Meet Kalen DeBoer
New coach shares vision for Bulldog football in exclusive Q&A
By Eddie Hughes
(This story was posted on June 25, 2020. It will be updated as details emerge in regard to the fall 2020 sports season.)
As college football fans across the nation await decisions on how and when student-athletes can return to the field and fans can return to the stands, new Fresno State football coach Kalen DeBoer is preparing for his 2020 debut amidst unprecedented uncertainty.
The Fresno State Athletics Department is working on a detailed working document in accordance with NCAA, American College Health Association and Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to ensure the safety of student-athletes and athletics staff.
The final plan for fall 2020 sports practices and competitions is pending further guidance from the Governor’s Office, the California Department of Public Health, the Mountain West Conference and the CSU Chancellor’s Office. The campus expects a decision later this summer.
DeBoer was hired in Decemeber as the successor to Jeff Tedford, who resigned due to health concerns after three seasons coaching his alma mater. DeBoer served as Tedford’s offensive coordinator at Fresno State in 2017-18, before taking the same position at Indiana this past season.
Just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to all team activities, including the Bulldogs’ spring camp, Fresno State Magazine sat down with DeBoer in his Duncan Building office to discuss his vision for the program and strategy for the upcoming season.
You hear people talk a lot about, is the cupboard full, is the cupboard bare when there’s a new coach coming in. How would you describe Fresno State’s cupboard right now?
There’s a lot to build off of. The hard part is, last year there was just a lot of guys that got dinged up with injuries. You had a lot of younger players that were stepping into leadership roles, and having to start and make a lot of plays. Six games went down to one score. They were in a lot of games last year, and we fully expect to be better because of the depth that was created due to these injuries, and having a lot of guys return. We’re very optimistic on what this season holds. I know I was a part of what Coach Tedford was building here for two years, and I know the foundation is strong. You’re always trying to build on things. That’s what he was doing, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. The cool thing is, I believe in a lot of things that he was building, so we’re just trying to continue on from that.
Are you continuing what was already put in place here by Coach Tedford, or are you bringing in a new identity for the team?
There’s a bit of both. The first part is, we’re definitely building on everything Coach Tedford laid the groundwork for — the tough-nosed, we’re going to have schemes that are sound, we’re going to play hard. All those type of things. No matter who you are, you have your own spin to things. Coach Tedford was different than Pat Hill, and I’m going to be different than Coach Tedford in different ways. You have your own little twist to how the program is run, and in the end we’re going to embrace what this place has been all about, and the history it has, and everyone, from players to coaches, who have poured their heart and soul into this awesome place, this awesome program. We’re going to try to make those that came before us proud, and leave this place better for those that come after us.
How many times have you been asked about your starting quarterback already? I assume it’s an open competition at this point.
Yeah. There’s never a conversation that doesn’t lead to, “how’s the quarterback position looking?” It’ll always be that way.
Do you have an ideal quarterback fit for your system?
Our offense is always going to be personnel-driven. We’re going to fit it around the personnel. In the end, the offense is quarterback-driven. Whatever the quarterback is able to do is going to be the difference in how far we go. I think it starts with being able to deliver the ball, have an IQ, a toughness about you, and anything you can do with your feet on top of that is always a plus. He can’t be a statue back in the pocket, but those other factors are definitely the most important.
Getting to know Jeff Tedford, he was different than Pat Hill. When Pat Hill was here he was not bashful about hyping up the program and portraying the anyone, anywhere, anytime mentality. Tedford was a little more reserved and said that if you take care of the small, day-to-day details, the big things take care of themselves. What type of coach are you?
I think I’m somewhere right in between. I’m just getting to know Pat Hill, seeing how he is out there, and I love it. Obviously, I think you nailed it with how Coach Tedford is. I think I’m somewhere in between. I get in there with the players, but I’ll also have a little more of an analytical approach to it, and help our guys have the right mindset. Understand where we’re at in this journey as a football program, and what we need to get better at. Understand what our strengths are, and make sure we’re emphasizing those.
Going back to your head coaching experience at your alma mater Sioux Falls, you had an almost unbelievable record of 67-3, winning three national championships and three NAIA coach of the year honors in five years. Talk about how you created that consistent winning culture.
It’s very similar to here in that there was a good culture that exists. There were high expectations, tough-minded guys that were already in the program. I think it was just continuing to bring more, and surrounding myself with more good coaches, guys that worked hard and were very efficient, related well with the players. We continued to build, and I think embracing what has happened before you helps everyone feel like they’re ready to support you. You can’t help but embrace what has happened here in this program. When you do that, you bring the pride of the entire Valley, the Fresno State alumni. I think once you do that, the players feel that and they realize that they’re playing for something greater than themselves. When you’re doing that, stepping on a football field and doing something that’s more important than just playing for yourself, that’s when great things happen, and great teams start to form. There’s a difference between a great team and a great program. I think a program is something that sustains success for the long haul. That’s a result of having a great culture.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned under Coach Tedford in your time coaching?
