With the Alabama Crimson Tide closing in on hiring Kalen DeBoer, the line of succession from Nick Saban will be made official. And while coaches such as Dan Lanning and Mike Norvell improved their contractual situation due to the need for the dominant program of the last 15 years to go hire someone, they landed on a choice that might be excellent.
But it’s also one that doesn’t check all the boxes.
DeBoer is 104-12 as a college football head coach between the University of Sioux Falls (67–3, 3 NAIA National Championships), Fresno State (12-6) and Washington (25-3, Pac-12 Championship). His team just went 14-1 on the way to the National Championship game, with a dynamic offense and a quarterback he clearly improved in Michael Penix Jr. They had perhaps the most explosive team with the ball in the country all season.
And while assistant stops after leaving Sioux Falls at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Indiana all have value, none of those are what we’d call “elite football institutions”.
Now DeBoer is the head man of the school with the highest annualized expectations in the sport, and he’s following the GOAT of head coaches not just in college football, but perhaps in all of American sport.
No pressure, dude.
As Steven Godfrey of Split Zone Duo would say, DeBoer is an “FFC.” A “F*$^%! Football Coach.” He takes over programs and consistently makes them better. He grinds and gets results, and is respected by both his players and peers. But there is simply no preparation one can get as a football coach for becoming the most important person in the State of Alabama.
With apologies to Governor Kay Ivey, Harper Lee and Hank Aaron, you are all a distant second in the Yellowhammer State. There’s just nothing like the 365-day-a-year cauldron that is SEC football. And if he or his family ever treasured any dint of privacy, that is now long out the window every time they leave the house.
But there are two distinct advantages DeBoer walks into despite his lack of experience in a part of the country where the only beverage options are “sweet or unsweet.” One is the legend that preceded him will have an office in the football facility, and you’d have to assume he’ll be a willing sounding board and advisor whenever asked.
Saban performed many miracles in Tuscaloosa, but his biggest might have been getting a university run by various volumes of donors, elected officials, and egos in a state of perpetual alignment. Once Saban won his first natty in 2009, he famously was on the plane home asking for more resources for the program. He deftly balanced the needs of his team with the Alabama Board of Trustees, the donors that paid for it all, and the politicians that came and went.
Saban can tell DeBoer who’s good to deal with, who he needs to merely tolerate, and whom to ignore. Getting to download that brain and those relationships is a huge cog for his potential success.
The other is that his assistant coaching pool will be massive as well, allowing the head coach to spend freely on those that can recruit the South. Keeping the high school coaches happy is a part of FBS football that takes teams of people, but hiring coaches and player personnel folks that already have the needed relationships can make this transition much smoother.
DeBoer might love his current staff, and as he should after what they’ve done for him this season. But getting guys that know the secret handshakes in Miami and where the closest Whataburger is in West Texas will be a huge part of his success. NIL levels the playing field a bit as pre-freshman chase the cash, but personal relationships and evaluations remain a huge part of recruiting. And that’s even moreso when up against the same players as your SEC opponents.
Ideally, Bama probably wanted a coach that had served under Saban at some point. But they didn’t seem interested in Lane Kiffin (and you’d have to think the former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator’s old boss might have played a role here), and former grad assistant Dan Lanning decided to stay in Eugene. Kirby Smart seems busy. And Tide alum Dabo Swinney has lost some luster of late even after two national championships.
DeBoer is a FFC. On the field and in the facility, he’s certainly prepared to take over the biggest job in the sport.
But can he handle the politics and the constant microscope of a place like nowhere else? Only time will tell, but we bet he works out just fine.
But only because the previous guy on the office door didn’t leave; he just moved down the hall.