When Kalen DeBoer was hired as Fresno State’s football coach in 2019, inheriting a 4-8 team, he was naturally asked at his introductory news conference about the process of turning around the Bulldogs’ fortunes.

“It’s certainly not broken,” he said. “I’ve looked at this year’s record, and it could be flipped the exact opposite way just like that.”

Now DeBoer is taking over as Washington’s coach, inheriting another 4-8 team that is, indeed, broken in certain aspects. Or at least badly wobbling. And the burning question on every Husky fan’s mind is whether DeBoer is the right man to flip it around — and then elevate Washington to a more accustomed position of national stature.

There will be an inevitable skepticism, of course, because DeBoer was not the sexiest name in the rumor mill. His résumé does not stack up with that of Lincoln Riley, hired by conference rival USC just 24 hours earlier. He doesn’t have the Power Five bona fides of Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, whose name was linked to the job throughout its 15-day vacancy, as were other higher-profile names. DeBoer doesn’t have the goodwill among the fan base earned this season by Washington State’s Jake Dickert, made the Cougars’ permanent hire just days earlier.

But there’s only one thing that ultimately wins people over, after the headlines have receded and the news conference is over. Of course, it’s winning. And DeBoer has been surrounded by remarkable success throughout his coaching career, including some highly impressive reclamation projects.

Don James was viewed as an underwhelming choice when he was hired from that noted blue-blood program, Kent State, in 1975. He was reputed to be UW’s second choice, after Cal coach Mike White. And yet James turned into the greatest coach in Husky history.


That’s not to say DeBoer will be the next Don James. Not even Chris Petersen, whose fingerprints are all over this hire as a consultant to athletic director Jen Cohen, was that. But the more you delve into DeBoer’s career, the more you understand what lured Cohen to fly to Fresno, California, on Monday to close the deal.

Let’s start with his dual stints at Fresno. When DeBoer joined Jeff Tedford’s staff as offensive coordinator in 2017, the Bulldogs were coming off a 1-11 season. With DeBoer’s high-paced offense, they won 22 games, two division titles and a conference championship the next two years — the first program in FBS history to follow a double-digit loss season with two double-digit win seasons.

That earned DeBoer a shot in the Power Five as Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2019, and the Hoosiers jumped from 5-7 the previous year to 8-5 in 2019. That was their best mark in 26 years and included their first appearance in the Top 25 poll since 1994. Once again, DeBoer’s offense was a key to the resurgence.

In fact, everywhere DeBoer has gone — and his career has been one of a slow, methodical ascension on the coaching ladder, starting with two years as a high-school assistant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — he has manufactured explosive offenses. And his teams have invariably won — not always immediately, but eventually.

“If you look at our new head coach’s history, you’ll see that every place he has been started in one place and ascended to another,” Fresno State athletic director Terry Tuney said at the introductory news conference.

Nowhere did DeBoer win more spectacularly than in his only head coaching experience before Fresno State. Competing at the NAIA level at his alma mater, the University of Sioux Falls (current undergraduate enrollment: 1,354), DeBoer went 67-3 in five seasons. He had as many national titles (three) as he did defeats. He lost just one regular-season game. He went 15-0 in his final season, after which he realized he had done about all he could at USF and moved on to Southern Illinois as offensive coordinator.


Yes, it’s small-college football. But as Tedford told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader: “I don’t care if you’re coaching Pop Warner football, when you’re 67-3 you’re doing something right. I had to kind of do a double-take the first time I saw that.”

When Tedford had to step down at Fresno State after the 2019 season because of health issues, it was logical for the Bulldogs to turn to DeBoer. And after a 3-3 mark in the discombobulated 2020 season, a year on which no one should be fully judged, DeBoer’s predicted flip has occurred in 2021. Fresno State stands at 9-3, with a rousing win over UCLA in September behind a heroic performance by former Husky QB Jake Haener, and a close loss (31-24) to Oregon.

If there’s one thing the Huskies’ program needs (and, yes, it’s going to take a lot more than one thing, but this is near the top of the list), it’s a jolt to its offensive attack. As much as anything, it was the lackluster and unimaginative play-calling of John Donovan that sealed Jimmy Lake’s fate; the sideline incident against Oregon only hastened Lake’s inevitable departure just 13 games into his career.

In the same news conference cited earlier, DeBoer was asked what was the stamp of the offense he runs. The answer will be music to the ears of Husky fans.

“Tough, physical football that has dynamic players and is an exciting brand to watch. I know we need a defense that can help us win championships … but an offense that is explosive — you can’t win unless you score enough points.”

Yes, those are just words, but words that DeBoer has backed up consistently throughout his career, which has included stops in Sioux Falls, Carbondale, Ypsilanti, Bloomington and Fresno.


Now DeBoer heads to his biggest stage yet in Seattle. He’ll have to show he can translate his offensive magic to the Pac-12 — perhaps with the help of a cadre of assistants with Sioux Falls roots who have followed him along the way. He’ll especially have to show he can recruit at a fiercely competitive level. And perhaps before any of that, he’ll have to win over the remaining players from a very disillusioning Husky season.

With regard to the latter, here’s how DeBoer described his culture-building process as he took over in Fresno:

“I will do that by loving them. That’s the way I’ve always taught and always coached. I’m just going to love on the players. That comes with building relationships and building the trust. They don’t really care how much I know until they know how much I care.”

Yes, it all sounds very good. Now we’ll see if DeBoer can make it happen again.