New Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer speaks with reporters after his introductory press conference Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)
Former Alabama coach Nick Saban greets supporters at new coach Kalen DeBoer’s press conference Saturday in Tuscaloosa. (Jimmy Wigfield/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Deep South Media Editor
TUSCALOOSA — On Monday night, Kalen DeBoer walked off the field after Washington lost in the College Football Playoff finals to Michigan. Four nights and 2,061 flying miles later, he walked off a plane from Seattle and straight into a culture that not only expects him to be in the national championship game every year but win it.
At his introductory press conference Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the newly stamped Alabama coach said he’s not intimidated by it or the reality that he must follow seven-time national champion Nick Saban, who dumbfounded the sports galaxy by announcing his retirement Wednesday.
“It’s a privilege to be chosen to do this,” said DeBoer, who spoke from a podium where he was wedged between Saban on the front row and two Alabama helmets behind him featuring the number 18 — as in 18 national championships, a friendly reminder about the main function of Crimson Tide football.
Escorted by Alabama State Troopers, DeBoer came into the room at the stadium and moments later, when he rose to speak, received a standing ovation from the gathered boosters and members of the board of trustees.
UA President Stuart Bell called it a “transformative moment” and DeBoer, 49, quickly bored into the weightiest of the issues facing him, including being comfortable following Saban and insisting he remain involved in the program.
“He’s the best in the business to ever do it. I want 100-percent access, OK?” DeBoer told Saban, who looked up at DeBoer from the front row. “I’d be a fool if I didn’t ask. I want to be sure he shows up and tells me one thing each day we can get better at.”
Athletic director Greg Byrne said he’s a good enough judge of people to know DeBoer will not drown in Saban’s backwash.
“You want somebody who is comfortable in their own skin and doesn’t see it as a detriment, that they see it as a wonderful opportunity,” Byrne said.
DeBoer, who has no experience coaching in the South, said he knows it’s important to hire assistant coaches with SEC backgrounds, especially since defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has retired and cornerbacks coach Travaris Robinson, one of the nation’s top recruiters, has taken a job as a co-defensive coordinator at Georgia.
“I have a strong feeling of what I want to do,” DeBoer said. “I’ll know more in the next 24 hours. There will be a touch of Washington in there. I understand the need to have SEC ties. We’re going to have a relentless attitude in recruiting and that starts with me and then the staff.”
Byrne said he is not worried about DeBoer building a good staff and recalled some advice he gave Nate Oats when he was hired as Alabama’s basketball coach.
“I told him he needed to know where the sweet tea and grits are,” Byrne said. “The best coaches I’ve ever hired are smart. (DeBoer) will be able to make good decisions and put a staff together.”
DeBoer has scant time to plug leaks in the newly opened 30-day transfer portal and complete a strong recruiting class that Saban started. Alabama has the nation’s No. 2 class in 2024 behind Georgia, according to 247Sports.
Receiver Isaiah Bond of Gravedigger fame leapt to the front of the transfer portal line once Saban retired and Byrne said he immediately had athletic department managers proactively contacting players Wednesday to reassure them of the program’s commitment to excellence and their place in it. Bond later committed to Texas, according to On3.com.
“As players are being sought after, I am going to work tirelessly to manage who we have here,” DeBoer said. “I don’t care where you’re at, if it’s going to hurt one of your competitors, (other programs) will do it. It’s unfortunate that’s what college football is in right now.”
With National Signing Day approaching in February, DeBoer began sending messages at his press conference to recruits about what they can expect from him and his offense, including, whether subtly or overtly, five-star Saraland receiver Ryan Williams, who decommitted from the Tide when Saban retired.
“We will be explosive, aggressive and attacking, I promise you,” DeBoer said. “Just give me a chance. Let me show you the proof of what happened at Washington, the guys we put in the NFL, what this will look like, how great it will be to have these people around you and the coaching staff around you.”
While saying his team will be quarterback-driven and he has won with running quarterbacks and pocket passers, DeBoer added: “We’ll make sure we have the skill around him that can score from anywhere. … We’re going to recruit the best, highest-character guys and have concepts in a system that can be adjusted.”
DeBoer is clear on what is expected of him at Alabama.
“The tradition and history here is second to none,” DeBoer said. “Our goals are to win the SEC and the national championship and do it with class and integrity and academic excellence. My job is to uphold that standard set at Alabama.”
Details of DeBoer’s contract are being finalized by UA officials but Washington was prepared to double his base $4.2 million annual salary, according to ESPN. His buyout was $12 million, according to USA Today. Saban was the sport’s highest-paid coach at $11.4 million annually.
DeBoer — who won five Coach of the Year awards in 2023 — is an incredible 104-12 in nine seasons as a head coach at Washington, Fresno State and his alma mater, the University of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he was a wide receiver and won three NAIA national championships in five seasons as the head coach. He also served as the offensive coordinator at Indiana and Fresno State.
But he couldn’t say no to the power of the Tide.
“This was one of the few places — maybe the only place — I would have left Washington for,” said DeBoer, who choked up, sighed and wiped away a tear.
Byrne, knowing he had to move fast to name a new coach given the pressures of recruiting and the transfer portal, asked for 72 hours. It took 49 constant hours on the road to bring DeBoer to Tuscaloosa.
“I’m tired,” Byrne said later. “Simply put, coach DeBoer is a winner. He’s a ball coach. I felt a responsibility to find someone who cares about our kids as much as coach and Miss Terry did, someone I’d want my son to play for.”
Byrne said Saban’s input and desire to see Alabama remain atop the sport were invaluable.
“Coach Saban was awesome,” Byrne said. “We talked several times during it. It would have been irresponsible on my part to not utilize coach Saban.”
Byrne said Saban’s retirement did not catch him by surprise.
“I give him credit, he was always communicative with me and very transparent,” Byrne said. “I was always preparing, hoping over time I wouldn’t have to execute the plan.”
But Byrne admitted he felt immense pressure to get his choice right.
“The day I came here, I was asked 9,723 times what it would be like to be the man who hires Nick Saban’s successor,” he said. “I felt a great responsibility.”
But Byrne could neither look nor start looking for a new coach until he heard it from Saban that he had coached his last game.
“I wanted coach Saban to go as long as he wanted to go. I didn’t want him thinking, ‘Greg is out there talking to other coaches,’” Byrne said.
As he settles into the job, DeBoer said he is going to lean on Saban for good reason.
“I’ve bent his ear already,” DeBoer said. “I met with the team last night and heard the reasons why they came here, all tied to the Alabama brand and education. But mainly they came here because of coach Saban and Miss Terry. I know how badly they want to continue the tradition and I can’t wait for the journey that lies ahead.”