In hiring Kalen DeBoer, Alabama is getting a consistent winner

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Alabama has found its next head coach.

Kalen DeBoer, who led Washington to a Pac-12 championship and to the College Football National Championship Game in his second season with the Huskies, has been hired to replace the newly retired Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa.

And to think that just a few days ago, DeBoer was coaching the Huskies in the title game against Michigan, and the college football world was openly wondering if he might be the right guy to replace Jim Harbaugh if the Wolverines coach leaves for the NFL.

Now, DeBoer is Saban’s successor, which certainly was not on this week’s bingo card for breaking news.

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In taking over the Crimson Tide, DeBoer will face the challenge of his life. Not only has Alabama become one of the most coveted jobs in the sport, but following a legend like Saban will come with unparalleled pressure. It wouldn’t be for everybody.

In 17 seasons coaching Alabama, Saban amassed a record of 206-29, won nine SEC titles and six national championships. One of the most astounding stats that has come up this week following his decision to retire is that while at Alabama, Saban had 44 first-round NFL draft picks compared to just 29 losses. 

While DeBoer has no experience coaching in the SEC, he has a quality that Tide fans will welcome: He’s a winner and always has been. 

DeBoer, 49, was a record-setting wide receiver at Sioux Falls before later becoming his alma mater’s head coach in 2005. Over the next five seasons, his teams went 67-3 and won three NAIA titles. 

His coaching journey then took him to Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State and Indiana. After one successful year as the Hoosiers offensive coordinator — where he first coached quarterback Michael Penix Jr. — DeBoer was hired to replace Jeff Tedford as Fresno State’s head coach in 2020. He promptly took what was among the worst passing attacks in the country to the top 10. 

Alabama hires Kalen DeBoer to replace Nick Saban

Alabama hires Kalen DeBoer to replace Nick Saban

Two seasons later, following a 10-3 record in 2021, DeBoer left for his first Power 5 coaching job at Washington.

The rest is history. 

DeBoer resurrected a Husky program that went 4-8 in 2021 to go 11-2 in 2022 and 14-1 in 2023, with a conference title and national championship appearance to boot. He overhauled the offense, turning it into the most lethal unit in the country. 

Penix, who transferred from Indiana to Washington ahead of the 2022 season, led the country in passing yards per game the past two seasons and finished second in the Heisman voting. Wide receivers Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk each had more than 1,000 yards receiving this season. The offensive line won the Joe Moore award.

Some might say not so fast — the Pac-12 is not the SEC. Everything is different from the weather to the food to recruiting. Regarding the latter, there were only six players from Texas and one from Louisiana on Washington’s 2023 roster. The only other players from the southeast are transfers Penix, who grew up in Florida, and running back Dillon Johnson, who is from Mississippi and transferred from Mississippi State.

But that shouldn’t be a concern. DeBoer is widely thought to be a terrific leader and players respect him. 

“He’s somebody that you can trust, and he doesn’t switch up his character for anything,” Penix said ahead of the national championship game. 

And it would be shocking if DeBoer didn’t assemble a stellar staff to come aboard. 

If offensive coordinator and best friend Ryan Grubb doesn’t accept an offer to be Washington’s next head coach, it would certainly seem appropriate for him to follow DeBoer to Bama. Grubb, who last year turned down the opportunity to be Saban’s offensive coordinator to stay in Washington, has said he’d only coach for DeBoer or himself.

As for the matter of retaining Alabama’s No. 2 recruiting class and talent currently on the roster, that will be something to follow. 

Isaiah Bond, who was the Tide’s second-leading receiver this year with 668 yards and four touchdowns, was the first player to enter the transfer portal since Saban announced his retirement. 

Additionally, how will Bama’s identity change under DeBoer? Saban was a defensive mastermind. He had the biggest linemen, the most physical players and especially took pride in the defensive backs. Of course, over the last several years, Saban’s quarterbacks were some of the greatest in the country: Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Mac Jones, Bryce Young. 

How will DeBoer, an offensive savant, mesh with current starting QB Jalen Milroe? He’s not the pocket passer that Penix is, and is most dangerous when on the run. Before the Rose Bowl, Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said Milroe runs the ball like Reggie Bush. 

It’s fair to assume DeBoer will adapt to the players he has, which will be interesting in and of itself.

While life in Tuscaloosa will be vastly different from life in Seattle (the humidity in the summer, for one) and Alabama fans and players might not know him yet, DeBoer’s charge is the same as it always has been. He’s won titles before, came oh-so close to winning one this year, and plans to continue having a winning culture in the SEC.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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