Minnesota interim head coach Tracy Claeys questions a referee during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete
November 11, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Tracy Claeys could have found opportunities at smaller schools to fulfill his lifelong desire to be a head coach.

Staying loyal to Jerry Kill turned out to be a wise career move, or, well, non-move.

Minnesota signed Claeys to a three-year contract through the 2018 season, dropping the interim tag from Kill's long-groomed sidekick Wednesday in favor of stability for the Gophers over a national search.

''You always have thoughts of writing your own program, and you prepare for that. But I also was smart enough to know that working for a guy like coach Kill, there was no need. Too many people think the grass is greener on the other side,'' Claeys said. ''Why take a chance?''

The widely expected decision came exactly two weeks after Kill tearfully announced his retirement due to the continued difficulty of managing his epilepsy and the demanding job. Claeys joked that he tried to persuade Kill to put recent losses to Michigan and Ohio State on his record, since the succession wasn't formalized until now.

''It's a great honor to follow a guy who trained us so well,'' Claeys said.

The 46-year-old Claeys, who has been an assistant to Kill for 21 seasons, will make $1.4 million next year, $1.5 million in 2017 and $1.6 million in 2018. That will put him near the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of overall football coach compensation. Kill received a raise in August that boosted his annual compensation to $2.5 million.

''I'm comfortable with three years, because really any head coach has got three years. They could say there are five years on the contract. If they don't have three good years, they're done,'' Claeys said.

In skipping the search process, Minnesota didn't have to pay for a firm to vet and assemble candidates. True to his laid-back, no-frills form, Claeys negotiated the deal with interim athletic director Beth Goetz without an agent.

''Just get the job done and stabilize the program and move forward,'' said Board of Regents chairman Dean Johnson.

Goetz and Claeys told the team in the morning. The meeting was much happier than the one Kill called to tell the players he had to quit.

''We all felt like we lost a best friend having him around all the time. So it was great to see them smile again,'' Claeys said.

Claeys was the acting head coach for seven games in 2013, too, when Kill stepped back for seven games to focus on his health after a series of seizures and the Gophers went 4-3. He has a different personality than the fiery Kill, but they're both natives of rural Kansas with similar philosophies about running the program.

With Claeys as the defensive coordinator, the Gophers have held 27 of their last 35 opponents to a score below their average.

''We believed in Tracy and his leadership,'' Goetz said.

The Gophers (4-5, 1-4 Big Ten) play Saturday at eighth-ranked Iowa. They finish the schedule at home against Illinois and 23rd-ranked Wisconsin.

Claeys will make a prorated portion of $1.3 million for the remainder of this season. His contract, starting Feb. 1, 2016, will include a $500,000 base salary and $500,000 in supplemental compensation for media appearances, fundraising, community involvement and endorsements. The remainder of the package is for supplemental retirement contributions: $400,000 for next year, $500,000 for 2017 and $600,000 for 2018.

If the university were to decide to fire Claeys during that time due to unsatisfactory results on the field, the buyout would be half of the remaining base salaries. So, for example, it would cost $250,000 to fire him after 2017.

Claeys is one of nine current FBS head coaches who didn't play college football. He joined Kill in 1995 at Saginaw Valley State for a $3,000 salary to coach the defensive line, before becoming defensive coordinator at Emporia State in 1999 and continuing on to Southern Illinois in 2001 and Northern Illinois in 2008.

That was plenty of time to prepare for the job, but his wardrobe still needed work. Claeys bought a new navy blue sport coat for his introductory news conference.

''The most uncomfortable part of the job is the coat and tie. I'd much rather wear a sweater,'' Claeys said. ''But I told Beth that one of her main jobs is, that when we schedule events, to let me know what the attire's supposed to be.''

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