Twelve months ago, Fresno State imported two coordinators straight from the Southeastern Conference, the roughest, toughest, most competitive conference in college football.
We all saw how that went.
I’m not saying Eric Kiesau and Lorenzo Ward were to blame for the 1-11 record. By the time each came aboard, the good ship S.S. Bulldogs had already started listing. More a reminder that being Nick Saban’s consultant or serving seven seasons under Steve Spurrier doesn’t mean you get issued some magic wand that spurts wins.
The two new coordinators Fresno State introduced Monday morning at the Josephine Theater, the men handpicked by head coach Jeff Tedford to implement his vision, don’t boast the same blue-chip credentials.
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Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer comes to Bulldog Lane from Eastern Michigan of the Mid-American Conference. Before that, DeBoer coached at FCS-level Southern Illinois. Before that, the 42-year-old racked up a sterling 67-3 record as head coach at Sioux Falls, an NAIA program in South Dakota.
Impressive, but a long ways from Tuscaloosa.
Most of it is your vision and selling that vision to the players, getting that buy-in. It’s all football. Same in every place you’re at.
Kalen DeBoer, on coaching in the FBS vs. NAIA
Hamilton, Ontario, in football distance, is even further afield. Which is where Orlondo Steinauer spent the past four seasons as defensive coordinator of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Yes, that’s the Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, a north-of-the-border brand of America’s favorite collision sport that plays by a different set of rules. But Steinauer, 43, wasn’t just some anonymous headset. He was considered one of the league’s rising stars, a head-coach-in-waiting.
While accomplished in their field, neither DeBoer nor Steinauer has proven, lengthy FBS résumés. Unlike Kiesau and Ward, neither has been at a Power Five conference school. (DeBoer was at Eastern Michigan for three years while Steinauer has never coached college football.)
But does that really matter? Their new boss is wagering it doesn’t.
“I think the same attributes apply everywhere when you have success,” Tedford said. “Football’s a complicated thing. It’s about motivating kids. It’s about being sound fundamentally and technically.
“It’s hard to win football games, and I don’t care what level you’re coaching. Everything’s relative.”
It’s hard to win football games, and I don’t care what level you’re coaching. Everything’s relative.
Jeff Tedford, on Kalen DeBoer’s 67-3 record at NAIA Sioux Falls
If you’re looking for common denominators between DeBoer and Steinauer, might as well give up now. There aren’t any. Neither knew Tedford at all – Steinauer had only shaken his hand when Tedford coached the BC Lions in 2015 – until their initial phone conversations.
How did Tedford find them? What information did he rely upon before offering them key positions on his staff?
In DeBoer’s case, lots of film watching and networking. In Steinauer’s, past experience and more networking. Both hires also required gut instinct.
For his offensive coordinator, Tedford was looking for someone who had a hand in turning around a program and shared his philosophy.
In DeBoer’s first two seasons at Eastern Michigan, the Eagles went 2-10 and 1-11. This season, powered by an offense that ranked 35th in the country (455.2 yards per game), Eastern Michigan went 7-6 and played in a bowl game for the first time since the 1987 California Bowl.
“That’s really what caught my eye: the turnaround at Eastern Michigan,” Tedford said. “Then talking to Kalen on the phone, I felt like our philosophies really matched as far as being multiple, being able to run the football and being physical.”
455.2 Yards per game last season by Eastern Michigan under offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer
During the past six years, DeBoer has advanced from NAIA to FBS. He also advanced the belief that the difference in levels isn’t all it’s made out to be.
“Really, the difference between level to level isn’t about X’s and O’s or motivating players – that’s all the same,” DeBoer said. “Really, the difference is just managing staff and the recruiting areas you work in.”
Even though they were coaching in Ypsilanti, Mich., DeBoer and offensive-line coach Ryan Grubb (who came with DeBoer from Eastern Michigan) knew enough about central San Joaquin Valley football to offer a scholarship to Firebaugh product Josh Allen.
Eastern Michigan and Wyoming were the only FBS schools to do so following Allen’s lone semester at Reedley College.
So at the very least Fresno State is getting someone who recognizes quarterback talent.
“Most of it is your vision and selling that vision to the players, getting that buy-in,” DeBoer said. “It’s all football. That’s what it’s all about. Same in every place you’re in.”
Steinauer has an even larger transition, coming from a place where football is played with three downs, 12 men and on a longer, wider field with 20-yard end zones.
“Definitely looking forward to defending the smaller end zone,” he said with a grin.
They key word is football. Between the whistles it’s just football.
Orlondo Steinauer, on adapting to the college game from the CFL
Tedford did not know Steinauer when they coached opposite each other in the CFL. He only knew the Seattle native by experience and reputation.
“When I was in the CFL and having to prepare to play Hamilton, it was a nightmare,” Tedford said. “A very aggressive defense that’s multiple and gets after you in many different ways and forces a lot of turnovers.”
Steinauer, who has been on the short list for CFL head-coaching openings, doesn’t expect a huge transition.
Schematically, sure things are different. But the tenets of tackling, rushing the passer and forcing turnovers don’t change no matter what side of the border you’re on.
And, yes, Steinauer watched plenty of college football in Canada.
“I’m not that far (away),” he said. “I’m not in the North Pole.”
Fresno State’s new coordinators may have arrived from a little out of left field, without lengthy FBS credentials, but that doesn’t mean each can’t be a home run.