Wow. I think both of us are guys that just continue to always look for another way to do things better. I saw that done each and every day when he stepped in the office. I think there was an extreme competitive side to him where, even though the year before, in 2016, they were 1-11, there was a desire to get that 2017 team to a spot where we’re in a conference championship, and a belief that he created and spread to the rest of the team that this can happen now. I think it was the urgency that he had, and the belief that he had that we can get it done that quickly, was probably the biggest thing I took from him. I’ve been part of big turnarounds, but it took maybe a year or two. That happened instantaneously. The vibe was being created because of his confidence, and his feel that, “Hey, we got this. Things are going to be thrown at us that are going to be obstacles once in a while that we have to work around, and work through, but in the end we can overcome it.”
Do you think your Year 1 can be as good as his Year 1 turned out?
That was an amazing year, and that’s the expectation. I think there’s a lot of expectations that people have for this program, but none are going to be greater than what we have as a staff, and we as a program have. From the coaches, to the players, to everyone else that steps on this campus, and steps on the football field each and every week, and each and every Saturday afternoon when we play.
X’s and O’s
Describe your strengths as a coach. What differentiates you from other coaches out there?
I just keep working. I keep plugging away. I believe in my abilities, but in not being cocky with it. I feel who I should have around me, and be surrounded by great people, and let them work. Help enable them to be able to get what they need to do their jobs really well. Keep the attitude, keep the atmosphere positive, but also have great expectations. I think those are a lot of the strengths that I have. There’s nothing better than bringing a group of people together and have them all going in the same direction.
I remember a couple Decembers ago, after the win at Boise State in the Mountain West title game, hearing you on the Christopher Gabriel Program on 940 ESPN radio, and being blown away at the way you described the tendencies you prepared for. You knew Boise State would be looking for one thing, and you were doing something different. It seemed like that level of preparation, at least from my perspective, is one thing that separates you.
Yeah, I think that hits the nail on the head. It isn’t that I feel that I’m that much better than anyone else in any way. I think it’s just a matter of having some belief, and trust, and a quiet confidence about you, and just going to work. Just going to work, and finding those little things that you can take advantage of on a Saturday when you’re calling plays. The more you do it, the better you get at trying to figure out what those little things are. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, so I’ve been around a lot of great people that have given me little tips here and there. I’ve taken advantage of that, and listened, and forever consider myself a lifelong learner. We’re not done learning, and figuring those things out. I think it all just comes down to really working hard and, again, trusting and believing in the guys around you. Letting them take ownership, and seeing where we can go, what we can become.
I assume you’ll be equally focused on defense this year now that you’re in the head coach’s seat. Talk about what system you’re going to run, and why you chose that system.
Yeah. Coach William Inge, our defensive coordinator, is going to bring in a 4-2-5 defense. We’re not going to talk too much about it, but it will give us a lot of flexibility both up front and in the secondary to keep teams wondering where we’re going next, and what we’re going to do. He’s been around the game a long time, and been around a lot of great coaches, and had time to really test what he likes to do. He has great people around him with the staff that is in place there. Guys that have a lot of experience running defenses themselves, so I’m really excited about what that side of the ball is going to do as Coach Inge and the staff create who we are. We’re going to have a base system that we put in, but in the end, just like on offense, we’re going to work around the personnel we have. We have strengths, we have weaknesses. We have certain guys we want to put in spots, and I know that we’ve got some great minds that are going to understand how that’s going to translate to us winning on Saturdays.
What are the goals that you’ve already conveyed to the team for this coming season?
We have one goal right now, and that’s to be 1-0. When we say 1-0, we’re going to win today, and we even break it down to being 1-0 in the next rep. When they’re doing a lift in the weight room, when they’re doing a conditioning workout, the only thing that matters is the rep that lies ahead. When you stack 1-0s on top of each other, it’s amazing how much better you can get in the course of a day, course of a week, course of a spring, summer, fall. We want to win the Mountain West Conference championship, and that’s a goal for us that we’ll talk about a lot more down the road. Focusing on the process is more important right now, not talking about that goal of winning a conference championship. Then, the last thing is, we want to do it the right way. We want to do it in a first-class way. The word “excellence” is something that we use a lot, whether it’s on the field or off. In the classroom we want to be excellent, we want to be first-class people, high character. Those are the things that we emphasize, as well as the goals that we have.
Have you already started to identify who some of those team leaders might be this year?
I think people always assume that leaders emerge on their own. I think the thing we’re really trying to challenge our staff with is helping guys become leaders. Some of these guys have the ability and capability to do it, but it’s awkward to them. We’re trying to get them to step out of the box, and out of their comfort zone, and go out there and lead because they do everything else right. Some of these players are at every workout early, they take great notes when they’re in the classroom. They do all these things right, and the one thing that’s hard for them to do, maybe be vocal. Maybe be someone who’s going to say what needs to be said when it’s needed most. I’m trying to get some of those guys to do that, and every year is different. Every year has a different dynamic to it because you graduate some seniors and you’ve got a new group coming in. We’re still pretty young with who we’re going to have on the football field, so we’re trying to create more leadership within this team for sure.
