Home Hand Games How UW coach Kalen DeBoer forged a championship blueprint in Sioux Falls, SD

How UW coach Kalen DeBoer forged a championship blueprint in Sioux Falls, SD

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Kalen DeBoer’s most miraculous play may have been a punt.

At halftime inside O’Harra Stadium in Rapid City, South Dakota, the Sioux Falls Cougars huddled in the road locker room, ripping snow- and sweat-soaked trash bags off their freezing feet. The scoreboard — which, thanks to a power outage, didn’t work that day — would have reflected the following score:

Sioux Falls 6, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology 0.

But make no mistake: the blizzard was winning.

The snow had started at 6:30 a.m., pelting power lines and leaving the locker rooms devoid of light or heat. It ended four quarters — and 14 inches — later. But by that point, the damage had been done.

“We went in at halftime, and we were in a pitch-black locker room,” Bob Young, Sioux Falls’ longtime coach, told The Times last month. “That was the worst playing conditions I’ve ever been in.”

Added Kurtiss Riggs, the Cougars’ All-American quarterback: “It was awful. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever been a part of.”

It was so bad, in fact, that Cougars fans donated blankets for players to shiver in while standing on the sideline. So bad that coaches and officials opted for a running clock in the second half. So bad that “twice USF — facing fourth down from inside their own 10-yard line — elected to go for a first down rather than risk punting into the teeth of the wind,” wrote reporter Wade Merry of the Argus Leader.

So bad that “we had kids with hypothermia, some with minor frostbite,” recalled Ken “SID” Kortemeyer, then Sioux Falls’ athletic director.

So bad that DeBoer — USF’s record-setting wide receiver, punter and now first-year coach at Washington — could barely see the ball, let alone catch it.

“The wind was blowing this way,” Kortemeyer said, waving his hand in front of his face. “I remember Kalen saying he couldn’t hardly see into the wind. So I lobbied my best (to cancel the game), and I couldn’t get their athletic director to come and talk sensibly about this.”

On Oct. 26, 1996, competition came first. Sensibility came second.

Hence, garbage bags for a garbage game.

“We thought a great idea would be, ‘Let’s put plastic sacks over our socks and keep our feet dry,’ not even thinking that we were going to sweat,” Riggs said. “At halftime we were trying to get those off our feet, but there was no electricity, so we couldn’t see.”

Couldn’t pass or catch, either. Much of the debacle was spent on one side of the field, because neither team could move the ball (or see the ball, or feel their feet).

Which made DeBoer’s punt all the more improbable.

Late in the fourth quarter, in a 6-6 tie, the multisport star from Milbank, South Dakota — a town of 3,544 with the motto, “You’ll like Milbank” — caught the ball, dropped the ball, picked it up and kicked it.

It stuck in the snow at the 1-yard line.

“The ball just sat right at the goal line,” Riggs recalled of the 60-yard punt, which preceded a Sioux Falls safety in an excruciating 8-6 win. “It was incredible.”  

Added South Dakota Tech coach Rick Fiala, to the Sioux City Journal: “It was the only kick that rolled all day.”

Here’s how 16 years of championships, challenges and South Dakota blizzards prepared DeBoer to ascend to Seattle, from those who saw it all.

That group was tried by fire in the furnace.

· · ·

Post-punt, the Cougars kept right on rolling — capping a 14-0 season with a 47-25 win over Western Washington in the NAIA Division II national championship game, the university’s first title in any sport. DeBoer collected program records for career receptions (234), receiving yards (3,400) and touchdown catches (33). Riggs threw for 3,993 yards with 55 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

DeBoer and Riggs — best friends, roommates and constant Tecmo Bowl combatants — fueled an offense that ripped through opponents like a Rapid City blizzard.

“(DeBoer) was just such an offensive minded guy,” said Young, who gave his standout seniors freedom to audible on the fly. “He did a lot of hand signaling with Kurtiss Riggs. There was always a hand behind the back. A lot of our plays were called at the line of scrimmage.”

Sioux Falls scored 45.2 points per game in 1996, with an average margin of victory of 29.2 points. But it wasn’t as easy as the statistics made it sound.

When DeBoer arrived as a freshman in 1993, USF finished 2-8. Their perpetually muddy practice field was only 80 yards long and “not lush by any stretch of the imagination,” play-by-play broadcaster Tom Frederick said.

“It would be bare dirt by the time they were done each day,” USF president Dr. Brett Bradfield added.

The coaches worked out of temporary trailers parked by the practice field, and Young taught probability and statistics, algebra and finite math classes for the university as well. He was not afforded the luxury of full-time assistants — or a home field of their own.

“You just had this bond of guys, where we didn’t really have anything,” said Riggs, whose Cougars hosted games at high-school stadiums and played 11 of 14 games on the road in 1996. “Our weight room was in the basement of Pierce Hall. It was so dingy. You’d get rust all over you when you’d lift (weights).”

