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The folksy ambition of Jerry Kill

Running back Rodrick Williams Jr.
David Manning-USA TODAY Sports
Running back Rodrick Williams Jr. diving into the end-zone for a 20-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the 2015 Citrus Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl.

"He’s Done It Again" blared the headline of the story appearing on the front page of the Star Tribune sports section last Sunday. It was teased by a small picture and headline at the top of the front page proper, claiming "Kill conjures Gopher magic."

The hullabaloo is at least partially justified. University of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has indeed resurrected what was a moribund football program in these parts, much as he did for a string of Midwestern hamlets from 1987-2010: at Webb City High School in southwestern Missouri; Saginaw Valley State in Michigan; Emporia State in Kansas; and Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois at either end of that state.

Consequently, even as the Twins are overachieving into wild-card playoff contention and the Vikings are on the cusp of a promising season, Kill’s Gophers are currently the hottest topic in local sports. Thursday night, the coach will begin his fifth year at the helm when Minnesota faces off against Texas Christian University, the second-ranked team in the country, in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN.

While Minnesota is a double-digit underdog, nobody is expecting the sort of 50-point blowout loss that was a semi-regular occurrence during the down periods that have pockmarked the Gopher program over the past fifty years. Some even harbor a suspicion that some Kill-conjured Gopher magic will produce the sort of seismic upset that will spit-shine the coach’s already glowing legacy.

It’s easy to forget that, at least thus far, Jerry Kill isn’t that special. Yes, he took a program that was in shambles and rebuilt it to the point where the Gophers played in a New Year’s Day bowl game last season, earning him Big 10 Coach of the Year honors for 2014.

But just 16 years ago, another Gopher football coach, Glen Mason, was also named Big Ten Coach of the Year after his fourth season on campus. Mason inherited a program that was arguably worse off than what Kill encountered coming in the door. Mason’s bowl game that year was less prestigious, and a loss besides, but in the final voting in the national polls, Minnesota cracked the top 20 for the first time since 1967. They were also nationally ranked under Mason in 2003 — and not once since then.

Yet despite taking Minnesota to seven bowl games in his final eight seasons on the job, Mason’s personality, coupled with the penchant of his teams to take pratfalls at the worst possible time, wore thin on the Gopher faithful. He was regarded as too egotistical and thin-skinned. He demanded hosannas for relatively gaudy won-lost records that were inflated by his scheduling of patsies on the non-conference schedule. He complained about the presence of alcohol in the student section when they lambasted his terrible late-game management. He wanted the community to love him, even as he kept his eye on more prestigious programs in greener pastures.

At this point in time, the jury is still out on whether Jerry Kill is a better football coach than Glen Mason. But there's no debate when it comes to who's better in the realm of community relations — of, literally, relating to the values and self-image of the Gopher community: Kill schools Mason seven ways to Sunday.

A fallen dynasty

In many respects, Gopher football was the original source of sports fandom in Minnesota. Long before leagues representing all four major professional sports put franchises in the Twin Cities, this state gathered its laurels, locally and nationally, on the collegiate gridiron.

Their first national championship was in 1904, decided retroactively because there was no polling back then. But through “math formulas” and other forms of “historical resource groups” (as the Gopher media guide puts it), it was determined that a team that outscored its opponents 725-12 over the course of an unbeaten season should wear the crown.

Jerry Kill
Jerry Kill

In the period between the World Wars, the Gophers were something of a collegiate football dynasty, with five national championships between 1934 and 1941. And before that, the legendary Bronko Nagurski came down from his parents’ farm and lumber mill in International Falls like a real-life Paul Bunyan to lay waste to Gopher opponents in the 1920s.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the Gophers’ last national championship in football occurred in 1960, the year before both the Vikings and Twins inaugurated the ongoing presence of major professional sports in Minnesota.

The competition has culled the herd of the diehard Gopher booster. They are more likely to be older and more provincial than fans of professional sports, and the younger fans are more apt to have learned their allegiance from family tradition. Even as these Gopher faithful understand it to be a losing battle, they cling to the vanishing verities that convey noble innocence on the student-athlete and regard the comportment of the teams to be emblematic of the community itself.

They take it personally. And on that intimate basis, Jerry Kill gets through to them and bucks them up.

Horatio Alger from the prairie

Kill was born in Cheyney, Kansas, population 2,084. The motto of the town is “…we call it home.” Kill was the first member of his family to earn a college degree, at Southwestern College 72 miles away in Winfield, where he played Division II football and met the woman who is still his wife.

