New hire Kill looks to lift Minnesota out of Big Ten basement
As Minnesota fell behind Northern Illinois last Sept. 25, the frustration of the Golden Gophers' fan base mounted. Two weeks earlier the team had lost 41-38 to FCS squad South Dakota. Now it seemed poised to lose to another school lacking a Big Ten budget or facilities. Chants of "Fire Brewster" rang from stands, and the fourth-year head coach was eventually dismissed in mid-October.
What the Gopher faithful didn't know was that the man who would be charged with righting the ship was there that September day, too. Then NIU coach Jerry Kill was standing on the opposing sideline, watching his upstart Huskies cruise to a 34-23 win.
"We always prepared to win," Kill later said of the victory.
Now Kill is bringing the Huskies' relentless style of play to Minnesota. And that September game is giving his new program hope.
"Last year, we beat ourselves a lot of the time with penalties and mistakes," said senior wideout Da'Jon McKnight. "Now, we're learning to play fast, play smart and play aggressive."
Since his December hiring, Kill has instilled the Minnesota program with a renewed toughness, something noticeably absent in the Brewster era. Spring practices were more competitive, more physical and more up-tempo. So far, the players are buying in.
"It's really a unique situation when you come from a team that really shouldn't have beaten the team a year before," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, entering his 13th season on Kill's staff. "It gives you extra credibility."
Kill's track record should also earn him respect, as he has a history of turning around struggling programs. He went 38-14 during his five-year tenure at Division-II Saginaw State. He reversed the fortunes of Southern Illinois, helping a 1-10 squad at risk of being disbanded go 50-14 to qualify for the FCS playoffs in five consecutive seasons. At NIU, he led a team coming off a 2-10 season in 2007 to a 23-16 mark from 2008-10.
But the Minnesota job presents a different set of challenges. Kill -- and the majority of his staff -- have never coached at a BCS-conference school. There are questions about whether they can compete with traditional Big Ten powers like Ohio State and Michigan. The Gophers haven't been to a Rose Bowl since 1962. They haven't won a conference title since 1967.
The fan base also knows Kill wasn't the first choice for the job. Athletic director Joel Maturi publicly announced the program's search for a big-name hire -- the football equivalent of the basketball team landing Tubby Smith in 2007. After alumnus Tony Dungy turned Maturi down, the job was offered to Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez. Additional rumors floated, and Kill's eventual installment left some fans disappointed.
Yet, his performance at the introductory press conference alleviated many doubts. Kill joked of not being his wife Rebecca's first choice, either. He guaranteed nothing, in stark contrast with Brewster's grandiose promises of future Rose Bowl trips to come. "I don't have a magical wand," Kill said. "I can't grab a crystal ball and predict the future."
He knows what it takes to win, though, working his way up through the college coaching ranks. He started at Pittsburg State, where he broke in 1985 as the defensive coordinator under Dennis Franchione, his former coach at Southwestern College. "I worked for $250 per month," Kill said. "You had to pay your dues back then."
Now he has a $1.1 million per year salary (plus bonus clauses) and access to resources he never imagined. The team has an indoor practice facility and two-year-old TCF Bank Stadium to show off to recruits. It's a far cry from what Kill's accustomed to. It's also something his staff has envisioned for years.
"When we started, we said, 'Let's just work our tail ends off,'" said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, a member of Kill's staff for 16 years and one of 10 coaches at Minnesota to have worked with him before. "To go to a BCS school is a dream of all of ours."
There was some culture shock at first. The offense under first-year starting quarterback MarQueis Gray struggled initially, but the coaches have seen improvement on both sides of the ball. The players, too. They've also witnessed the staff's commitment.
"Coach Kill's a really caring and loving guy," said senior linebacker Gary Tinsley, the team's leading tackler last season. "He's straight up with you. He lets it be known how much he sees in you and how much more he thinks he can get out of you."
Coming off a 3-9 season, the players need to continue making progress this summer. They must avoid falling into old habits, regressing when away from Kill's watchful eye. "The key is what they do when they're not around you," Kill said. "Are they going to do all the things it takes to win?"
Even that might not be enough. Rebuilding is going to take time. The schedule doesn't offer much leeway. Kill's first game is at USC. His first conference contest comes in the Big House against fellow Big Ten newcomer Brady Hoke and Michigan. The Gophers' ascent will be difficult, but the coach came in with his eyes open.
"This one ain't easy," Kill said. "But I'm convinced that we can do it."
It wouldn't be the first time Kill surprised the Big Ten.