Kalen DeBoer can have a great year as Fresno State's head coach -- a Mountain West championship-type year -- and his winning percentage will almost certainly go down. Such is life when you begin your career 67-3 with three national titles in five seasons, as DeBoer did from 2005-09 at Sioux Falls.
DeBoer left after that '09 season with second straight NAIA crown in hand to begin climbing the Division I ladder. He became the offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois, then Eastern Michigan, then Fresno State, then Indiana, before returning to Fresno as head coach this winter.
His return to the head coaches' chair coincides with the loss of a friend he's carried with him for the past two decades -- the play sheet. DeBoer will give up play-calling duties for the first time since joining college football in 2000. We talked about that and coaching through the pandemic in a Q&A last week.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
FootballScoop: How are you attacking this moment we're living in now?
DeBoer: I think we did a really good job early on putting a plan together. Focusing on a few different things, first being making sure that we're engaged with our players and that our players are getting their needs taken care of in regards to their classwork, I think that was priority No. 1. I think the second thing is just the motivation piece -- giving them a workout they can do, and really trying to facilitate a player-led team has been something we've really been trying to do as a staff.
That was part of what we were trying to do when we first got here in January anyway. We really tried to push that on our guys, taking ownership as a group and as a team, that can take us a long way. They've done a really good job with that.
The next thing is recruiting. Obviously that's much different than what it would have normally been when recruits are coming to our campus to watch our practices and we're showing them around. Now with the evaluation period coming up that's going to be different as well. I think we've put a real good plan together. The staff's been working extremely hard at building relationships and continuing to identify and eval the players we need.
FootballScoop: Lots of staffs have divvied up research projects. Have you done that at Fresno or are you focusing on the here and now?
DeBoer: Being a new staff, we're just trying to make sure we're all on the same page. The defensive staff in particular, four of the five are new to Fresno State and so we're really focused more on us. Them getting to know their players still, through individual phone calls and position talks. I think we're just focused on us right now. Maybe there are some studies happening more on the offensive side because there is a lot more more familiarity with each other. Three of the coaches return including the offensive coordinator, so the system is still in place. Our focus has been more than anything on how we're going to be efficient when we have the opportunity to get back with our guys, installing what we need to install and making every rep count.
FootballScoop: You mentioned wanting to have a player-led team. How do you as coaches facilitate that? From the outside, it seems like one of those things you can't push too hard as coaches or it kinda misses the point.
DeBoer: I think there's a couple different things. We do have a unity council that is a group that we can go to as a coaching staff. They're the guys that can pass on the message from the staff to the players and then also give us the feedback from the team. During our eight weeks that we had working out in the weight room and on the football field there was a heavy emphasis on trying to get our guys to hold each other accountable and do it in a way where guys didn't get defensive, they can build trust in each other and handle some criticism, knowing this was something we had to continue to improve on because when time gets tough this fall, they're going to need to work things out on their own. It's been an area of emphasis and the guys really grasped that and bought into it.
FootballScoop: You went 67-3 as a head coach in your early 30s. Were you aware at the time that wasn't how your first job was supposed to go?
DeBoer: (laughs) Yeah, I was. I knew I was in a special position, had a special opportunity and had some amazing people around me. That's really what it comes down to -- having a coaching staff, having an administration that are all on the same page.
FootballScoop: Your offenses at Indiana jumped 100 spots from the time before you got there to your last season. What are some of the first steps you take as a new hire to start implementing a culture change?
DeBoer: Football is football. Everyone has great schemes, it's more about the attitude. We talk about in the day one meetings about creating an attitude. You create that through building confidence and belief. It all goes back to the preparation and organization in how you're going to install your offense. When the players see what it can become and they're buying in, each and every day means something. Over the years I've had the chance to install it enough times to where I know what I absolutely have to have, as far as concepts, knowing full well the checklist of things I want to have ready to go that cause people problems on the defensive side of the ball. As you go through the spring, the summer and the fall, the players know the details of things but they also see the big picture in what we can become as the season goes along.
It all ends up being a result of the belief and confidence that guys have and the fun they have when things start going the right way.
FootballScoop: What's the 'Why' of your offense? If I'm a quarterback, how would you sell me that your offense is the best place for me to develop?
DeBoer: It's about being efficient. When I say being balanced run-to-pass, it doesn't necessarily mean we are going to have the statistics even in attempts, it means that we can run the ball if we have to and throw it if we have to. Even this last year at IU, we were heavy, heavy in the pass but there were times that you could tell people were trying to take that away and we still had schemes, we still had things that we could do in the run game that got teams to have to respect that as well.
From a quarterback standpoint, being efficient is about having the ability to get completions. We talk a lot about getting the ball in your best players' hands. We talk about having five options each and every player a that could go the distance if they have the ball in their hands, and anything the quarterback can do with the ball in his hands is a plus. And then I think there's got to be an element for big play opportunities, whether it's pushing the ball down the field or creating explosives somehow. Getting the ball in the end zone is the ultimate goal, and you can't just do that by dinking and dunking. Life gets pretty hard if you're having to live that way.
To me what's important is playing team football. Team football is a huge thing. We don't want to put our defense where it's not going to end right. We control the ball, we have the opportunities to change tempos, we're going to convert third downs and we're going to take care of the ball so we're not putting the defense in positions where the other team has a short field.
FootballScoop: Are you going to call plays?
DeBoer: I am not. I've been coaching 20 years, this will be year 21. This will be the first game I've ever been at where I won't be the one calling plays. Ryan Grubb is our offensive coordinator. Ryan and I have been together at three different places. We were at Sioux Falls for three years together, we were at Eastern Michigan for three years, and we were (at Fresno State) in 2017 and 2018. He stayed here and became the offensive coordinator last year, and as I'm coming back here this will be Year 9 that we've spent together. He's a great coach. Players really enjoy playing for him. He holds them accountable, he's creative and understands a lot of the things I've talked about -- things that are better, special and different to make our offense what it is.
FootballScoop: Have you fast-forwarded in your mind to what it'll be like to not have the golden play-sheet in your hands, so to speak?
DeBoer: There's going to be a play sheet in my hands, I've just got to be real careful on how we talk. As a play-caller there's a rhythm and a flow you have to have. We'll definitely have times where we work together, but if we're in a drive, Coach Grubb's got it going, I've just got to let him be. I want him knowing he's got free rein and all my trust. He's called many games already, but I'll have a call sheet in my hand for sure. In between series we'll talk.
FootballScoop: What are the non-negotiables you're looking for when hiring an assistant?
DeBoer: Number one it's your personality, who you are, your character. Why you coach and what you're going to do as part of our staff. What I mean by that is we've got to leave our ego at the door. I want you having enough pride in your work where you can bring your opinions, bring your thoughts. We have very open conversations as a staff in our meetings, I try to facilitate that atmosphere where guys feel comfortable talking and expressing our thoughts, but in the end we're going to do what's best for our team. We've got a staff full of guys that totally understand that. Many of them I've worked with, almost all of them I've worked with. And when you're an assistant with guys, you know what's happening in pretty much every facet of the program.
You understand how hard they're working on the recruiting trail, what they're saying and what they're thinking when we're away from the head coach. These guys are all men of integrity. I know that because I've worked as an assistant with many of them.
The other things are, you've got to be a great recruiter. Players make plays and we've based our schemes around the players in our program, and so we've got to bring the best players we can that have the best character. The third thing is being a great coach, being a great teacher, all that comes with the football piece with it.