In his twenties, he prepped as an assistant coach — in charge of the offense first, then the defense — for four years at Pittsburg State in Pittsburg, Kansas, a time sandwiched around his two-year tenure at Webb City, where his team won a Missouri state high school championship. Then he paid his dues on the small-college coaching circuit. Three of the four programs Kill inherited before coming to Minnesota were in a shambles. All four programs dramatically improved under his guidance. His final season at each school always produced the best won-lost record of his stint there.

As if his roots and coaching record alone weren’t enough, Kill has overcome medical challenges in a very public, stirring fashion. His first seizure occurred back in 2000. While being examined after another bout of seizures in 2005 at Southern Illinois, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and underwent successful treatment, subsequently launching the Coach Kill Cancer Fund foundation.

After years of trying to work his way through his seizures, Kill was forced to acknowledge that his epilepsy was uncontrollable during his 2013 season, prompting an extended leave of absence, a change in lifestyle and eating habits, and the formation of another charitable foundation.

Central casting couldn’t have concocted a more fitting character for a football coach charged with transforming a dissolute program into a feisty underdog. Jerry Kill is a Horatio Alger story made flesh. 

The king of cornpone 

On August 4, four days after the Big 10 Media Days event in Chicago, Kill convened his first local press conference of the 2015 season. It was a masterful 31-minute performance.

First of all, let’s stipulate that Kill walks his talk. For example, the family atmosphere he promotes in the program extends to his wife Rebecca, who has been known to bake cookies and otherwise become a mother figure for some members of the team. He is intensely loyal to his assistants. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with him since Saginaw Valley State in 1995, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover made it an ongoing troika in 1999 at Emporia State. Kill won’t finalize extensions of his own contract — the latest one pays him $2.5 million this season and runs through 2019 — without concurrent bumps for his assistants and support staff.

So when Kill talks about the advantage that continuity will have during recruiting — “We have the longest-tenured coaching staff in the country; we’re not going to be moving anywhere. [Recruits] come here and they’ll see the same damn coach for awhile,” he said during that first 2015 press conference — it isn’t bluster. Furthermore, it drives home the message that, unlike Mason, Kill has no “dream job” he aspires to somewhere else.

You need the countrified pedigree Kill possesses to sell the stuff he slings without people cringing in response. There's no way Mason, for example, could have ever announced that members of his offensive line “have got to have some lead in their tail end,” and chastely add that, “I don’t know how you phrase that for the newspaper,” and then emit a couple of swear words later on in the press conference.

And Mason would never be able to recount a stratagem straight out of the Motivation 101 textbook — telling the offensive receivers that the defensive backfield will “kick their butts,” then unnecessarily explaining to the press that that “will make them mad, right?”— without people rolling their eyes. And it's hard to imagine Mason saying, mostly seriously, that the presence of Iowa and Nebraska and Wisconsin shirts around the state “makes me mad…there ought to be a ban…we’re Minnesota, aren’t we?”

Quarterback Mitch Leidner
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Quarterback Mitch Leidner is hit on a run play during the 2015 Citrus Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl.

But the real genius of Kill’s cornpone style is the way he can deploy courtesy and modesty to buffer his agenda and ambition. Mason would have screamed bloody murder about the scheduling of a powerhouse like TCU on the non-conference schedule, especially if, like Kill, he was a close friend of the opposing head coach. Kill simply says it happened “When I got the job and didn’t have any control over it…I was low man on the totem pole.”

Where Mason would thump his chest over his accomplishments, Kill feigns nonchalance. “You don’t think about it, but I believe that two years in a row we’ve been one game away from being in the Big 10 Championship,” he says, then asks a member of the communications staff, “Is that correct?”

Kill turns a question about the presence of so many brothers on the roster into a rosy recitation of his coaching methods — hypothetically spoken through the mouth of one of his players who has been asked by a recruit what Kill is like. “Oh boy, he’s a dandy now. But he’s going to shoot you straight. You do what he tells you to do and he’ll die for you. If you want to goof around and not do what you are supposed to do, that’s not his thing. So if you are going to come to school here, you better know how to work.”

Asked what he would do if one of his trusted assistants did leave for a head coaching job, Kill begins by deflecting the question into passive-aggressive martyrdom. “I think most of them look at what I do and most of them don’t want to be a head coach. They like coaching. There is a difference between a head coach and an assistant coach. When I pass away or whatever and get a second life, I will be a position coach. I am going to enjoy it. A head coach has to answer to aaaalll the problems.”

Right.

A critical time for the U

Three days after that press conference, President Eric Kaler announced that the U had accepted the resignation of Athletic Director Norwood Teague, the first shoe to drop in what has become a widening scandal over Teague’s sexual harassment of women.

