Kalen DeBoer has a tough act to follow.
DeBoer, 49, is 105-12 as a head coach and was named AP Coach of the Year at Washington last season on his way to the national championship game.
Now he must transition into a tougher-than-ever SEC that adds Texas and Oklahoma next season.
Why did the Tide choose DeBoer to lead the next era of Alabama football? And what’s next for Washington? We answer some of the most pressing questions about the move.
Why did Alabama choose DeBoer?
Over and above everything else, Alabama wanted a proven winner, and DeBoer has won everywhere he has been. He has won 11 or more games in seven of his nine seasons as a head coach. He took Washington to a Pac-12 championship and the College Football Playoff National Championship game in his second season at UDub.
Two of the other guys mentioned prominently in the Alabama coaching search, Dan Lanning and Steve Sarkisian, were a combined 0-5 against DeBoer over the past two seasons. DeBoer’s offenses were electric. The Huskies ranked 13th nationally in scoring this season and sixth in 2022. They averaged at least 36 points per game in both seasons, and look at the way quarterback Michael Penix Jr. blossomed under DeBoer at Washington.
It was important for Alabama to get someone with vast head-coaching experience. DeBoer has been a head coach in the Pac-12, at Fresno State and in the Division II ranks with Sioux Falls. — Chris Low
What will be the biggest challenge for DeBoer?
Roster retention is going to be priority No. 1. A mass exodus of players to the portal could be crippling, especially since the ability to backfill won’t happen again until the portal reopens for non-graduates in the spring. Even then, most of the big names already made their moves. But setting aside that immediate concern, far and away the biggest challenge will be expectations. Not just wins and losses, but constantly being compared to Saban and how he did things.
While there’s no tower a la Bear Bryant to take down, DeBoer will have to walk a fine line implementing his process without appearing to step on Saban’s capital-P Process. Change too many things too quickly and the fan base and boosters might revolt. And in today’s game of NIL, you have to keep the donations coming. — Alex Scarborough
What is DeBoer’s first order of business regarding the roster?
DeBoer has some positives working in his favor when it comes to the roster. The first is that we just went through the early signing period and all but six of Alabama’s original commitments enrolled early.
Classes have already started at Alabama, which means the prospects in the 2024 class who enrolled early can’t be released from their national letters of intent; they would have to transfer to leave. To do that, players would use their one-time transfer, but also need to get admitted and enroll at a new school.
That could prove difficult, with different institutions having different schedules, and players might have to wait until summer to enroll.
DeBoer needs to ensure that the elite players who just signed want to stay and would fit in his system. The key member of that class is five-star quarterback Julian Sayin, who was the No. 1 quarterback and the No. 3 overall prospect in the cycle. For depth, talent and competition, keeping Sayin on the roster is imperative.
He could be the quarterback of the future and make the transition a lot easier for DeBoer. He can show Sayin the success he had with Michael Penix Jr. and try to convince Sayin that he could do the same for him.
The next order of business would be evaluating the roster and ensuring any players that he wants to stay know that they are wanted. The players have a 30-day window to enter the transfer portal and explore other options. The players at Washington would also have a 30-day window to enter the portal since DeBoer left, so if there are some players he thinks could help him win at Alabama, he could try to bring them with him.
Alabama’s roster is already filled with stars and elite players, so there shouldn’t be much of a weeding-out process. He’s inheriting a team that won an SEC championship and made it to the College Football Playoff, so his main goal needs to be retention and maintaining status quo, while adding players to supplement an already excellent roster. — Tom VanHaaren
What is Saban’s new role at Alabama and how does it affect DeBoer?
Saban’s role and/or presence will be with the entire university, not just the football program. His office is going to be at Bryant-Denny Stadium, which means he won’t be chatting up coaches or players in the football complex and poking his head in the film room. Besides, that’s not his style.
Saban wants no part of being the former coach looking over somebody’s shoulder, but will always be open to giving his advice when asked. What he wants is to be a resource any way he can for the entire university in any number of ways. He has made it clear how much Alabama means to him and his wife, Terry. But he’s not going to be hanging around all the time, and the reality is that whoever the new coach was going to be at Alabama, Saban’s immense shadow was always going to be lurking, whether Saban was physically present or not. — Low
Should Alabama expect to contend for a national title next year?
The expectation won’t change just because Saban is gone. And next year, why should it? Assuming the key players from last season don’t bolt for the portal (Jalen Milroe, Caleb Downs, Deontae Lawson and Kadyn Proctor, to name a few), this team still has what it takes to contend for an SEC title. If not for defensive breakdowns late against Michigan, they hold on to win the Rose Bowl and maybe send Saban out with a championship. And remember, the playoff is expanding, so even without a conference championship next season, you can still get in.
But the challenge will be significant, setting aside the difficulties that will accompany a coaching transition. Georgia and LSU aren’t going anywhere, Ole Miss is making a big push and Texas is coming into the conference with title expectations of its own. — Scarborough
What should Washington prioritize in its coaching search?
For UW, it’s simple: Ryan Grubb should be elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach immediately. If you are reading this and new UW athletic director Troy Dannen hasn’t already hired Grubb to replace DeBoer, he’s moving too slowly.
DeBoer deserves all the credit he’s received for what he’s accomplished in coaching, but Grubb has been with him nearly every step of the way (Sioux Falls, Eastern Michigan, Fresno State and UW). When Washington players talk about the offense and why it has been so successful, Grubb is the one they describe as the “mad genius” or with some other kind of similarly flattering name.
He was the playcaller, he was the one who worked most closely with QB Michael Penix Jr. and he should be options A, B and C to replace DeBoer. This isn’t the same as Jimmy Lake inheriting the program from Chris Petersen. Grubb is ready. Building a staff will be a challenge because DeBoer and Grubb will inevitably want to lean on some of the same guys, but there will be a line of talented coaches who want to be in Seattle. — Kyle Bonagura
Did DeBoer do enough to set up UW for sustained success as it enters the Big Ten?
With lax transfer rules in college football now, what’s left behind doesn’t matter as much as it once did. In theory, DeBoer’s exit could lead to an exodus. That’s the way the sport is structured.
What he does leave behind is an energized fan and donor base that — after getting a taste of the good life — should be more willing to help strengthen the school’s NIL opportunities than two years ago. If it wasn’t already understood, DeBoer showed UW has the infrastructure to compete at the highest level in the sport and that goes a long way in recruiting.
With most of its key players set to depart, there was already an expectation UW was going to take a step back next year as it moves to the Big Ten. But that was just part of the natural ebb and flow for a program that leaned on so many veteran players. — Bonagura