DeBoer aims to bring ‘1-0’ mindset to Hoosiers

Once Missouri Valley’s punt rolled out at the 1, the odds were completely stacked against head coach Kalen DeBoer and his football team.

It was late in the fourth quarter of the 2007 NAIA semifinal. Sioux Falls trailed 10-5. The Cougars needed all 99 yards to win.

Ninety-nine yards on a Missouri Valley defense that hadn’t allowed a first down in the second half. Ninety-nine yards into wind chills of minus-10.

“You’re hoping it goes in the end zone,” DeBoer said, laughing at his overly obvious statement. “The ball lands out at the 1, and it gets a little more difficult than you wanted it to be.”

The odds weren’t in his favor, but DeBoer can sit in his office at Memorial Stadium on a sunny summer day, humored by the thought of an oppressively cold afternoon in South Dakota, because the path of most resistance has brought him to Bloomington.

The man tasked with breathing new life into Indiana’s offense has seen greater challenges. He suffered through 2-10 and 1-11 records as offensive coordinator at a toiling FBS program, Eastern Michigan, before squeezing out a 7-6 season. DeBoer joined a traditionally successful mid-major, Fresno State, immediately after a one-win campaign, building back up to a program-record 12 wins and a conference title. Before all of that, he won three national titles at his alma mater — a Christian school of fewer than 1,500 students.

A track record of bettering the odds has landed DeBoer, a mild-mannered South Dakotan of humble roots — or “ruts,” as he says it — at a Big Ten program. He’s inked the richest contract ever for an IU coordinator, nearly $1 million a year. But he doesn’t think the Hoosier offense, which stalled too often in 2018, is a reclamation project. He thinks they are close to something special. Really close.

It’s about the parts and pieces but also a team’s mindset. DeBoer points back to that 99-yard drive, a shining example of the “1-0” mantra he preaches — that past mistakes don’t matter, and only the next play does.

“All we can control is what lies in front of us,” DeBoer said. “That’s what we talked about on the sideline before that drive: ‘This is your chance.’ You can at least live with the results if you give it everything you got this next drive.”

Even if that’s through an unbending defense, through winds that prick the skin, through a gauntlet that spans 99 yards.

The drive was imperfect. On the first play, quarterback Chad Cavender threw a pass to his decoy route, a bubble. Sioux Falls had an entire football field to traverse, and the first pass went backward, nearly handing the defense a safety.

Next play.

Cavender reset and hit receiver Robert Kirvin on a back-shoulder fade.

“1-0”

Missouri Valley’s linebackers were suddenly on their heels, backpedaling deeper and deeper. Cavender twice found his tight end, Josiah Fenceroy.

“1-0” “1-0”

On fourth-and-12, Missouri Valley attacked. A linebacker shot through the line, unblocked. Cavender escaped to his right for 14 yards.

“1-0”

At the 6, DeBoer dialed up a tight end delay. The linebackers dropped, again. Fenceroy faked a block, then slipped out. Cavender found him.

Sioux Falls 11, Missouri Valley 10.

What magic did DeBoer conjure in those 16 plays? How did they manage to travel 99 yards in two and a half minutes, when they could barely put one foot in front of the other the rest of the game?

His answer isn’t very elaborate.

“We literally just ran the same plays,” DeBoer said, “and we ran them better.”

***

DeBoer’s search for play-calling perfection goes back to a 10-by-12 dorm room at Sioux Falls, where two of South Dakota’s most competitive athletes went head-to-head.

Holding one Nintendo controller was Kurtiss Riggs, the Cougar quarterback who produced video-game-like stats on an actual field. DeBoer, his receiver, held the other, intent on finding the formula to crack Riggs’ Tecmo Bowl defense.

Not that DeBoer could get all that sophisticated. There were only a handful of plays to choose from. What Riggs did learn, through video games, tennis matches, and one-on-one drills at practice, was DeBoer’s competitive spirit.

If DeBoer lost, they were playing again — and again and again — until he picked the play that would get his digital ballcarrier into the end zone.

“You quickly realized he was going to put all the time into being the best,” Riggs said.

DeBoer and Riggs weren’t just gamers in a dorm room. They were constantly in the film room, watching tape on opponents. Bob Young, their coach, trusted so much in their studies, he allowed DeBoer and Riggs to read defenses at the line, using hand signals to call routes.

