy borrows from a litany of offensive influences. There are concepts derived from the Air Raid, including trust in the quarterback to make pre-snap reads to anticipate where the defense might be over-committed. DeBoer has also talked about how he has borrowed different varieties of pre-snap motion and formational confusion from Chris Petersen’s Boise State teams to better disguise his offensive concepts. They make complicated tasks look fairly simple: For the last two years, Michael Penix Jr. has consistently found Rome Odunze when isolated downfield in single coverage; Jalen McMillan in the slot when an inferior defender is left to cover him; and Ja’Lynn Polk, Jack Westover, Giles Jackson and the rest of the pass catchers when the defense has over-committed to stopping the bigger names. That formula led Penix to the national lead in passing yards and a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy voting. It also placed the Huskies 5th in the nation in Offensive SP+, a year after finishing in the top-10.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington

Washington Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) talks with offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb during pregame warmups against the Washington State.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

DeBoer has not reached the CFP solely by virtue of elite play-calling. In fact, Grubb calls the plays. An area where DeBoer has more direct control is the team’s game management, which is almost always on point. It’s not so much that DeBoer thinks circles around other coaches tactically, it’s that he seldom leaves low-hanging fruit on the tree. Between late-game clock management, the middle eight minutes of the game, and fourth down punt decisions, there is almost never an obvious mistake from the coaching staff.

One of the best examples is the exception that proves the rule. Against Utah, with the Huskies trailing 28-24 just before halftime, Penix completed a pass to Jack Westover on fourth down that would have put the Huskies in field goal range. Instead, the play was called back for an ineligible receiver penalty on Washington tight end Quentin Moore. The referees determined that Moore was not eligible due to the positioning of the players lined up outside him. The normally stolid DeBoer was more passionate than he had ever been on the UW sideline. The referees could not change the call, but expert review after the game was nearly unanimous that the formation was legal, though potentially a bit confusing to the referees. In that case, DeBoer’s creativity was too effective; he fooled the opponent and the refs.

DeBoer also deserves credit for his personnel management. While he has not yet returned nationally-renowned recruiting classes, he has opportunistically hit the transfer portal to raise the roster’s ceiling in just the right ways. Penix is the obvious example of a transfer success story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Husky fans weren’t sure if Penix was even an upgrade on incumbent Dylan Morris when he came from Indiana after a series of injury-ravaged seasons. The Huskies have kept him mostly upright, healthy, and insanely productive.

This year’s roster is peppered with other transfers who reached new levels under DeBoer. Dillon Johnson and Wayne Taulapapa were relatively unheralded running backs who provided great production the last two years. Jabbar Muhammad has been a difference maker at cornerback. Germie Bernard, Will Nixon, and Josh Cuevas have all provided sparks at skill positions.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington

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Perhaps more important than who DeBoer has brought in is who he has kept. In an era of constant roster turnover, the Dawgs maintained remarkable continuity at key positions after 2022’s 11-2 season. Penix, Odunze, and McMillan all bypassed the certainty of being NFL draft picks to play another year in college. Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui did the same on the defensive line (It’s worth noting that all of these players likely had an easier decision than they would have in the past due to receiving at least some portion of the money they would’ve made in the NFL through UW’s NIL collective). Even though it’s too early to judge the returns of much of DeBoer’s high school recruiting, he has proven to be an outstanding “stay recruiter” for current stars. In the present college football environment — that’s an invaluable skill.

Offensive scheme, play-calling, game management, and roster construction are all essential building blocks, but not enough to separate from at least 100 other over-qualified football fanatics coaching teams across the country. The thing that has made DeBoer successful is less tangible, however you can’t deny that he hasn’t demonstrated it over time in various locations. I’m naturally skeptical of anything I can’t directly observe, so squishy concepts like chemistry and team culture elicit a raised eyebrow. Virtually every team thinks they have a winning culture in fall camp and half of them finish with a losing record. Whether it’s in the NAIA, Mountain West, or Pac-12, DeBoer has not ended up in that losing group.

In an interview with Bruce Feldman before the season began, DeBoer gave an answer that essentially distills his coaching philosophy, “I think you can win a lot of football games with good scheme and good coaching and good players, obviously, but I do think if you want to win the big ones, the championships, and do it over and over and over again, it’s character that helps you win repetitively at the highest level. But there’s got to be just another level of chemistry and the bond that exists needs to be just elite if you’re gonna win championships because it gets harder and harder to do every year.”

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington

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Character. Chemistry. Bonds. Great things to have, but how do you know if it’s there? In DeBoer’s case, the evidence isn’t direct, but the circumstantial support is plentiful. Looking back through the accomplishments listed here, plenty of them show the relationships, chemistry, and mutual accountability DeBoer references. The strong bond with Grubb that kept him at UW despite an offer from Alabama demonstrates a great relationship and respect. Players like Penix, Odunze, and Trice returning to Seattle rather than heading to the NFL draft is a rare confluence of chemistry and mutual respect. DeBoer’s repetitive success across many levels adds more support to the inductive logic that he really has built a winning culture.

So what can an aspiring AD learn about Cohen’s successful hire of DeBoer at UW? If there is someone who has won enough across many different levels and built great, enduring relationships along the way, it’s probably not an accident. The mysterious mélange of competitive success has some material elements — the play-calling and scheme, the roster and game management — but it also has relational elements that are more difficult to quantify. In DeBoer’s case, the threads are present throughout his career and it’s no coincidence that he has brought those skills to Washington who now heads to the College Football Playoff.

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