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Kalen DeBoer carries Eastern Michigan roots with him to Alabama

DeBoer completes meteoric rise from Eastern Michigan OC to Alabama head coach in less than a decade.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Texas at Washington Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

To say the first 12 days of the 2024 calendar have been eventful for Kalen DeBoer is a significant understatement.

On Jan. 1, DeBoer led the Washington Huskies to a 37-31 victory over Texas in the Sugar Bowl to clinch Washington’s first-ever College Football Playoff victory. On Jan. 6, the head coach — sporting a 14-0 record — participated in National Championship media day in Houston and later claimed the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award honors on the other side of town that evening.

A week later, on Jan. 8, DeBoer led the Huskies out of the tunnel for the National Championship to battle Michigan for college football’s most coveted prize. Washington fell short of that objective in a 34-13 result, but the official end of the 2023 college football season didn’t put a halt to DeBoer’s eventful January.

On Jan. 12 — four days after the title game and two days after the surprise retirement of Nick Saban — DeBoer accepted a job to become the successor to college football’s greatest 21st century dynasty. He will serve as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2024, the same program which won six of the past 15 national championships and qualified for the College Football Playoff in eight of the event’s 10 years.

During this chaotic two weeks, DeBoer never forgot his roots at Eastern Michigan. When accepting the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award last Saturday, DeBoer was asked to name the three people most influential to him on his coaching journey. He didn’t hesitate before naming Eastern Michigan head coach Chris Creighton, who hired him to his first FBS job in 2014.

“Chris Creighton at Eastern Michigan really taught me a lot about being convicted in who you are and building a program that really at the time had no culture,” DeBoer said during his acceptance speech. “You’ve seen him stay in a place that’s just a tough place to win and going to bowl games regularly.”

DeBoer leveraged his success as an NAIA head coach at his alma mater Sioux Falls and as an offensive coordinator of FCS program Southern Illinois to become an FBS coordinator. Brand new to the highest level of college football, DeBoer was a critical assistant on Creighton’s transformative staff at Eastern Michigan. When he arrived 10 years ago, there was nowhere to go but up. Eastern Michigan hadn’t generated a winning season since 1995 or qualified for a bowl game since 1987. But Creighton, DeBoer, and company built a winning culture which sustains through this day as Eastern Michigan notched six bowl appearances in the past eight years — including a nine-win season in 2022.

“I’m super proud of everything that’s happened there — both when I was there, those three years, and what has happened there since,” DeBoer told Hustle Belt last Saturday. “Chris has continued to build on the foundation that we set at that time. I think if you look back at Sioux Falls, I think you saw what a championship culture looked like. I think having some times where I came into a place that followed some 1-11 seasons — even at Fresno; in 2016 they were 1-11 — and seeing what it looks like when it’s a 1-11 program vs. what it looks like when it’s a winning program, a bowl achieving program — what happens in between there is what is special. It’s a lot of work and it’s surrounding yourself with the right people and it’s enjoying the journey.”

DeBoer spent three years at Eastern Michigan, reaching what at the time was the program’s modern pinnacle of success during the 2016 campaign. The Eagles — hampered by scoring offenses ranked 100th or lower every season from 2008 through 2014 — improved to 61st in the country that year under DeBoer. That significant offensive leap catapulted Eastern Michigan to a 7-6 record, claiming its first bowl appearance in 29 years.

“You don’t know how it’s ever gonna end as far as those opportunities and those places where you’re at, but if you pour everything into it, usually if you’re with the right people you end up rewarded hundredfold of what you expected,” DeBoer said on his time at Eastern Michigan.

DeBoer’s role in transforming a once-dormant program into a bowl-caliber team made him an attractive candidate on the market the following offseason, and he accepted an offensive coordinator job at Fresno State. After leaving every stop a better place than he found it, he continued to jump from coaching job to coaching job, moving from Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2019 to Fresno State’s head coach in 2020 and then to Washington in 2022. But DeBoer’s next stop in the heartland of the southeast will be his most scrutinized yet.

Alabama is unquestionably the most prominent dynasty of the modern era, given its six national championships earned under Nick Saban, its 16 consecutive AP Top 10 finishes, and its nine SEC championships since 2009. But in less than a decade’s time, DeBoer completed the meteoric rise from Eastern Michigan offensive coordinator to the successor in charge of maintaining that machine Saban established in Tuscaloosa.

DeBoer has gone from assisting a foundational re-build in Ypsilanti, to proving he could run his own program at Fresno State to restoring dignity— and national relevancy— to a wounded Washington program in just over a decade. Now, he’ll have to prove he can port all those lessons accrued over the years and use them to keep Alabama atop the college football pyramid.