“That’s one of those special relationships you hope for while you are coaching,” Young said. “They can almost go out on the field and draw the pass patterns in the dirt, so to speak.”

Before DeBoer’s “1-0” mindset, Young sold another straightforward, seemingly redundant concept. “Winners win,” he said, “because that’s what winners do.” DeBoer, Riggs and their defensive counterpart, Chuck Morrell, were exemplars of that philosophy, taking a 2-8 football program and working their way to a national championship in 1996.

That season, Riggs threw for an NAIA-record 55 touchdowns. DeBoer caught more than anyone else.

Riggs, DeBoer, and Morrell eventually found their way back to Sioux Falls as coaches. It was just a more winding road for DeBoer. He played a season of pro baseball for the Canton Crocodiles. He then suited up for the local indoor football team, the Sioux Falls Storm (which Riggs now coaches).

DeBoer was on his way as a high school teacher and coach until 2000, when Young found himself in need of an offensive coordinator. The school also needed that person to help coach the baseball team. Morrell, already on staff, says he “begged” DeBoer to take the job.

“You figure out who the people are you can count on,” Morrell said. “He had an incredible football mind, and you knew he cared so much about his alma mater.”

Enough so, he took a pay cut. The Sioux Falls job got him $27,000 a year.

DeBoer was seduced by the chance to continue the “winners win” tradition. He did that as OC, then as Young’s heir apparent. He eventually brought on Riggs to coach quarterbacks.

With DeBoer and Riggs again guiding the offense, and Morrell leading the defense, Sioux Falls bounded into the 2005 NAIA title game. A swift leap made the fall — a 55-0 loss to Carroll — that much harder.

That brings the story back to Cavender. After the Carroll defeat, DeBoer identified QB as his biggest position of need. Only Chad Cavender wasn’t the Cavender he was looking for.

DeBoer initially recruited Chad’s older brother, Chris. Only big bro ended up committing to Sacramento State. At that point, DeBoer was at a dead end. He asked Chris if he knew any QBs.

“He said ‘Hey, my younger brother might be interested,’” DeBoer recalled. “And I was like ‘Oh, I know how this goes.’”

DeBoer had a right to be skeptical. Other schools had their doubts about Chad Cavender, the scrambling JUCO signal caller from Shasta College in Redding, Calif.

Chad wasn’t that big. Behind a porous offensive line, he was quick to run for his life. He was pegged as an athlete, possibly a defensive back.

But DeBoer didn’t assume anything. He checked the tape. DeBoer used to wear out the gears in Sioux Falls’ VCR decks because he hit the rewind button so often watching game films.

“I’ll have to admit, sometimes, it almost lulled me to sleep,” Young said.

Play, rewind.

Play, rewind.

Play, rewind.

A pattern emerged in Cavender’s film. Yeah, he scrambled a ton, but on the rare occasion his line blocked, the ball came off his hand clean. He threw an accurate ball. A talented arm had been buried beneath a steady stream of scrambles.

Cavender still had to learn how to win. But that’s what Sioux Falls was all about.

“At practice, I just remember it being so detail-oriented to the point of ‘Geez, I can’t believe we are rerunning this,’” Cavender said. “That mindset of striving for perfection and not accepting mediocre performance was the biggest thing.”

Play. Rewind.

Cavender, now a highway patrolman in California, remembers most details from that 99-yard drive. But he can’t recall whether Missouri Valley’s linebackers were dropping too deep. DeBoer and Riggs, through endless tape study, already knew the defense’s weak points. Cavender just had to deliver the ball.

In fact, when Sioux Falls beat Missouri Valley in 2006 — the year before the 99-yard drive — DeBoer called a tight end delay for a score. There’s a reason he called it again in 2007.

“His play memory is eerily photographic,” Morrell said. “He’ll remember a play and a down-and-distance from when we were up 30 points in a game. He’s built up a tremendous database of what to do and what not to do.”

DeBoer just takes plays and finds ways to run them better, and in the right situations.

Sioux Falls went 67-3 in DeBoer’s five years as head coach, including a Cavender-led title run in ‘06. They lost the ‘07 final in a mud-fest, but that prompted DeBoer to reorient Sioux Falls’ offensive attack. The next year, it was muddy, again. But that year, with Lorenzo Brown at the helm, the Cougars ran the ball and won.

