Kalen DeBoer showed Alabama fans he isn’t Nick Saban and that’s a good thing

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. – Kalen DeBoer spared us a lecture. Instead, he offered a philosophy.

Control what you can control. Don’t overreact. Adapt as necessary.

A hot topic at SEC spring meetings this week is the possibility of football roster-size reductions in the aftermath of the House court case settlement. The upshot: It’s still undetermined, but rosters might shrink, and the number of walk-ons teams are allowed might reduce.

Reporters on Tuesday repeatedly asked the Alabama football coach about this potential change.

I can picture a different coach working himself into a frenzy, lecturing us about how roster reductions would be a terrible change and rhetorically asking: Is this what we want college football to be?

That’s not DeBoer, though. He consistently presents as a guy whose heart rate never climbs above about 60 beats per minute.

While DeBoer answered one of several questions about roster sizes, he delivered an answer that should inspire belief from Alabama fans.

“You can ask me any question, and I’m going always going to (say), ‘There’s always a way to get it done,’ ” DeBoer said.

Smaller rosters would affect practices more than games. If rosters shrink, DeBoer said, he’ll re-evaluate how he conducts practice and study how NFL teams practice with smaller rosters.

Overall, he came off pretty nonchalant by this potential change.

“I’ve always been one to adjust to the times,” DeBoer said.

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That’s not just a money quote. That’s a winning philosophy.

The best coaches stay on top not because they make time stand still, but because they adapt better than their peers.

That’s why Nick Saban so often talked about dinosaurs.

“Dinosaurs couldn’t adapt, and they’re not around anymore,” Saban would say.

There’s plenty about Saban that DeBoer won’t emulate – for instance, note DeBoer’s lack of a lecture Tuesday. I can’t image Saban sparing the opportunity to pontificate on roster sizes.

But, for so many years, Saban became the industry standard for how to evolve – even when that evolution came in response to a change he didn’t welcome. That shifted in the final years of Saban’s career, when Alabama didn’t adapt to the NIL era as well or as quickly as some others.

Mostly, though, Saban was a maestro at bending with the winds of change. If DeBoer emulates this particular Saban quality, all the better for Alabama.

More than a decade ago, Saban criticized up-tempo offenses. He claimed they caused safety concerns. They also caused problems for Alabama’s defense.

Saban couldn’t shove that particular genie back in the bottle. So, he rolled with it, if perhaps begrudgingly. He hired Lane Kiffin to modernize Alabama’s offense.

Saban won three more national championships after Alabama’s offensive redirect. Saban’s final national championship, Alabama’s 2020 team, fielded one of the best offenses in college football history.

That wonky 2020 season became Saban’s finest hour. He and his team adapted to the challenges of playing a season amid a pandemic better than anyone.

DeBoer pointed to that pandemic season as an example of how he, too, can adapt.

More than the pandemic season, though, I’m impressed by DeBoer’s ability to win at multiple levels, in different conferences throughout the country, with various roster challenges.

He’s never coached in the SEC. If I didn’t think he could adapt, that might be a concern, but DeBoer has proven he’s a malleable fella. From job to job, region to region, he amassed a 104-12 career record.

Sounds like a guy who knows how to evolve. That’ll remain a handy skill at Alabama, where he’ll face new opposing coaches, with new personnel and new pressures.

Meanwhile, DeBoer’s plugging away at 60 beats per minute, just as he did at Sioux Falls, Fresno State and Washington.

“I’ve had to adjust to different parts of the country, different styles of play. In the end, you just try to make it about the main thing,” DeBoer said, “and you focus on the kids. You focus on the X’s and O’s. You focus on your staff. You put together the best plan to help your guys be successful.

“I’m one that never overreacts to anything.”

Those aren’t the words of a dinosaur. That’s the philosophy of another Alabama coach whose adaptability will be an asset. Just don’t expect as many lectures from the podium.

Blake Toppmeyer is the USA TODAY Network’s SEC Columnist. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

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