How do you replace a legend? Kalen DeBoer is bringing his own style to Alabama

Kalen DeBoer is taking over for a legend, but he's won plenty at all of his previous coaching stops. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

Kalen DeBoer is taking over for a legend, but he’s won plenty at all of his previous coaching stops. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Kalen DeBoer taps on the glass coffee table before him.

“This used to have rings on it, didn’t it?” he asks.

Few items in Nick Saban’s former office at Alabama were more memorable than that coffee table — the centerpiece of a sitting area adjacent to his expansive wooden desk, the resting place for dozens of bowl and championship rings, the gilded keepsakes stacked atop one another in their velvet jewelry boxes to form the ingredients for the sport’s best recruiting pitch.

Nestled between a pair of cushioned arm chairs and a brown leather couch, the varnished wooden coffee table displayed nearly two decades of history, artifacts from perhaps the greatest dynasty that college football has ever seen — a dominant stretch of time that featured 201 victories, nine SEC titles and six national championships.

The coffee table is now gone, replaced with an unoccupied glass version. The rings are also absent. So too is Saban’s famous hat rack, his family photos, autographed game footballs, framed pictures from White House trips, baseball caps and trophies.

For the most part, the office of the head coach at Alabama is mostly barren. It was left this way by its former coach and kept this way by its current coach in preparation for a renovation this spring of a space that is clearly dated, its wooden walls and flooring the products of yesteryear.

In Tuscaloosa, change is indeed here.

Saban, fiery, severe and ruthlessly demanding, is no longer in charge of Alabama football. A few days before the team’s spring game, a very different leader walks these halls: DeBoer, gentle, friendly and apologetically welcoming.

The two are, perhaps, polar opposites. A hardened 72-year-old with a defensive background who is regimented and abrasive vs. a 49-year-old South Dakotan and offensive guru who is talkative and approachable.

Things are more relaxed here, one might say. Calmer. Folks seem less on edge. There is music at practice, fewer staff meetings and assistant coaches are even regularly speaking to the media (gasp!).

DeBoer describes it as a “vibe” originating from himself: laid-back, comfortable, easygoing. That doesn’t mean he is not intense at times. He can be all of these things — fiery and demanding. But that’s not who he is all of the time. And maybe that’s OK.

“Your experiences shape who you are. I’ve heard multiple people say they don’t know what way is better,” DeBoer says, peering over that coffee table. “In the end, the foundation of what it takes to win football games is more similar than it is different. You got to be physical, disciplined, got to have an attitude and create a swagger and have confidence.

“That comes a lot through hard work and building a team mindset. I think a lot of those things Coach Saban would say.”

This embedded content is not available in your region.

He’s right, of course. The recipe can be different but the ingredients are always the same. He’s not changing his cooking process because of his predecessor.

DeBoer, a receiver at NAIA Sioux Falls in the 1990s, learned an important lesson long ago from his former college coach, Bob Young: Be yourself. In his first year as a head coach, Young attempted to emulate Vince Lombardi.

“He was going to lay down the law,” DeBoer chuckles. “That didn’t go well. That’s not who he was. I’ll always remember that.”

In hiring Saban’s replacement, Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne’s goal was clear: Hire the very best coach you can get, he said.

“If our goal was to hire another Nick Saban, there is not another Nick Saban,” Byrne says. “Any time you have a head coaching change, it will be different. We knew that would be the case. One is not right and one is not wrong.”

DeBoer’s access and honesty is something a bit peculiar for someone in this role because he is, still, somewhat unfamiliar with this role — the head coach of a blue-blood SEC powerhouse earning $10 million a year.

Is he pinching himself? Of course he is.

Just six years ago, he was offensive coordinator at Fresno State. He spent just one year of his career as a Power Five coordinator (Indiana, 2019). And a decade ago, he was struggling to a 3-21 record in his first two seasons as coordinator at Eastern Michigan.

“There are some moments where you said, ‘This is hard,’” DeBoer acknowledged. “My first 15 years as a coach, I averaged making around $50,000 a year.”