And yet, Riggs, DeBoer and safety Chuck Morrell — currently UW’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach — lifted the Cougars to unprecedented success … not despite the adversity, but because of it. All the rusty reps and end-zone fades on a muddy 80-yard field instilled an insatiable work ethic.

They also set DeBoer on a path to Seattle.

“That group was tried by fire in the furnace,” Kortemeyer concluded.

It’d take more than a blizzard to put the fire out.

· · ·

DeBoer’s coaching career began with a job offer.

Just not his own.

In the summer of 1998, DeBoer — who also starred on the Sioux Falls baseball team, setting career records for batting average (.492), home runs (37) and slugging percentage (.944) — was cut by the Canton Crocodiles, an independent minor-league team. He returned to Sioux Falls and moved into an apartment with Riggs and his wife.

But now he needed a job.

Kim Nelson needed a coach.

The varsity football coach at Washington High School, Nelson offered Riggs a part-time position leading his sophomore team. On a Friday morning, Riggs accepted the role, only for Roosevelt — the crosstown school — to offer a full-time job an hour later. He called Nelson back to apologize and resign.

It was Friday afternoon, and practices started Monday.

Nelson still needed a coach.

“Do you know anyone else?” he asked.

“Yeah, my roommate’s right here,” Riggs replied. “Do you want to talk to Kalen?”

So Nelson hired DeBoer, sight unseen, and he started as Washington’s sophomore coach.

“It was desperation, pretty much, at the time,” Nelson recalled last month.

“I guess I’m responsible for Kalen’s career,” Riggs jokingly added.

But, accident or otherwise, DeBoer had uncovered his calling.

“This guy could have taken my job,” Nelson marveled 24 years later. “It was amazing to me how a guy right out of college had that much charisma and that much natural feel for leadership. It seemed to be easy for him to get up in front of his sophomore team and talk to them about football and being a good teammate and being a good person. He did all those things that I wanted my head sophomore coach to do. He was really good at it right away.”

At Sioux Falls, DeBoer was tried by fire — and the inferno only grew.

“He was always asking questions. He always wanted to talk football,” said Nelson, who used many of the plays DeBoer devised on varsity. “He always loved going to meetings. I mean, who loves going to meetings? But he loved going to meetings, because he wanted to talk football with everybody.”

After an 8-0 season as Washington’s sophomore coach, DeBoer was hired by Young to return to USF, a year after Morrell joined to run the defense.

He was the 26-year-old offensive coordinator at his alma mater.

Which meant more than calling plays.

“It was everything: striping the field, handing out the equipment, ham sandwiches on the side of the road before pregame on days we traveled,” said Jon Anderson, USF’s current coach who was hired as a defensive assistant in 2002. “It was interesting times, when I look back on it. We didn’t know any better, and things had to get done, so we just did it. It was what it was.”

Before games at O’Gorman High School, on the bank of the Big Sioux River, that meant DeBoer and Kortemeyer collecting five buckets of dirt and canvassing the field, kneeling to fill in gopher holes.

“We’d take spades and go around, because it was fairly dangerous,” Kortemeyer recalled. “That’s the clear difference between being head coach at Washington and an assistant at USF.

“When he got the (Husky) job I texted him and said, ‘I don’t know what the field conditions are at UW, but if you ever need anyone to help fill in gopher holes, I’m your guy.’ ”

DeBoer and Morrell were Young’s guys at USF, going 53-9 in five seasons as coordinators (and ham sandwich distributors). So when Young stepped down after 22 spectacular seasons in 2005, he knew Sioux Falls’ next coach was already on staff.

He just didn’t know his name.

“Actually, I went to Chuck Morrell first, because Chuck had been with me a year longer than Kalen,” Young said. “I said, ‘Chuck, I want one of you guys to be the head coach.’ Chuck said, ‘You let Kalen do it. I’m not that out-front kind of guy.’

“I wanted those two guys to be the head of the program. I had to convince our president that was the right way to go, because he wasn’t sure if they were ready. But I said, ‘You’ve got two of the best young coaches here. Why not keep ‘em?’ ”

· · ·

The Cougars kept ‘em.

And in Kalen DeBoer’s first game as Sioux Falls’ coach, that might have seemed like a mistake.

“They were playing a team that we should have handled easily, and they were struggling,” Young said. “I’m sitting up in the bleachers, way up at the top with my wife, and people are turning around and looking at me. It’s kind of like, ‘Ehhhhhhh, I don’t know.’

“But they went ahead and won, and it just took off.”

Eventually.

