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Kalen DeBoer’s journey to the top of the college football world

Scott Eklund
University of Washington

As Kalen DeBoer prepares his Washington Huskies for a trip to the College Football Playoffs, the focus for him is clearly on one thing – a national championship. But for those who have watched DeBoer’s career as a spectator back in South Dakota, it’s incredible to see where it started, and now where it’s at.

DeBoer is labeled as a Milbank native, but he technically didn’t move there until middle school. He lived some of his earliest years of life in Corona, South Dakota, which is northwest of Milbank.

“The school shut down when I was in sixth grade, and that's when I went to the big city, Milbank there, and that was quite a move, so a lot of those times, and the history of Milbank, I was still learning,” explained DeBoer. “Even Kim Nelson, I remember, I never really met him, I was really young at the time, and I remember a couple games while I was in middle school, I think, right when that timeframe was happening. And then he was moving on too.”

Kim Nelson, who recently just resigned from 45-years of prep coaching to take an assistant coaching job at the University of Sioux Falls, got his start as a coach in Milbank back in 1979. Nelson’s the winningest high school football coach in state history.

Milbank made it to the dome when DeBoer was a freshman in the fall of 1989, but he didn’t play in the game. Winner would go onto beat the Bulldogs 27-14 that season. In the fall of ’92, DeBoer’s senior year, Milbank was poised for a big season, but after going undefeated, they fell to the Jason Leber led Vermillion Tanagers in the semifinals.

Milbank School District

“The fog was in the air, a lot of snow surrounding the field, but we came up short. We had a good lead going in the fourth quarter, and turned the ball over and some things like that, and lost literally in the last minute of the game, maybe with a minute left or so,” DeBoer said. [We] lost by one point. So probably one of the major heartbreaking losses I know that I was a part of over many years, even coaching college.”

With his high school career now over, and college football aspirations on the horizon, DeBoer had to decide between the University of South Dakota or the University of Sioux Falls. It was as simple as choosing to play offense or defense.

“I think, really, a lot of my recruitment came down to [USD], and that was to play linebacker. In fact, Jim Glogowski was involved in my recruitment, because he was a defensive player there, and I didn't really feel like I wanted to play defense,” stated DeBoer.

Today, through his experiences of playing college football for the University of South Dakota, Glogowski is the head coach of the USF Cougars.

“I wanted to play a receiver, and Coach Bob Young struck the right chords at the time to make me feel like I could be a big part of what was happening there,” DeBoer explained. “It wasn't like they were winning a lot of games, a lot of .500 seasons. Our freshman year, we were 2-8, but it certainly grew from there because of a solid group of returners and guys in my freshman class that just kind of hung in there and hung together.”

Bob Young is the winningest coach in USF history. He coached the Cougars for 22-years and won 172 games throughout his tenure. Young passed away in January of this year at the age of 83. Today, USF’s football field is named after Young.

At the time that DeBoer chose USF to play college football, another kid from Wyoming was also making the decision to play there – Kurtiss Riggs. Riggs would go on to have a hall of fame coaching career with the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League. He just officially stepped away from that role this past summer.

“I guess if there was one thing I was really smart at, it was like, "Be best friends with the quarterback when you're a receiver." But yeah, [Kurtiss and I] just hung out a lot, and I think probably the work ethic we each had, and the focus, just to want to do great things on the football field, it was a lot of fun,” mentioned DeBoer. “We hung out a lot, and then as time went on, especially in the latter years there, junior, senior year, there really became this intense, "Let's win a championship." And I think it wasn't just us two, it was a lot of other guys that we were surrounded with that all motivated each other to do some big things.”

The fall of 1996 resulted in the Sioux Falls Cougars winning the NAIA Division II National Football Championship. DeBoer also earned All-American honors that season as well. Throughout his college career at USF, he caught 234 passes for 3,400-yards and 33-receiving touchdowns.

In the fall of ’97, DeBoer became the wide receivers coach for USF. The following year he jumped on as an assistant coach for Washington High School in Sioux Falls where a familiar name was the head coach.

The Argus Leader

“I loved the two years I spent at Sioux Falls Washington under Kim Nelson, and Wayne Carney as the athletic director. Man, that was a blast. I could have coached high school football forever just on those two years alone,” DeBoer exclaimed. “But the college world sucked me in soon after.”

He returned to USF, only this time as the offensive coordinator. Bob Young retired after the 2004 season, which paved the way for DeBoer to start a new era of Sioux Falls Cougars football in the fall of 2005 as the head man. Over the next five years, USF reached the NAIA National Championship game four times, while winning the title in three of those (2006, 2008, and 2009).