“There was a lot of rewinding,” DeBoer said. “There were always things we did well, but it was always ‘How can we make it better?’”

They just kept raising the bar. On their way to the ‘09 title, the Cougars beat an FCS opponent, North Dakota, in the regular season.

DeBoer remembers where he came from. In one corner of his office, a pair of IU helmets sit atop glass cases with signed footballs from each of his Sioux Falls title teams. They were winners, but not pampered athletes. They bussed to Nebraska for 1 o’clock games, stopping at a park to eat bagged lunches.

“When you start with humble beginnings, I think it keeps you grounded,” said Morrell, now the head coach at Montana Tech. “Kalen’s not going to let the bright lights and the pressure of the level he is coaching at get to him.”

Morrell and DeBoer still share travel stories, such as the epic mixup at the Atlanta airport following the ‘08 title win. One group of Cougars boarded a 6 a.m. flight, as planned. The next group somehow got tickets for a 6 p.m. departure. The players grew so restless, they rigged dental floss to a dollar bill, waiting for weary travelers to pass by and attempt to pick it up. Then, they yanked it backward.

A program that could drive 99 yards in the blistering cold just couldn’t catch a break that day. After a flight to Minneapolis, they boarded a bus to Sioux Falls. It stalled out in the snow — three blocks short of campus.

***

The road from Sioux Falls to Bloomington didn’t come without risk.

Three losses in five years were followed by 13 in DeBoer’s first two seasons as Southern Illinois’ offensive coordinator. Luckily, that flipped to 13 wins in Years 3-4.

But as disconcerting as every move could have been, from SIU to Eastern Michigan to Fresno, DeBoer has had one luxury:

He’s been able to choose who he works with.

“I just feel like there’s a recipe towards building a program, and it starts with the people,” DeBoer said. “In those opportunities, I’ve made sure I was going to be surrounded by good people.”

After his championship season at Fresno, DeBoer went to a national coaches conference with Riggs in January, aware recruiters might be coming his way. IU coach Tom Allen made a beeline right for him.

There was a “glow” on DeBoer’s face after their sitdown, Riggs said.

“Everything he said, he spoke from the heart,” DeBoer said. “You could just tell how strong he felt that this program is real close to doing great things.”

DeBoer did his due diligence, as always. He called IU receivers coach Grant Heard, who he visited at Ole Miss while at SIU. His second reference was running backs coach Mike Hart, who he briefly overlapped with at Eastern Michigan. Everything checked out.

Of course, with the bounty IU has paid for him, there is intense interest in what DeBoer can bring to the Hoosier offense. Can he mold a quarterback as he did Cavender, or Eastern Michigan’s Brogan Roback, or Fresno State’s Marcus McMaryion? Can he dream up formations and route combinations to bring explosion back to the Hoosier offensive attack, as he did at previous stops?

Those answers will come. For now, DeBoer is in the process of studying his team but also connecting with them. He found one opportunity in fall camp, in a frustrating moment for one of his best wideouts.

That day, the offense was battling the defense, and, as can be the case, IU’s corners were getting a little grabby. By the time senior Donavan Hale came down with a reception, he’d had enough. He defiantly tossed the football at the feet of his defensive teammates. The officials at practice launched their yellow flags.

Hale took his anger to the sideline, kneeling alone. But not for long. DeBoer hurried over, putting one knee on the turf. They spent the next few minutes there, Hale venting, then apologizing. When DeBoer spoke, it was in soft tones, looking into Hale’s eyes, his hand placed on his receiver’s shoulder pad.

They have known each other for only a few months, but DeBoer can see Hale as more than a 6-foot-4 target in his offensive scheme. He sees a student and a father.

“I wanted to tell him how much I respected him,” DeBoer said. “He’s a guy, when you think about everything, with being a dad, and football, and school — it’s hard enough when you are a grownup dealing with having kids.

“I told him how much I respected him for all of those things and how well I thought he had been playing in camp and to not let one situation define who he was. Let’s get back to work. Let’s put this behind us.”

If the Hoosier offense is going to go “1-0,” if they are going to push past back-to-back 5-7 seasons, they need a guiding voice. Players have noted DeBoer’s ability to speak to them, whether the situation calls for an authoritative or more sympathetic tone.

In Hale’s case, his coach struck the right chord.

