Two years ago this week, college football was rocked by the blockbuster coaching hires of Lincoln Riley at USC and Brian Kelly at LSU. They were surprise moves from one blueblood program to another for massive salaries, dominating the news cycle and accelerating a coaching carousel that saw jobs change hands at 15 high-level schools and 29 total in FBS.
Overshadowed by those stunners, Washington quietly tabbed Kalen DeBoer of Fresno State on Nov. 29, 2021. Twelve days later, Oregon hired Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning to fill a vacancy left by Mario Cristobal bolting to Miami. Both men were well-regarded in the profession, but the news wasn't leading SportsCenter.
As it turned out, DeBoer and Lanning have been the two best hires of that momentous cycle so far. Friday night, they will meet each other in the Pac-12 championship game with a College Football Playoff spot likely going to the winner—and maybe even one going to the loser. DeBoer’s Washington team is 12–0 and No. 3 in the CFP rankings; Lanning’s Oregon team is 11–1 and No. 5, with that lone loss to the Huskies in one of the best games of the year.
Big dollars for big names don’t always yield the best results. Both Riley and Kelly have improved the programs they took over, elevating USC and LSU to their respective conference championship games last season. But both were soundly beaten in those games, then they backslid this year—a little for the Tigers, a lot for the Trojans. They both might make the playoff next year, when it expands to 12 teams, but they couldn’t get it done in the four-team model in 2022 or ’23.
Either DeBoer or Lanning quite likely will get it done this weekend—maybe even DeBoer and Lanning. They follow TCU coach Sonny Dykes, who grabbed an improbable CFP bid last season, in making the leap from unheralded hire to title contender in short order. Dykes was hired on Nov. 30, 2021, another transaction that was reduced to “in other news” status at the time by the Riley and Kelly moves.
Of the 29 coaches who started at new schools in 2022, DeBoer has the best record at 23–2 (.920 winning percentage). Lanning is third at 21–4 (.840). Between them is Troy’s Jon Sumrall at 22–4 (.846).
The rest of the top 10: Rich Rodriguez at Jacksonville State (17–6, .739); Kelly at LSU (19–7, .731); Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame (18–7, .720); Riley at USC (18–8, .692); Rhett Lashlee at SMU (17–8, .680); Dykes at TCU (18–9, .667); and Jerry Kill at New Mexico State (17–9, .654).
As for the question of which class of ’22 coach has improved his program’s trajectory most? That’s also DeBoer at Washington (from a .438 winning percentage the two seasons before he arrived to .920 in his two seasons). The rest of the top ten behind him: Kill at NMSU (from .214 to .654); Mike Elko at Duke (from .217 to .640); Sumrall at Troy (from .435 to .846); Mike McIntyre at Florida International (from .059 to .333); Kelly at LSU (from .478 to .731); Jim Mora at Connecticut (from .125 to .360); Brent Key at Georgia Tech (from .269 to .500); Riley at USC (from .500 to .692); and Dykes at TCU (from .476 to .667).
Beyond spectacular early success, Pacific Northwest addresses and future Big Ten membership, DeBoer and Lanning don’t have a lot in common. Their coaching paths certainly are different.
The hires of DeBoer and Lanning didn’t cause much buzz in 2021, but both coaches have their programs on the cusp of the College Football Playoff just two years later.
Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports; Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
DeBoer, 49, is an offensive guy who came up through the bus rides and sparse crowds of small-college football in South Dakota. He was a head coach at age 30 at NAIA Sioux Falls, promoted from offensive coordinator, and he was an immediate winner at that level. DeBoer went an astounding 67–3 at Sioux Falls, winning three NAIA national titles, but that didn’t automatically earn him a big-time job.
DeBoer had to spend nine seasons as a Division I offensive coordinator at various stops before getting a shot as head coach at Fresno State, where he succeeded Jeff Tedford. After a 3–3 debut in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, DeBoer led the Bulldogs to a 9–3 record in ‘21 that included an upset of UCLA. That earned him the Washington job, which he has crushed to a spectacular degree.
The 37-year-old Lanning came up on the defensive side of the ball, hustling his way onto Todd Graham’s staff at Pittsburgh as a graduate assistant in 2011. In January of that year, Lanning drove through the night from Liberty, Mo., to Pittsburgh to campaign for the position and was hired. He followed Graham to Arizona State, then veered to Sam Houston for a season before getting his big break—a graduate assistant job under Nick Saban at Alabama.
Once there, Lanning’s zeal impressed Saban’s defensive coordinator at the time, Kirby Smart. After two seasons as the head coach at Georgia, Smart put in the call to Lanning to join him in Athens. In his fourth season with the Bulldogs and third as defensive coordinator, Georgia won the national championship with one of the great defenses in college football history. That season provided the springboard to Oregon, which broke a string of offensive-minded coaching hires to land Lanning.
If Smart was a chip off the Saban block, Lanning is a chip off the Smart block. There are a lot of national championships on those blocks, which makes them a good place to go for chips.
DeBoer and Lanning inherited talent at Washington and Oregon. That talent had underachieved dramatically in Seattle under Jimmy Lake and mildly in Eugene under Cristobal. Each coach made immediate scores in the transfer portal, none more important than their quarterbacks—both of whom are likely Heisman Trophy finalists.
DeBoer, who was the offensive coordinator at Indiana when Michael Penix Jr. had his first breakthrough success, reconnected with Penix at Washington. Upon arrival, Penix was a broken QB, physically and mentally battered, in need of a fresh start. Armed with the playbook put together by DeBoer and Huskies coordinator Ryan Grubb, Penix had a talented new corps of receivers and a new lease on football life. In two seasons at Washington, he’s thrown for more yards than anyone in the nation (8,540).
Lanning brought in whiz-kid offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham to run his attack at Oregon. Dillingham had coached Bo Nix at Auburn in 2019, when Nix was a promising true freshman starter. Similar to Penix, the good times did not last for Nix — his three years at Auburn were full of highs and lows. Nix opted for a reunion at Oregon with Dillingham and a reboot of his career.
That’s gone every bit as well as Penix’s at Washington. Nix has accounted for 87 total touchdowns at Oregon, currently leads the nation in yards per game and is second in pass efficiency.
DeBoer is 2–0 against Lanning, with the winning margin being three points in each game. Both contests featured fourth-down gambles by Lanning that blew up in his face, enabling the winning points for Washington. But Oregon has arguably been the hottest team in the nation since the October loss in Seattle, and is favored by more than a touchdown Friday night.
Whoever wins will move to the head of the coaching class of ’22, and almost assuredly into the playoff bracket. The splashiest hires aren’t always the best hires, as DeBoer and Lanning are proving this week while Riley and Kelly await lesser bowl assignments.