USF did go 11-2 in 2005, with Morrell as DeBoer’s defensive coordinator and Riggs his quarterbacks coach. But an NAIA semifinal game against Carroll College — three-time defending national champs — provided two things in abundance:

Perspective, and pain.

“We got our teeth kicked in, and hadn’t been in that situation in a long time,” Anderson, USF’s current coach and former defensive assistant, said of the 55-0 defeat. “It was a hard loss and one where I think all of us on staff and under Kalen’s leadership said, ‘Never again.’ We just weren’t going to be in that position.”

DeBoer made changes.

But first, he ate chips.

“We were as high up as you could be to broadcast a game in an open press box, colder than you know what,” said Frederick, USF’s play-by-play man. “At the end of the game (DeBoer) had to climb a ladder to get up there to join us, because he would always do the postgame with us live. We’re in a commercial break, and some chips were sitting there, and he starts munching on them.

“55-0 didn’t affect him like it would some coaches. They’d be madder than hell and they wouldn’t want to talk to you. Kalen was not that way. He knew exactly what needed to be done. We needed to get bigger up front. We needed to establish the run game and dominate the line of scrimmage, and that was their focus after that loss. That was the tipping point, as far as I’m concerned.”

USF went 56-1 in the next four seasons, with three national titles — one of which came against Carroll College in 2008. Bob Young Field, which seats 5,600, opened in 2007. The Cougars completed a 28-13 upset of North Dakota in their first game against a Division I opponent in 2009 and jumped to Division II less than two years later.

Kalen DeBoer knew exactly what needed to be done.

After a loss, he climbed the ladder.

· · ·

DeBoer brought Sioux Falls to Seattle.

From rusty bench-press reps in a basement weight room, to gopher-hole duty at O’Gorman High, to marathon road trips and 80-hour weeks in trailers parked by the practice field …

The blizzards made him better.

“Those are the guys that are really good, because they had to learn how to grind,” said Travis Traphagen, a former colleague and the women’s basketball coach at USF. “Kalen probably wonders what the hell he’s going to do with all of his assistants right now. You’ve got an assistant to do everything. But you can also go back to the time where I guarantee he was doing the laundry. He was doing everything.”

DeBoer left Sioux Falls to become Southern Illinois’ offensive coordinator in 2010. He served the same role at Eastern Michigan (2014-16), Fresno State (2017-18), and Indiana (2019), before returning as Fresno State’s coach in 2020. After compiling a 12-6 record across the past two seasons, he was named UW’s coach Nov. 29.

For a dozen years, Kalen DeBoer kept climbing.

But he remembers the most formative rung.

“I’ve really appreciated the way he’s treated me through all the success,” said the 83-year-old Young, wearing a gold 1996 national championship ring on his right hand, a living symbol of Sioux Falls sports. “Calling me on Sunday and spending an hour showing me around (UW’s facilities on FaceTime), that makes an old guy like me really feel good.

“You need some of that to boost your morale a little bit. My wife passed away a year and a half ago. My son-in-law (former Brandon Valley High School coach Chad Garrow) had a brain tumor, and he died. You just kind of get down a little bit. Then you get a call from Kalen, and he’s just such a positive person. The way he treats people is a real key thing. Players will want to play for him.”

It doesn’t apply only to players. Ryan Grubb — DeBoer’s offensive-line coach and run-game coordinator at Sioux Falls from 2007-09 — is UW’s offensive coordinator. And after nine years as the coach at Montana Tech, Morrell left to become DeBoer’s safeties coach at Fresno State in 2020, then followed him to Seattle.

“There’s only one or two people in the entire world that I would leave Montana Tech to go work for,” Morrell told the Montana Standard in 2020. “One of them is obviously Kalen DeBoer.”

When the Sioux Falls women’s basketball team beats rival Augustana, Traphagen regularly gets a text from DeBoer. And when Nelson reunited with his former sophomore coach at a convention in 2019, he didn’t need to summarize his most recent season; DeBoer had been following from afar.

“He’s so concerned about how I feel and how you feel and making sure he’s treating people right,” Nelson said. “He learned that servant leadership at the University of Sioux Falls from Bob Young. That program was always that way. He’s taken it to the highest level in college football.”

Added Young: “You can coach out of fear, but you can coach out of love, too. I think that’s a lot of what Kalen has. He coaches because he loves his players.”

Anderson, the Cougars’ sixth-year coach, called DeBoer “the most genuine person I’ve met. It doesn’t matter where he’s at or where he’s been; he’s going to connect with anybody and everybody.

“I told him finally, ‘Hey man, you’re at UW now. Change your damn phone number.’ He has the same number he’s had forever, and he responds to everybody.”

From Sioux Falls to Fresno to Seattle, the formula — and phone number — haven’t changed. DeBoer won championships by embracing blizzards and coaching out of love.

All that’s changed is the challenge.

The inferno only grows.