Brave soul: Kalen DeBoer takes the grave assignment of following Nick Saban

Brave soul: Kalen DeBoer takes the grave assignment of following Nick Saban

On Saturday, Kalen DeBoer became the guy who replaced the guy. DeBoer was named head football coach of the Crimson Tide.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 14, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 14, 2024, 6:00am CST

Steve Spurrier’s Florida coaching staff would spend the noon hour working out in the late 1990s.

One day in 1997 or 1998, Spurrier was stretching, preparing for his workout, when he engaged defensive coordinator Bob Stoops in conversation.

“You know what, Bobby?,” Spurrier asked Stoops. “One of these days, I’m going to leave here. You might be the guy.”

The inference was clear. The guy to succeed the wildly popular and successful Spurrier.

And Spurrier asked Stoops a question.

“You’re going to have to think,” Spurrier said. “Do you want to be the guy to replace the guy?”

On Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Kalen DeBoer became the guy who replaced the guy. DeBoer was named head football coach of the Crimson Tide, succeeding Nick Saban.

DeBoer called it the opportunity of a lifetime, which is true. But it’s also the challenge of a lifetime.

The pressure-cooker world of college football is not easy on coaches. The jobs are more difficult than ever and the competition more fierce than ever, and while the salaries are soaring, so are the demands.

And DeBoer just took a job that’s different from any other in America. He’s stepping into the shoes of the sport’s greatest coach ever. At a place that will have little patience for an adjustment period.

Kalen, are you sure you don’t want to rethink this?

Following Coach Saban is an honor,” DeBoer said in a statement. “He has been the standard for college football, and his success is unprecedented.”

I agree. Following Saban is an honor. It’s also a burden.

Stoops called anyone who accepts such a task a “brave soul.”

Stoops thought back to that Florida locker room more than a quarter century ago.

“I was like, ‘You know what?’,” Stoops said. “I started thinking about it. I go, ‘That’s a tough task.’ I agree absolutely that that’s really difficult, and you got to be a brave soul to go do it.”

Stoops didn’t succeed Spurrier. Stoops already was at OU and had won a national championship by the time Spurrier left Florida for the Washington Redskins in January 2002.

Ron Zook took over for Spurrier and was fired before the end of his third season, with a 23-14 record.

Spurrier was great. A legend, even, having won a Heisman Trophy as a Florida quarterback and then coaching the Gators to fabulous heights. But his status at Florida pales with Saban at Alabama.

Saban has surpassed even Bear Bryant as an Alabama icon.

“To replace coach Saban, I think that’s a tough deal,” Stoops said.

Tough doesn’t begin to describe it. But impossible is not the right word, either. Succeeding at Alabama in Saban’s wake, despite the highest of standards, can be done. It has before.

It’s not likely that DeBoer gets a statue erected outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, and it’s also not likely that he’s the next Ray Perkins, who fled to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after coaching Bama to a 32-15-1 record in the four years after he took over for Bryant.

Somewhere in between, the Harry Truman/Jay Leno crowd, is where DeBoer figures to land.

“I think the guy’s awesome,” Stoops said. “I don’t know him. I’ve watched him, his teams. He’s won at every level where he’s been. The job he did at Washington I thought was outstanding this year. So he definitely has the staff and he knows what the heck he’s doing.”

Replacing legends is not easy. It’s also not the impossible mission we sometimes think.

A couple of situations make the transition much smoother:

  • Taking over for a legend who hands over a program that hadn’t slipped;
  • Being promoted from within the staff, making for a turnkey operation.

Meet both criteria and odds for success go way up.

Tom Osborne succeeding Bob Devaney at Nebraska. Lincoln Riley succeeding Stoops at OU. Ryan Day succeeding Urban Meyer at Ohio State.

It doesn’t always go great; Nebraska foolishly grew impatient with Frank Solich and fired him with a 58-19 record, six years after Osborne’s Olympian retirement. 

Coaches who had started to slip are not easy to replace. The status is there, without the foundation. So Gomer Jones lasted just two years following Bud Wilkinson at OU, Earle Bruce was fired despite an 81-26-1 record following Woody Hayes at Ohio State and Gary Gibbs was fired at OU with a 44-23-1, though he took over from Barry Switzer a still-successful but scandal-ridden program.

The data suggests DeBoer may succeed. But he’s a total outsider — the farthest south he’s ever coached is Southern Illinois — and culture matters, particularly in the SEC.

And Alabama fans and boosters won’t want to hear that it’s tougher than ever to win in college football. Saban did it, they will say. That’s the standard.

“It is tough replacing guys that have had that kind of legacy,” Stoops said.

So this much we know about Alabama’s new football coach, who had a great job at Washington.

Kalen DeBoer is a brave soul.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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