This stunning turn of events was the latest blow to an athletic department that has delivered a toxic blend of incompetence and immorality for a dangerously long time.

Sure, Kill is savvy and self-aware enough to exploit his folksy roots. Now compare that minor connivance to his predecessor, Tim Brewster, a neon phony who promised the Rose Bowl and delivered chaos both on the field and in the classroom. Brewster wowed a kindred huckster like super-booster Harvey McKay, perhaps, but immediately set off alarms among folks with more astute bullshit detectors, like Strib columnist cum radio personality Patrick Reusse. He was a disaster for the program, squandering the lucratively sweet first few seasons in a new football stadium.

Then there is current basketball coach Richard Pitino, who parlayed rumors about jumping to the University of Alabama into a contract extension through 2021 that includes a raise of $400,000 per season — after finishing 6-12 in the Big Ten last year. Pitino’s chief claim to fame remains being the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

Which brings us to Teague, who hired Pitino and negotiated his sweetheart extension. In retrospect, he has been a time bomb on a tightrope since his arrival on the scene three years ago. His grandiloquent fundraising plans depended upon his vaunted prowess at forging slow-growing but trustful relationships with wealthy individuals. Meanwhile, by the recent revelations of at least three women and Teague’s own hapless admission, he has been behaving like a sexual predator.

Gophers defensive back Derrick Wells, left, and defensive back Cedric Thompson
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Missouri Tigers running back Russell Hansbrough is wrapped up by Gophers defensive back Derrick Wells, left, and defensive back Cedric Thompson, right, during the 2015 Citrus Bowl.

Teague’s demise sharpens the longstanding competitive frisson over the future course of Gopher athletics. On one side are folks who chafe at the backhanded treatment accorded to all women’s sports, and to minor sports programs for both genders. On the other side is a group that points out that the major sports — men’s football, basketball and hockey — are the revenue-generating programs that necessarily create a trickle-down economy within the athletic department.

Teague was the alpha dog of that latter group, and his disgraceful conduct toward women further fuels an animus toward a good old boy’s network that is already being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for alleged gender discrimination.

Be it external public relations or internal clout, Kill, who was hired by Teague’s predecessor, Joel Maturi, is the best hope for those in the reeling faction who wish to see Teague’s original fundraising plan come to fruition.

In his indelibly folksy manner, Kill, has pushed hard for the building of a new football facility. The rallying cry for the Gophers, "Brick by Brick," is classic Kill. It celebrates the simple, painstaking, working-class rehabilitation of the program under Kill — and not so subtly hints that some on-campus construction projects are a top priority.

“I make no bones about it; we are still walking recruits in the hallway [of the decrepit old facility] and still doing a pretty good job of recruiting. We get a new facility out there, we’ll really be able to recruit. That’s the biggest brick,” he said at the press conference.

Kaler has said that it will be months before a new athletic director will be named as Teague’s permanent replacement. (Deputy Athletics Director Beth Goetz is serving on an interim basis.) Meanwhile, the Gophers have a national profile home opener against the second-best team in the country this Thursday, followed by another rugged non-conference contest against Colorado State and eventually the Big 10 battles.

Kill already figures to have a prominent say in the hiring of the athletic director. Should his team stage a huge upset this week, or otherwise overachieve in the manner of so many previous Kill-coached ballclubs, the bricks for that new facility will be laid more promptly. The more intriguing question is what happens if the football team takes a step backward.

In any case, the statewide ban on Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin apparel will have to wait. 

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Comments (2)

mason

"Yet despite taking Minnesota to seven bowl games in his final eight seasons on the job, Mason’s personality, coupled with the penchant of his teams to take pratfalls at the worst possible time, wore thin on the Gopher faithful. He was regarded as too egotistical and thin-skinned. He demanded hosannas for relatively gaudy won-lost records that were inflated by his scheduling of patsies on the non-conference schedule. He complained about the presence of alcohol in the student section when they lambasted his terrible late-game management. He wanted the community to love him, even as he kept his eye on more prestigious programs in greener pastures."

When the team was winning Mason still enjoyed a rowdy student section while in the dome despite his attitude towards people and alcohol. What was a larger factor was his lack of recruiting and openness of his disdain for recruiting and lack of ambition when it came to recruiting the last few years of his tenure.

Dream job

Listen, if a marquee program comes a-calling, Jerry Kill's going to answer that call and pack up Claeys, Limegrover and the rest of the crew and head out. He may not have the specific "dream job" the way Mason pined to coach at Ohio State, but have no illusions -- that is what will happen.