But a humbling upbringing at the Group of Five and NAIA levels has morphed into one of the most staggering starts to a head coaching career in recent college football history. He’s lost 12 games in nine seasons as a head coach (Sioux Falls, Fresno State and Washington). He’s won three championships (all NAIA at Sioux Falls), three bowl games, five conference titles and a playoff berth. He’s tutored some of the game’s most recently brilliant quarterbacks and manned the sport’s most electric offenses.

Now he’s here — at a place where the passion for college football is unmatched, where he arrived in January to thousands of fans at the Tuscaloosa airport, where hundreds of donors show up for a spring practice. And then they want to hear him speak.

“Everyone hangs on to every word you say all of the time,” he said.

DeBoer is a father to two daughters — one a high school senior who will remain in Seattle to play softball for Washington; and another a sixth-grader whose passion is horses. The family will soon close on a home in Tuscaloosa and next week will sell their home in Seattle.

He’s not ventured out much since arriving here, his sole focus on preparing the team from the facility or his temporary on-campus housing (yes, he’s gotten lost a couple times and, no, he hasn’t yet tasted Alabama’s famous barbecued ribs).

Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer has a seasoned veteran at quarterback in Jalen Milroe next season. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer has a seasoned veteran at quarterback in Jalen Milroe next season. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer has a seasoned veteran at quarterback in Jalen Milroe next season. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

On the field, he takes over a program that is far from in disrepair. Based on most recent results, it is in tip-top shape: The Crimson Tide won 12 games last season, claimed the SEC championship and advanced to the playoff.

This is not a you-can-only-go-up-from-here type of job. You can go down from here, way down, or, perhaps if you’re lucky enough, you can remain the same. To remain the same, you’ll only have to win a national title every third season.

Unrealistic expectations? No-win situation? Sure.

During Alabama’s search for a coach in January, a question lingered across the industry: Who wants to replace a legend?

“You want to replace the guy who replaced the guy,” one coach put it bluntly.

DeBoer is a realist.

“Yeah, I get it,” he says, “but I don’t think anyone is going to put more pressure on me than myself. I understand there’s a lot more eyeballs and critiquing. It’s on another level here, I’m sure.”

In DeBoer, Alabama got someone who embraces those lofty expectations, says Byrne. But he’s a realist, too.

“Does it mean we’re going to win the national championship every year?” Byrne asks. “No, we’re not going to, but will he put us in position for that opportunity? We are confident that he will.”

DeBoer says much of the necessary “infrastructure” is in place at Alabama, the product of years of the Sabanization of the Crimson Tide program. He left much unchanged, his takeover a mix of the old guard and newcomers. He kept coaches like Freddie Roach and Robert Gillespie, head trainer Jeff Allen, head strength coach David Ballou as well as the program’s chief operating officer, Ellis Ponder.

These are people, DeBoer describes, that “helped this place become what it is.”

“You think Alabama football, you think of Coach Saban, but there’s more to it than that,” DeBoer says. “There are a lot of years of work he put in to make this program bigger than one person.”

That said, the Saban Effect, as many describe it, lingers here despite the overhaul of his office.

There are plenty of reminders — from the national title trophies in the facility’s main lobby to the coach’s giant face gracing one wall. DeBoer himself sees it in the team. Saban left a squad made up of former four- and five-star prospects whose work ethic and focus struck their new coach.

How can they be so physical and attacking one minute and then be so focused and poised the next?

“I can’t say it’s surprising but it’s impressive to see,” DeBoer said.

Meanwhile, his predecessor watches from afar.

While his influence lingers, Saban has been mostly absent from the football facility. In fact, he’s not attended a single spring practice, and he wouldn’t dare, as he did for years, sit in on defensive staff meetings.

However, he does plan to attend Alabama’s spring game this Saturday, and he has welcomed defensive coordinator Kane Wommack into his new office in Bryant-Denny Stadium for defensive powwows.

Early during his tenure, DeBoer talked daily with Saban about staffing decisions and personnel matters. Still, the two talk from time to time. But it’s clear that Saban has purposely, and perhaps wisely, removed himself from the program he constructed.

This is DeBoer’s team now. And that’s quite evident within the facility, on the practice field and inside the Alabama coach’s office.

“The old man is gone,” as one person put it.

And so too is that coffee table, the rings and more.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top