DeBoer embraces chance to replace Saban at Alabama
By John Zenor
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Kalen DeBoer stood at a lectern, only a few feet from Nick Saban, and enthusiastically embraced the chance to both replace and learn from his larger-than-life predecessor.
The outsized expectations Saban leaves behind are a big part of that.
The former Washington coach, hired two days after Saban’s retirement, said he’s giving the 72-year-old ex-coach “100 percent access” to his program — saying he’d “be a fool not to” — and that Saban firmly wants the Crimson Tide’s success to continue. All that makes it easier to be the guy who replaces the guy who brought six national championships to Tuscaloosa in 17 years.
“I felt confident enough in my abilities, along with knowing that you have someone that wants this program to be so successful,” DeBoer said Saturday, speaking to reporters after he was introduced at Bryant-Denny Stadium. “I firmly, 100 percent believe that he wants nothing but the best. Some people when they leave, it’s like, ‘Eh, I want to be that legend and I don’t want it to be as good as it was when I was there.’
“That’s obviously not the case. He wants this thing to be even better. His legendary status will never be questioned.”
Saban and his wife, Terry, sat in the front row Saturday watching DeBoer address a room with dozens of Tide supporters and university brass. Then they slipped out without talking to reporters.
But Saban’s shadow still loomed. A huge photo of Saban and players hoisting a national championship trophy hung on the wall behind DeBoer as he talked to reporters.
University President Stuart R. Bell said Alabama found “the perfect person” to lead the program. But he drew loud applause when he gave a nod to Saban.
“Your legacy will forever be interwoven with the fabric of the university,” Bell said.
DeBoer spoke with Saban on the phone Friday morning and called him again the next morning. Saban has told ESPN he will keep an office at the stadium.
Still, it’s DeBoer’s moment. The 49-year-old from South Dakota was hired on Friday after leading Washington to the national championship game in his second season and earning Associated Press coach of the year honors. He’s 104-12 as a head coach, winning three NAIA national titles at alma mater Sioux Falls and quickly having success at Fresno State and Washington. He was 25-3 with the Huskies.
DeBoer was greeted by a large group of Alabama fans when he landed at the Tuscaloosa airport a little after 8:30 p.m. Friday, and others lined the path to the football building. He high-fived some fans before getting whisked away for a meeting with his new players.
Still, he wiped away tears while talking about leaving his Washington players who made it to the brink of a national title.
“I knew this was the right move,” DeBoers said. “I knew this was a thing that, not that I had to do, but that I really wanted to do. But it wasn’t easy.”
He also knows Alabama players have emotions to process about losing Saban, who led the team to a Southeastern Conference championship and into the College Football Playoff in his final season.
A big challenge will be re-recruiting current players who have options to transfer. The most high-profile players who have entered the transfer portal or announced plans to this week are five-star 2023 cornerback Dezz Ricks and wide receiver Isaiah Bonds.
DeBoer met with a number of players both Friday and Saturday.
The transfer portal issue brought some urgency to athletic director Greg Byrne’s efforts to hire a new coach. He needed only two days.
Byrne declined to offer details about the terms of Alabama’s deal with DeBoer. But after meeting with DeBoer and his wife, Nicole, the athletic director was convinced that both were entirely comfortable with the challenge of replacing a coach who won a record seven national titles between LSU and Alabama.
Byrne acknowledged he was familiar with the argument that “nobody’s going to want to replace Coach Saban.”
“As I thought about it over the years, one of the things that I thought about was, you’d better have somebody who’s comfortable in their own skin and that looks at this as a challenge and an opportunity, not as a detriment,” Byrne said.
DeBoer appears to fit that description.