The Argus Leader

“I think in that first year, especially. And a lot of continuity with players and a lot of alumni I think that really, if Coach Young wasn't going to be the coach, we got to keep it. There were just certain ways we did things. There was a culture, there was a standard and expectations. So I think that gave me a lot of confidence in that, and we reached pretty good heights there, I think. We worked efficiently, and we really had a mentality there that we continued to build on.

After five years at the helm, DeBoer made the decision to move on and work his way up in the college football world. From 2010 to 2019, he made four stops in his coaching journey as an offensive coordinator for Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State, and Indiana.

“Once you make that first move, and especially at the division one level, expect more moves to follow, and it's hard,” DeBoer said. “I'm so appreciative of my family, Nicole, Alexis and Avery, the kids have been in a lot of different schools, and had to meet a lot of different friends. They've been on a lot of different sports teams in the school or travel teams.”

It wasn’t just the fact that there was change. It was that with every stop along the way, each stay got shorter and shorter.

“Four years at Southern Illinois, three years at Eastern Michigan, two years at Fresno, one year at Indiana – there was kind of a trend,” he said. “It went 4, 3, 2, and I'm like, "There's no way it's just going to be one year at Indiana." And sure enough, it was one year there, and then back out to Fresno.”

DeBoer’s return to Fresno State in 2020 would be different than his first stint in 2017-18. Because this time, he was coming back to the be the teams head coach. He coached the Bulldogs for two-seasons, one of which was the shortened 2020 season due to the pandemic. DeBoer led Fresno State to a 9-3 season in ’21, which saw his Bulldogs take down #13 ranked UCLA – the second highest win against a ranked opponent in Fresno State history.

At the final stages of the ’21 season, a new opportunity was lurking. It would be a chance to become a Power Five coach at the University of Washington.

“In all honesty, it happened really fast. Thanksgiving weekend, and we're playing at San Jose State, and get that win, and then some interviews and the process moved along fast,” DeBoer stated. “I think they had narrowed down who they really wanted to focus on, and we really hit it off during those times on the phone and Zoom calls and other communication.”

On November 29th, 2021, DeBoer was named the 30th head football coach of the Washington Huskies. In his first season during the fall of ’22, he led Washington to an 11-2 record and a 27-20 victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

This season, in his second as the helm, he’s led the Huskies to a 13-0 season, which includes Pac-12 conference champions and now a spot in the college football playoffs – two wins away from a national championship.

“I think building a team, a championship-level team really goes to the roots of Sioux Falls,” DeBoer exclaimed. “Love and trust for each other, doing anything for the team first, and then the individual accolades will come.”

His coaching staff at Washington has some familiar faces as well. Ryan Grubb, the Huskies offensive coordinator, coached the offensive line when DeBoer was the head coach at the University of Sioux Falls. Chuck Morrell, who is the co-defensive coordinator for Washington, was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the University of Sioux Falls back in the 2000’s as well. Chuck Morrell is also the son of Russ Morrell, who coached Bon Homme to high school state football championships in ’94 and ’95.

“Man, they're really good football coaches. We've developed a relationship built on trust, and even love. I think it shows,” DeBoer stated. “The level of coaching that I think was happening, even at the small college level, and the growth that was happening. I know that there was a mindset where we can always do something a little better. And we were able to be critical, because of the relationship we had, we were able to be critical with each other and push each other to be better.”

Up next for the No. 2 ranked Washington Huskies is a semifinal showdown with Texas on New Year’s Day in the All-State Sugar Bowl. The winner will play either Alabama or Michigan in the National Championship game on January 8th.

Today, Kalen DeBoer is considered one of the fastest rising and most exciting coaches in college football. He was also chosen as the Associated Press college football coach of the year. But if you ask him, he wouldn’t change his journey for anything.

“I'm certainly lucky to be in this spot, and don't take that lightly, don't take it for granted. And I wouldn't change my path for anything,” told DeBoer. “A lot of people get the opportunity early in their careers to be in a place like this, but I think it's the path and the journey that really makes it special.”

Scott Eklund
University of Washington

The quotes in this story were from November of 2023 when Kalen DeBoer joined SDPB's Craig Mattick for his 'In Play' podcast. to hear that full conversation now, click here.

Nate Wek is currently the sports content producer and sports and rec beat reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He is a graduate of South Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism Broadcasting and a minor in Leadership. From 2010-2013 Nate was the Director of Gameday Media for the Sioux Falls Storm (Indoor Football League) football team. He also spent 2012 and 2013 as the News and Sports Director of KSDJ Radio in Brookings, SD. Nate, his wife Sarah, and two kids Braxan and Jordy, live in Canton, SD.