Originally found on CBS Sports:
Disappointment is high on the flights back to Seattle for a Washington program and fanbase that was along for the ride as a 21-game winning streak put the Huskies on the verge of a national championship. It hurts to see the season end the way it did in a 34-13 loss to Michigan in the College Football Playoff National Championship. The performance did not mirror the best of the Washington team we’ve seen this season, and it’s a tough pill to swallow realizing how close this veteran group had come to securing the sport’s highest honor.
The work moving forward will be difficult with lots of roster turnover and a move to the Big Ten next year (the Huskies host the Wolverines in a regular-season rematch on Oct. 5). But this isn’t the first time Washington coach Kalen DeBoer has been faced with a crucial offseason, and given how things worked out over the last two years, his track record seems pretty good.
DeBoer earned the job in December 2021, and he describes some of those first months as the foundation for a team that would would win 25 games and a Pac-12 title in his first two seasons on the job. The team he inherited had just gone 4-8 in an absolute stunner of a season for a program that had become the class of the Pac-12 under former coach Chris Petersen, who led the program to its only other CFP appearance in 2016.
Players were hurting, and some weren’t even sure if they were going to stick around. DeBoer and staff asked for a chance, and those who stuck around developed into the foundation of a team that everyone described as “player-led.” Bonds were created during the winter months leading into spring ball, which set the tone for the run we’ve seen over the last two seasons.
DeBoer excels with coaching challenges that relate to being a manager of people and someone tasked with maintaining a lot of important relationships at once. When asked about the difference between NAIA and big-time college football, DeBoer acknowledges the extra levels of involvement with administration, boosters and alumni but also points to lessons about empowering a staff and a team and how they have been transferrable across divisions of football.
“I’d say just working with people. Football is football,” DeBoer said earlier this week when asked about what skills are transferrable from one division to another. “I think there’s just the number of people that help you with the details and from the breaking down of film to the game planning. But when it comes down to it, football is football.
“And working with people has also just been a transferrable piece of it where you want to empower your staff. You want to empower your team to be able to go out there and have a great atmosphere that facilitates an environment they want to be a part of.”
Football is football, and DeBoer has excelled as a head coach at each stop. DeBoer went 67-3 in a five-year run at Sioux Falls, he went 9-3 during his one full season at Fresno State and he’s currently 25-3 as Washington coach.
So while Washington is preparing for a reset, the program is doing so in the hands of a coach who appears to have unlocked the best version of Huskies football. As long as DeBoer is leading the way, this will be a team continuously competing for championships moving forward.
Washington could be losing double-digit starters to graduation and the NFL Draft, the most notable of them being star quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix Jr. There’s been a lot of action in that quarterback room ahead of 2024, though, and the Huskies sideline on Monday night reflected the odd timing of the college football calendar. In pads, suited up as QB2, was Dylan Morris, who has already committed to play for James Madison in 2024 as a transfer portal addition. Also on the sideline, though not prepared to play, was Will Rogers, the record-setting quarterback from Mississippi State who is already with the program in preparation of presumably succeeding Penix next fall.
The defensive front will be losing a ton of experience and production, and the downside of having three NFL-caliber wide receivers is that you might lose all three to the NFL Draft. Those underclassmen decisions will come over the next week and ultimately determine who will be among the next group of leaders for Washington.
Back in January 2021, it was players like Eddie Ulofoshio who bought into DeBoer’s vision for a player-led program and helped set the standard that the next group will carry forward in the seasons to come.
“They’ve raised the standard again back to where it should be in our program,” DeBoer said after the loss to Michigan, reflecting on the team’s seniors. “And a lot of guys got a chance to see what it’s supposed to look like. Seeing guys like Eddie [Ulofoshio] and Michael [Penix] do their thing and lead, the work that you’ve got to put in and how hard it is to win a football game each and every week, how hard it now obviously is to win a championship.
“But a lot of guys have seen what it takes. And because of what we’ve done this year, we’ll be very attractive for guys to come in, guys who want to win championships come into this program and believe that it can happen again next year.”
Michael Penix Jr. was a key piece to helping resurrect the Washington program under Kalen DeBoer.
Co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell was teammates with DeBoer at Sioux Falls and has been an assistant with DeBoer throughout the stops at Sioux Falls, Fresno State and now Washington. Morrell is one of a half-dozen assistants on the coaching staff who arrived with DeBoer, and now Washington’s success carries the challenge of maintaining continuity. Everyone is going to want a piece of what Washington has, and that will likely include members of DeBoer’s staff.
Now that Washington is in the class of perennial playoff contenders, it has to deal with similar problems to the big dogs like maintaining a standard of success while assistants come and go through the program. Staff retention, even for a group that has been together as long as this one, is going to be a challenge now that the Huskies are in the spotlight.
Offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who has worked with DeBoer at four different schools since 2007, is going to be mentioned as an attractive candidate for any job after two straight years helping lead one of the top offenses in the country. When DeBoer is working with the UW administration on the financials for the future, there is a component of making sure Grubb and the rest of the coaching staff are taken care of if they want to keep this group together moving forward.
Unlocking the best of Washington football
Washington has a unique pitch that’s not shared by many of the top college football programs. The Seattle setting gives players a chance to live in a real city, but unlike some other pro cities with power-conference programs, the team doesn’t get overlooked on a day-to-day local level. With large numbers of U-Dub alums in and around Seattle, there’s a real demand for Huskies football, and that’s reflected in the way the program is covered by the local media and supported by the community.
The Huskies have seen great growth in the name, image and likeness operation that has helped with some roster retention situations, and DeBoer still believes there is still room for improvement in that department as Washington strives to compete at the very top of the sport. He’s thankful for the investment he’s seen from the community, though. Those relationships with prominent alumni, boosters and business allow Washington to capitalize on its urban setting beyond a pitch to recruits.
When Husky Stadium is rocking with the Cascades in the background, Washington can represent some of the best in West Coast football. As the Huskies make their move to the Big Ten, they are doing so with the momentum of a season that has unlocked the best in Washington football. This is a program with a proud history and passionate local fanbase that gets behind its Huskies, and with DeBoer leading the way, they have every reason to be optimistic about the future. This is a program with a tradition of competing for championships that was four quarters away from winning its second national title in the last 35 years. It’s now being led by a coach who has been nothing but successful at multiple levels of football.
There are challenging months ahead for Washington to reload as it prepares for the Big Ten move, much like those critical months in the winter of 2022. Only now DeBoer doesn’t have to sell a vision or a plan. Now he has results. The foundation for this new era of Washington football has been laid, and it’s set both a high floor and high ceiling for our expectations of what the Huskies can accomplish.