“As a college football player, you have some hard days, and everything gets hard,” Hale said. “To have somebody who can pull you to the side, without yelling at you, telling you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear, delivering it in a manner that’s respectable — that meant a lot to me.”

There isn’t a million-dollar air about DeBoer. He is still the guy who accepted $27,000 a year to coach at his alma mater, the guy who smiles and laughs, shaking his head in disbelief, when he remembers that dollar bill dragging across the floor at the Atlanta airport, or that punt rolling out at the 1-yard line.

In a metaphorical sense, it doesn’t feel to DeBoer like the Hoosiers are 99 yards away from reaping their rewards. Not that far at all.

“I’ve been part of 1-11 programs, or come in after the 1-11 program and turned them into bowl appearances or conference championships,” DeBoer said. “I’ve seen way crazier things happen in the last five years, more than once.

“I know we’re close. I know we’re real close.”

29 comments

  1. Jon Blau that’s the best sports article I’ve read in 3-4 years. Not just on the Scoop but anywhere. Good job.
    Big difference between DeBoer and DeBord. All DeBord’s accolades were earned with highly rated players being paramount in the execution of the offense. Which is why he failed at IU. Coach Allen’s hire of DeBoer may stand astutely higher than Wilson’s hire of him. I don’t care who the starting QB is because the offense on the field this season will be infinitely better than the past 2. Go IU!
    PHYSICAL-MEAN-NASTY

    1. In the age of easy podcasts and phone videos, someone learned to write excellent sports journalism. Thanks Jon Blau! Job well done!

  2. LOL. Let DeBeor and IU offense do a last two minute touchdown drive against OSU, MSU, NW, Cornhuskers, P State, or even PU for a win. Then, that would be a good article poor weather or good weather.

      1. First games usually inject some much needed reality into the outsized expectations that often flow from off season changes and preseason excitement. Irrational exuberance is a wonderful thing.

  3. Coach DeBoer’s approach may be successful but we can’t be sure until we see it in action. I think he has enough of a proven track record to believe it will work. It will be nice to have an offense that manipulates the defense instead of an offense of plays to run. It seems DeBoer understands what he wants to accomplish and can explain to players how to achieve it.

    Coach is definitely going to face some defenses better than he has seen in his career so far. It will be fun to see how he attacks those defenses.

    1. I do know the answer. If you’re really intent in knowing I suggest you look it up. You’ll comprehend more and retain it longer.

    2. If you are talking about the Sioux Falls team, yes they won that national title game with that drive. His teams won 3 titles in 4 years going 43-0 those three years.

    3. t, if scoring from the 1 yard line in the last 2 minutes to win a game is the standard for being a good team then everybody sucks.

  4. DeBoer’s resume sounds impressive. I hope it works out for IU but I will remain cautious. Remember Brian Knorr the DC before Allen? A lot of people were singing his praises as the key to IU’s defenses woes, and we all know how that turned out.

    I will wait and see how DeBoer’s offense succeeds against OSU in three weeks, and MSU’s after that. I’m hoping he will be able to put up enough points against those teams to win the game. These will be the real tests for IU’s offense and defense early this season, and allow us to gauge just how strong of a team Allen has this year.

  5. Brady Hoke @ Mich after Ball State and the Aztecs of San Diego State. Who would want to leave San Diego for Ann Arbor anyway? Steve Fisher smarter than all of them. Even Bill Lynch has success at Depuaw. It’s just not the same at IU in Big Ten.

  6. going to take about 2-3 years before you can really gauge where his offense is …have to get couple recruiting classes in to fit his offense.. i believe 500 or game below this year..

    1. I don’t understand the need to wait for 2 or 3 recruiting classes before assessing DeBoer’s offensive scheme. He was hired to improve the offensive production starting in 2019 using the talent on hand.

      What type of player does he need? He has 2 4-star quarterbacks on the roster. A running back in Stevie Scott who is coming off a highly productive freshman year, and another highly rated back in Sampson James. The receiving unit is considered to be among the best in the conference if not the nation. So what kind of player does he need that he doesn’t currently have?

      If Allen has to wait for several future recruiting classes before DeBoer’s offense works then he hired the wrong guy. DeBoer has the talent to produce now, and if he doesn’t it is on him.

  7. Loved the article. Well done. Thought I was reading Sports Illustrated for a few minutes.

    Most important thing I learned in this story was DeBoer’s humble beginnings. Taking a pay cut in order to pursue his passion. Character is something he has in abundance.

