When Kalen DeBoer was at the height of his football coaching glory at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, en route to his third national title in five years at his alma mater, athletic director Willie Sanchez called DeBoer into his office.

Sanchez’s message to DeBoer was not exactly what you’d expect an AD to say to a coach who had just gone 15-0, averaging 51.7 points per game and amassing more total points (775) than any coach in NAIA history (and third-most in college football history at any level).

No, Sanchez didn’t try to wrap up DeBoer to a multiyear extension or beg him to stay. Quite the opposite.

“I called Kalen in one Saturday afternoon, and I just basically said, ‘You’ve got to get out of here,’ ” Sanchez recalled in a phone conversation this week.

When DeBoer asked Sanchez what he meant, he told the coach, “You have ability way beyond this level, and you need to get out of here. And if you don’t get out of here, I’m going to fire you.”

It wasn’t long before DeBoer accepted a position as offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan. And his career has been one of slow but steady ascension ever since, landing him this week as the new coach at Washington.


Sanchez has no doubt DeBoer will succeed with the Huskies, which could put him on a path toward becoming a beloved local figure.

In an amazing coincidence, Sanchez is already linked with one of the most popular sports legends in Seattle history. Before going into athletic administration, Sanchez was a player agent, and his most prominent client was none other than Mariners lifer and Baseball Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez.

Sanchez kept representing Martinez even after he took over as athletic director at Sioux Falls, a private Christian college with an undergraduate enrollment of under 2,000.

And Martinez, who had aligned with Sanchez when he was struggling in the minor leagues, stuck with Sanchez even when bigger agencies came calling.

Sanchez became AD at Sioux Falls in 2000, the same year DeBoer joined the Cougars’ football coaching staff as offensive coordinator for coach Bob Young. DeBoer had been a star wide receiver just four years earlier under Young, who was described as a mentor and father figure.

DeBoer’s stint at Sioux Falls is an instructive origin story for the man charged with revitalizing UW’s football fortunes. When Young retired after the 2004 season, Sanchez said it was pretty much a no-brainer to hire the 30-year-old DeBoer as the new head man. He said Young had already handed over many of the coaching duties to DeBoer, and university president Mark Benedetto urged Sanchez to give him the job.


“Kalen had the ability to think out of the box,” Sanchez said. “He’s a very good offensive mind. But more importantly, he had a way of reaching players. In a lot of ways he reminded me of Lincoln Riley. I’m an OU (Oklahoma) grad and season-ticket holder, so to see that guy leave (for USC last weekend) was just devastating. But in a lot of ways, they were the same. They could relate to players. The players loved him.”

DeBoer’s success as Sioux Falls head coach was astonishing — a 67-3 record in his five years, including three national titles and close misses the other two years. His offensive coordinator, Kurtiss Riggs, had been the quarterback during DeBoer’s playing days, and they remain best friends — best men in each other’s wedding. Two years ago, when DeBoer became coach at Fresno State, Riggs predicted in an article that his friend would be a Pac-12 coach in four years. DeBoer made it in half that time.

“He just has such an ability to do everything the right way,” said Riggs, who for the past 18 years has been the highly successful coach of the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League. “But where he’s really gifted is he makes people around him better. And, you know, that’s a contagious thing. And everywhere he’s gone he’s been able to get more out of people than maybe is what is expected. And you just saw that continuing to happen.”

Riggs said DeBoer was intrigued from the beginning when the Washington job opened up after Jimmy Lake was fired Nov. 14. Fresno State was on the way to a breakout 9-3 season that made him a hot commodity in coaching circles.

“Without a doubt, the thing that enticed Kalen to Washington, as he and I talked about it, the first thing was what a prestigious university it was,” Riggs said. “But also, as he had other schools reaching out, it was that Washington’s a place where you can win a national championship. It was the only school where that was even something that was in the forefront of his thoughts. And I think that’s what really excited him about that opportunity.”

DeBoer’s offensive coordinator at Fresno State, Ryan Grubb, has Sioux Falls roots, as do other members of the Bulldogs staff. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he brought some of them to Seattle. Sanchez said DeBoer’s sense of loyalty is strong.


“There’s just that familiarity,” Griggs said. “That trust factor of, even when there’s emotions going, you still know that you can trust that individual, and count on them with everything you’ve been through.

“Don’t be naive, though. Kalen is still very open to finding the best people, and he’s very good about knowing that the best person could be someone that maybe comes from an obscure opportunity. Even though they’re not at a fellow Pac-12 school, they’re still the best for the job.”

At his introductory news conference, I asked DeBoer how 67-3 happens.

“It happens by every single day just going to work and working hard and then bringing people together,” he said. “It seems like it must have been really easy. But every team during the course of those five years, we went through adversity just like everyone else. It’s just a matter of how you approach it and what your response is to it.

“I think that’s where we excelled, and that’s one of the challenges and great things about being a coach — whether it’s head coach or assistant. It’s your response to adversity and getting your team to make sure it’s only a temporary thing. That we’re going to work our way through it.

“But it was an awesome, awesome thing. And once you get it rolling, then there just becomes a swagger and this confidence that’s at another level. And that’s where the wins really start piling up.”


DeBoer said he expected to be at Sioux Falls forever. He and his wife even had a house built in town. Eventually, with a nudge from Sanchez, DeBoer realized that if he was to fulfill his goal of becoming a coach at a higher level, he needed to get experience as a coordinator in a Division I program.

But his roots at Sioux Falls still permeate his coaching persona, from the offense he runs to the way he recruits.

“I think the part about coaching is that it translates at every level,” DeBoer said. “It doesn’t matter where I’ve been, it’s been the same recipe.”