At 35, Kalen DeBoer reached a pinnacle in small-college football. It was 2009, and he had just coached the University of Sioux Falls to its third NAIA football championship in four years. Sure, he could continue to pile up national titles for the Cougars, but he wanted a bigger challenge.
So DeBoer embarked on an assistant coaching career that will bring him to TCF Bank Stadium as offensive coordinator for Fresno State, the Gophers' opponent Saturday night. And in the process, DeBoer will get to scratch another itch. The game will be a homecoming of sorts.
"It really is," said DeBoer, a native of Milbank, S.D., a town of about 3,300 that is a 12-mile drive from Ortonville, Minn. "I've got a lot of friends and family making the trip to Minneapolis for the game. I'm fired up to see them."
A die-hard Vikings fan, DeBoer followed the Gophers, too. That wasn't always easy when he was young, because his family lived outside of Milbank and didn't have cable TV.
"We had an antenna hooked up, and about all we got to watch was the six [over-the-air] stations we had," he said.
DeBoer, an All-America receiver who led Sioux Falls to the 1996 NAIA Division II title, began his coaching career as a Cougars assistant before moving to Sioux Falls Washington High School, where he was an assistant to former Edina coach Kim Nelson for two years. "He made me a better coach," Nelson said.
DeBoer took over as USF's head coach in 2005, and during his five-year run, the Cougars were 67-3 — including 56-1 with three national titles and a runner-up finish in the final four seasons.
"It was almost, 'What more can you do?' " said DeBoer, 43. "I felt if the right opportunity came along to be at a higher level, that was an opportunity where someday I could be a head coach at a higher level. At the time, the dream was to stick around and be close — maybe one of the [FCS-level] Dakota schools and be a head coach there. But you don't control the future. You just go work your job as hard as you can, and you go where it takes you."
That approach took him to offensive coordinator jobs at Southern Illinois, an FCS-level school, then Eastern Michigan, an FBS school in the Mid-American Conference. At Eastern, DeBoer crossed paths with his Saturday opponent, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, then in charge at Western Michigan.
"His teams are going to play with passion," said DeBoer, whose teams were 0-3 against WMU. "Just the intensity they bring, it's higher than other teams you play."
DeBoer caught the attention of Jeff Tedford, who got the Fresno State job before the 2017 season and hired DeBoer to be his assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. The Bulldogs, 1-11 in 2016, had a nine-win improvement last year and played for the Mountain West championship. This season started well, too: DeBoer's Bulldogs offense posted 58 points in a 79-13 victory over Idaho in the opener.
"It's just been a pleasure being around him and learning from him," DeBoer said of Tedford, "both from the offensive perspective and as a head coach."
On Saturday night, DeBoer will be back in somewhat familiar territory. "I spent a lot of time at the Metrodome, watching the Vikings and Twins," he said. "But I've never been to TCF [Bank Stadium], and I'm excited to get out there."
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org