In the world of big-time college football, Kalen DeBoer is not a figure with a national brand. He’s doesn’t check the box requiring previous head coaching experience in a Power 5 conference. Nor does he have connections to University of Washington heritage, nor convictions similar to Don James and and Chris Petersen that defense and the run game are unassailable essentials to winning.
None of the foregoing means much of anything when it comes to imagining him successful as the Huskies’ next football coach.
But before we discuss the merits of his hire, it may be helpful for UW fans to engage in a little thought experiment.
Try this one: UW is just another well-funded BCS football program. As are 50-plus others. Nothing special beyond a lakeside location, which is no longer as big a deal since many of its games are played in the dark.
Before you tut-tut me, or worse, let us consider the latest evidence: Washington State 40, Washington 13.
The Cougars had better athletes, better schemes and better competitive edge.
Is that a long-term development? No. Not at all. Because there is no such thing in college football as long-term development. That’s how fast things are changing.
The industry is at the overdue beginning stage of becoming a fully professionalized entertainment colossus.
Sooner than many fans think, college football will be on a par with pro sports in terms of highly compensating its labor talent as well as coaching talent, liberalized free agency, partnerships with gambling platforms, 24-team playoffs. Ultimately, it will lead to an increasing disconnect from the phony construct of integration with brick-and-mortar academic institutions, which themselves are moving slowly toward economic obsolescence.
That future impacts the hire, announced Monday, two weeks after Jimmy Lake was fired, of DeBoer, 47, a successful coach at Fresno State of the Mountain West Conference.
He will be judged mostly on his ability to navigate that rapidly changing world, and less on whether he chooses between an Air Raid style of offense or a run-and-shoot.
His career will also be judged against Lincoln Riley, the new USC coach hired away at the same time from a lucrative, high-profile job at Oklahoma. The driver in that deal will be little acknowledged by the principals: Oklahoma’s pending move in two or three years to the brutally competitive Southeastern Conference will make it harder for the Sooners to get a shot at the national title.
At USC, in the nation’s second-largest TV market and loaded with opportunities via name, image and likeness (NIL) revenues to get recruits involved in the film and music industries, Riley can advance the stuttering Trojans program quickly in the less-competitive Pac-12 Conference.
He was compensated for the move with the kind of a deal that reflects the changes listed above, according to a tweet from an Oklahoma booster:
As swiftly, decisively and smartly as UW athletics director Jen Cohen has moved, she appears behind already.
But that’s old-school thinking.
The new school recognizes that, thanks to NIL, the transfer portal and pending conference realignment, along with changes in a new NCAA constitution that all but grants unprecedented independence for football, many more schools have the chance to rise. And fall.
The trend is already underway and reflected in the success of programs this year such as Cincinnati, BYU and Louisiana-Lafayette. The 9-3 record of this year’s Fresno State team under DeBoer included a 40-37 win over UCLA, and gave a better game to Oregon than Washington did, before losing to the Ducks, 31-24.
The industry changes don’t signal Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State are on the verge of collapse. The changes signal a narrowing of the gaps between the Mountain West programs, and other Group of 5 conferences, and the big boys in the Power 5.
In a given season, Washington and its 50-plus peers may be able to assemble via the new paths a roster that produces double-digit win totals. And the next, the team falls to 3-9 after being plundered by the same tools.
DeBoer, a South Dakota native, coached NAIA-level University of Sioux Falls — his alma mater — to 67-3 record over five seasons from 2005-09, was named NAIA National Coach of the Year three times and won three NAIA championships in five seasons, from 2005 to 2009. After stops at Indiana, Southern Illinois and Eastern Michigan, he signed in 2019 a five-year, $7 million contract at Fresno State.
The Bulldogs went 12-6 in two years. This season, thanks in part to the work of Jake Haener, the one-time UW QB who transferred after losing the Huskies job to Jacob Eason, finished 15th in the NCAA in total offense (463.6 ypg).
DeBoer has been an offense-oriented winner everywhere he’s been. Does that make him a good CEO of a franchise in the entertainment industry?
He doesn’t know. Cohen doesn’t know. At USC, the Trojans administration and Riley don’t know if their audacious maneuver will pan out. But business people around the UW recently created an enterprise called Montlake Futures, specifically to organize business contributors to get NIL money to players independent of the university.
One of the founders claimed that the enterprise is one “nobody else in the country can match.” Is that true? Who knows?
But taking risks is a necessary effort to make the Huskies, in a disrupted industry, something other than what they are now — an indistinct face in a new crowd.