Obviously, you’ve got a proven running back coming back, and some others who are hopefully getting healthy. Is that one place you look for some of that leadership?
Absolutely. There’s no question. Ronnie Rivers has been a staple in this program for quite a few years now. We look to Ronnie for a lot of different things. Obviously, with the big plays he can make, but how he works is never going to be questioned. He always works hard, and just pushing him to try to stay at it, or get out of his comfort zone and be exactly what we’re talking about. A leader that is already well-respected. They need to be who they are, just like I need to coach and be who I am. Ronnie and other guys need to be who they are, but in the end we also want to try to help push them along to help make our team be the best we can be.
When talking about the pride and tradition of Bulldog football, how do you take that message, as someone who isn’t an alumnus yourself, and instill in your program with the players and the staff?
What’s cool is that, when we were here for two years, there was a lot of success. Quickly, I felt a part of the Bulldog family. The alumni and the people were so excited to see the program where it was at in 2017-18. I felt a part of it instantaneously those two years. Coming back, it’s just been even better. I feel a part of it even more. The alumni, just talking with them, it’s awesome. I want to continue to learn and hear the stories. I know the stories that are most recent, but I want to hear more of those stories that go way back. These alumni that have been to hundreds of games over the years, and just people in the Valley that are going to be here every single Saturday. I can’t wait to get to meet more of those people and be able to make them proud each and every weekend when we step on the football field.
What role do you want former players to play in the program?
We want them to come to the games, and be around the program and feel welcome any time to come by and be around our team. Any time of the year. They’ll naturally come in the fall when we’re playing. When we’re in workouts, I want the guys to come by and get in front of the team and share their story. I want current players to hear the pride that they have in this program and how much they care about the team that we have right now, and the success that we can have moving forward. I just want them to always know they’re welcome to come back. This is home, so you always want to be welcome back at your home. I definitely want that. It’s a pretty special place. There’s a lot of wins that have happened, and there’s been a lot of great times. Coming back home to reminisce, and talk about those times is what I want to see at Fresno State.
Recruiting-wise, what are the immediate needs you saw that you addressed?
I think the No. 1 thing was probably the tight end position. That’s the one that continues to be a huge focus for us. Not because we don’t have the right people, but because it’s an important part of our offense. I think we got some great help there. Up front, you’re always looking for offensive line, defensive line, but in the defensive backfield, I think we’ve got some guys that are going to really come in and help us out there. I think you look more at, who do we graduate? Yes, you need that immediate help, but you’ve got to start making plans for the second year, too. Now, those guys have been in your program, and that’s really when you hope that they can start making an impact, and getting out on the football field for you.
When you go out on a recruiting visit, give me your spiel, your pitch to a recruit to come to Fresno State.
First of all, it’s academics first. We’re in this profession for one reason. It’s for people to get their degree, and have something to help propel them into life after football, so that’s the No. 1 thing. As far as them coming to Fresno State and playing football here, it’s about the special culture, the special place that we have here because of the tradition, because of the people in the Valley that just love to come and support this football team, and this football program as well as all of Fresno State athletics. It’s just a special place to be. You feel the love when you’re here. I was here for two years, and I knew that this is a great place to be. I felt it. I think the players, once they get here, I think they’re very surprised and impressed by what they see when they’re on their recruiting trips, and when they get a chance to come to a football game. It’s a special place.
VISION AND FAN BASE
What’s your long-term vision for Fresno State football on a national level?
That’s a really interesting question, because we cracked the top 25 here in 2018. I don’t know why we should expect anything less than that. As time goes on, you never know. There could be an expansion of the championship series. You’d love to have your name a part of that someday. We’ve just got to make sure we’re doing our part, and that we’re on point with everything. Take care of our business, and I think that the chips fall where they do as you win football games and become nationally recognized. When you start thinking too much down the road, you forget about the process and you forget about what it takes to get there. I do have lofty goals. I think we saw a big part of that in 2018 with the 12-2 season, and what this program’s capable of doing. That was the most wins ever in school history, but there’s no reason why we can’t get to that point someday again. Hopefully sooner than later.
On a related token, what do you want the Red Wave to know about how important they are to the success of this program?
Our guys feed off the energy. You instantaneously go to Saturdays, and what it feels like coming down the ramp and charging the field. I’m getting chills down my arm just thinking about the 2017 Boise game, when we had that stadium rocking, and the Fresno State chants going back and forth. That was a special time. I know that there’s many more great days ahead like that. Our guys that were here, I think that’s going to be one of the biggest memories that they’ve had. Obviously, winning the conference championship was huge, but as far as being in Bulldog Stadium, the atmosphere the Red Wave provides is second to none when it’s rolling.