Caple: Washington wise to commit to Kalen DeBoer, the perfect fit in Seattle


SEATTLE — It was an early morning in April, the Washington Huskies going through their first spring practices under new coach Kalen DeBoer, and I was talking to his boss in a suite overlooking Husky Stadium.

I wanted to know what Jen Cohen, Washington’s athletic director, thought of the notion that the Huskies might be a “wayward program” in the wake of their disastrous 2021 season, one that finished with a 4-8 record, a fired coach and a fractured locker room. She disagreed, of course, first citing behind-the-scenes progress already accomplished by the new staff.

“Kalen has energized this football program,” she said then. “Not just this football program, but this whole athletic department. And I couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come with these guys. It doesn’t happen overnight, when you’re trying to build a sustainable, winning culture, but we’re already seeing so much progress.”

Turns out she was wrong about one thing: It essentially did happen overnight, or at least over the course of one offseason, DeBoer proving through the first 11 games of 2022 that, yes, this program could leap back into conference championship contention under the right leadership (and with a fifth-year transfer quarterback who already knew the offense). So Tuesday’s news was more formality than any kind of surprise, the culmination of talks that had been ongoing: The school announced that DeBoer signed a two-year contract extension through the 2028 season, a new deal that also raises his annual salary by $1 million, with retention bonuses totaling $2 million available along the way.

That it happened the same day a CBS story floated DeBoer’s name as one to watch for the Nebraska job is apparently coincidence; DeBoer and UW began contract discussions weeks ago, per a department source, and the contract addendum was signed by university counsel on Monday.

Of course, it still made sense for Washington to commit to DeBoer before this year’s coaching carousel reaches its zenith, if only as a public declaration that he’s off the market. DeBoer would owe $12 million to UW if he were to leave for another coaching job prior to Jan. 31, 2025. That’s pocket change to some programs and hardly a hurdle to the kind of school that might try to entice Washington’s coach. It’s also true that his new annual salary of $4.2 million — increasing by $100,000 each year — could be easily doubled by a potential suitor. But there has been little about DeBoer’s history — or his actions since arriving in Seattle — to indicate that money is a primary motivator. Here’s a guess that if it were, he could have squeezed more out of UW than what he’s getting.

DeBoer grew up in South Dakota and played and coached at the NAIA level before spending 10 years as an offensive coordinator at FCS and Group of 5 programs. Prior to his hire at UW, DeBoer’s only Power 5 job of any kind was as OC at Indiana in 2019. He didn’t earn a seven-figure salary until becoming the head coach at Fresno State in 2020, at age 45. He has a wife and two daughters who already have moved plenty, and his oldest, Alexis, is a star softball player who is committed to play for Heather Tarr at Washington after she graduates from Bellevue High in 2024.

When asked at his introductory news conference whether this is a job that would allow him to put down roots after so many moves since leaving Sioux Falls, DeBoer nodded emphatically and motioned to his family seated in the front row: “My whole family is going, ‘yes.’ It is so hard to move. It is so hard.”

His prior moves were in pursuit of a head coaching position, he said, and while he achieved that at Fresno State, Washington obviously offered the chance to do the job at a higher level. At the same time, he said, “I want to really be careful with that, because it’s not always been about being at the highest level. It’s been about being at places where I feel it’s a great fit. That’s what this place is, and that’s what me and my family are so excited about.”

Early reviews on DeBoer from UW staffers and players were overwhelmingly positive. Many used the word “genuine” to describe DeBoer and his new staff. He drew multiple comparisons to former coach Chris Petersen, with whom DeBoer spoke during the hiring process and now regularly exchanges text messages; Petersen, in fact, spoke to the team Tuesday as it prepares for Saturday’s Apple Cup game.

Alex Cook, a sixth-year senior safety and team captain, said DeBoer’s early actions resonated with player leadership. The coach met with each player in his office, Cook said in September, “and he was just all ears. He didn’t say much. He just wanted to know, what did we want the program to look like?” DeBoer took notes and assembled a plan, then presented it to the team’s unity council. “This is what I think,” he told them, “but if you guys want to make changes to this, feel free to.” The players added their tweaks, Cook said, “and we built this blueprint of what we want this year to look like, and we’ve been doing it, and it’s been a beautiful thing to see.”

After Washington’s 45-20 victory over Kent State to open the season, Cook halted the postgame locker-room proceedings to award the game ball to DeBoer. UW’s team videographer captured the moment. The coach was clearly touched by the unexpected acknowledgement.

“I genuinely felt like he was bringing that Husky tradition back, of hard-nosed, smack ’em in the mouth football,” Cook said. Washington’s 39-28 demolition of then-No. 11 Michigan State put the Huskies back on the national radar, and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. — at Washington primarily for his prior relationship with DeBoer at Indiana — has teamed with talented receivers and a rejuvenated offensive line to completely overhaul an offense that muddled its way to 21.5 points per game in 2021. If ever there was any doubt DeBoer would receive an extension this year, it was erased when the Huskies pulled off their thrilling upset of No. 6 Oregon earlier this month. At 9-2, Washington enters the final weekend of the regular season still in contention for a  conference championship, something few would have believed possible after the school fired coach Jimmy Lake amid last year’s miserable finish.

College football long ago became a reactionary enterprise, particularly with regard to coaching decisions and corresponding financial ramifications. Consider that neither Lake nor DeBoer made it to their first Apple Cup before the school ruled on each of their futures. Cohen was willing to commit to paying Lake nearly $10 million over the next three years in order to move on from him, and while DeBoer’s raise still pales in comparison to salaries being paid at some Power 5 schools, it nevertheless represents a leap of faith based on 11 games, action the school has never taken on a first-year coach. Even Petersen didn’t receive his first contract extension until after his second season, though he wasn’t the type to insist on it.

DeBoer doesn’t seem to be, either. Washington initially signed him to a 5-year, $16.5 million contract last year — a bargain by Power 5 standards, reflective of DeBoer’s lacking resume as a head coach at this level. UW’s administration knew this, and likely hoped the team would show something in 2022 that would merit an extension and raise. DeBoer already had played all the right notes throughout the offseason, retaining several key players who had considered transferring, securing the majority of the Huskies’ 2023 recruiting class by the end of summer and making a point to connect with as many alumni as possible.

In a cycle that saw LSU hire Brian Kelly and USC hire Lincoln Riley — both highly successful at their new jobs, too — Washington found a perfect fit with a lower profile, though DeBoer does have plenty left to prove. Washington likely will come up short of a conference title this year. Its defense took a big step back from the Petersen-era standard. Penix is a phenomenal one-year solution at quarterback, but the future is murky there, and UW might be about to lose its 2023 commitment, Lincoln Kienholz, to Ohio State. DeBoer should have the opportunity to earn Mel Tucker money at Washington if he continues his current trajectory, but maybe that relatively modest million-dollar raise is more appropriate than throwing a guaranteed $80 million at a first-year coach.

Perhaps it’s fitting that DeBoer’s extension was announced this week. At his first meeting with the team upon his hire last year, DeBoer brought up Washington’s 40-13 defeat in the Apple Cup a mere three days prior, and WSU’s ensuing celebration on the Husky Stadium turf. He had watched it on television, back in Fresno.

“He just said that he saw the game, and one of his priorities was that we’ve got to get that back,” linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said Tuesday. “That was priority No. 1 — not national championships, not any of that. The Apple Cup is the most important game at Washington, and we’ve got to get it back.”

They hope it will be his first of many.

(Photo: Joe Nicholson / USA Today)


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