    I’m sure his skill as an OC is excellent. The test he will have to pass in order to justify his big compensation package and scrape off some of the Hoosier Nations’ skepticism is recruiting better players. It’s all about recruiting better players!

  8. Did anyone watch ESPN’s documentary yesterday about college football? It was excellent. But boy, it was painful when it discussed how early adaptors realized how important a good football program could be to a University’s enrollment, academics, fund-raising, etc. What Knute Rockne did for ND, which was a very small, relatively insignificant private school before he was hired to lead the football team, is just amazing. Other universities, witnessing the impact that ND Football had on UND copied Knute’s strategy. Obviously, IU’s administrators were very, very late in developing that awareness.

  9. CTE will erode the popularity of football. I’ve already heard numbers are way down for youth football. We are watching the a species near its extinction.

    Though Andrew Luck mentioned everything but CTE, I wonder if any sane young man with a wife and family is finally seeing a truth; no honorable hero/figurehead/exemplary ambassador for the game can continue to evade such a truth found in the CTE numbers and still sleep at night.

    Is it child abuse to allow a minor to slowly kill his/her brain? I think we’ll continue to see some of the highest profile players exiting suddenly. The forces are so much bigger in football than years ago. We’ve built something too big and strong for a brain in a can attached to a paint shaking machine to withstand.

  10. H4H,
    I agree the CTE problem is serious, but lest it get swept under the rug, there are other sports out there where the occurrences are at higher rate than that of football. The question is, “Are we going to do away with all contact sports?” It may seem like a flippant question, but there are bigger concerns for society in the long run without skills learned in such sports. History has taught some very painful lessons to those societies which look past such concerns. The question is, “Can the risks be mitigated to a reasonable level?”

    1. I suppose one option would be touch football played totally in a straight up position. However, brain injuries may be transferred to back injuries. More soccer stadiums are being built. How ever, when soccer ball is belted with head to pass ball that gives me a headache. That could become against the rules. Then, there is race car driving, plane acrobatics, circus acrobatic performers, bicycle riding, motorcycle riding, swimming and diving, motor boat racing, boxing, fighting, wars, crime, drugs, car driving, working on bridges, police officers, fireman, soldiers, hockey, skydiving, mountain climbing etc etc etc. It’s a wonder if hardly anyone is sane. Maybe the argument could be made hardly anyone is.

      1. t, you are right about how many human activities can cause CTE. Humans are driven to dangerous activities and thinking we can avoid them won’t change that. Soccer is one of the leaders in CTE but it isn’t as publicized as football due to our current climate in this country and world. Research is showing CTE is caused more by many smaller impacts rather than severe impacts. How many of the need jobs would we do without because of the risk of CTE for people in the job?

        Your comment about perspective is one I have say yes it is better and a decision each individual needs to decide on themselves.

  11. I have mentioned perspective several times on this blog. This could be another consequence “lack of perspective.” Thus creating faster, bigger, little ones and monsters win at all costs not just money but sacrificing your physical health body/life cheered on and paid for by the masses. It seems that this investment that has created an out of bounds of hardly any perspective puts this; is bigger, faster, stronger, more talented and more investment of money in all of it really better???

  12. Just read a brief story about a major league catcher who is just returning to baseball after taking some time off after suffering his 6th concussion. Even with a face mask and helmet, if you get hit with a baseball thrown at 95 miles an hour, or a bat being swung at full speed, or get run over by a 220 lbs. man running full speed into home plate, you’re going to have head trauma. Are they going to eliminate baseball?

    How about boxing and MMA? How about competitive soccer players who head the ball thousands of times before they’re out of their teens and who routinely butt heads when attempting to head the ball? Or how about hockey, which produces head trauma with less protection? Or motor racing? And then there are all the equestrian sports, the most deadly sport of all?

    If our society becomes so soft that we eliminate all sports that involve the risk of head trauma, we’re in serious trouble. About 100 years ago, over a dozen young men died in one year while playing college football. Yet the sport became ever more popular and rules were implemented to make the game safer.

    1. Very good post Podunker, life is about risk and too often our society doesn’t have a good handle on risk and how different activities compare in those risk. Today it is more about what is the biggest headline in shocking news and that is bad for our society.

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