Senior Writer

Count on hardened Kill to get Gophers out of their hole


Kill wasn't Minnesota's first choice, but he's needed for a program with 23 wins the last five seasons. (AP)  
Kill wasn't Minnesota's first choice, but he's needed for a program with 23 wins the last five seasons. (AP)  

One snarky Twitter regular had this recent observation about Minnesota's Jerry Kill:

"I cannot overstate how delighted I am that Minnesota has hired a coach who looks like a gopher."

Before the Bad Taste police mount up to make a charge, be advised that this bothers Kill not at all. The man checked his ego at the door long ago. In this age of rock-star coaches, he is a grizzled roadie. He doesn't react to blunt-force statements, he makes them.

On the day he was hired in December, Kill basically said it's going to be a long, hard slog for the Gophers.

"I can give you all these promises," he said, "but those are false promises."

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"That's my nature," Kill said last week at the Big Ten media days. "It's easy for me. I'm not going to give a big line of bull. If we're doing well, I'll tell you. If we're not going well, I'll tell you that.

"I'm certainly different than most guys in the room, that's for sure," he said looking around the room at his peers.

And with that, His Gopherness took off. Few subjects were taboo, including parental discipline, old-school football and cancer. Yes, cancer.

"When you don't play hard and you don't give your best," said the 49-year-old coach of one of the Big Ten's most downtrodden programs, "I believe you're cheating life.

"I almost lost my life."

It's common knowledge Kill faced cancer of the kidney six years ago. He collapsed on the sideline but never missed a game. These days, Kill is cancer-free and doesn't bring up the subject unless you do, but it's clear the experience has shaped his life and career.

In other words, how hard can it be turning around Minnesota when you've stared at your own mortality in the mirror?

"That's the hardest thing I have to understand," Kill said. "How somebody can be blessed with talent, have an opportunity to get a college scholarship and play the game of football, and don't play it the way it should be played? I always talk about respecting the game.

"I don't understand anybody who gets up in the morning moaning and groaning and complaining. You don't know if you're going to be there the next day."

Kill's teams play like there's no tomorrow. The Gophers will be competitive, pesky. They will smack people in the mouth. They don't know it yet, but it will happen. That's what Kill's teams have always done -- overachieve. Imagine that in these days when even ultra-successful Bob Stoops has a problem milking effort out of his team.

Kill was not exactly a first choice when Tim Brewster was let go seven games into last season. Or second or third. The names Brady Hoke (San Diego State), Troy Calhoun (Air Force) and Kevin Sumlin (Houston) had come up. But it quickly became clear that messed-up Minnesota had made the best possible choice at the time.

Kill is the first coach with a winning career record to be hired at Minnesota since Lou Holtz in 1983. The school hired more of a program builder than a cheerleader. Brewster was famous for his 10-minute answers that became an exercise in blowing smoke up everyone's backside.

Kill is teaching Minnesota that a strong line beats that line of bull any day.

"It may not be what you guys wanted, but I'm here now," running back Duane Bennett said, quoting his coach's opening line.

"We had this idea that we were disciplined enough," linebacker Mike Rallis said. "We had a different concept of discipline. We thought we could get away with stuff off the field and it wouldn't translate from being on the field."

Lost in translation is how Minnesota ever got this bad. It hasn't so much as shared a league title since 1967, but lately things have been ridiculous. Minnesota had nine sacks last year, fewest in the country. The Gophers were also last in net punting. They wound up 3-9, and only after winning their final two games.

They have fallen below Big Ten grade. Kill knows he has to upgrade the talent level. First, he has to get his players to hold their heads up.

"He kind of told it how it was," Bennett said. "He has yet to detour."

Kill knew he didn't have a quarterback, so he moved leading receiver MarQueis Gray to that position. Gray is the team's best athlete, and for now it makes the most sense to have a quarterback who has caught more career passes (48), than he has thrown (23).

Former Florida linebacker Brendan Beal drops in Kill's lap after sitting out a transfer year. There are 15 returning starters. But to get the six victories needed for a bowl game, Minnesota is likely going to have beat at least one of these teams: Wisconsin/Iowa/Nebraska at home or Michigan/Michigan State/Northwestern on the road.

If you have a problem with it, check with the administration at Webb City (Mo.) High School. Kill spent two years there going 24-1 and winning a state championship. ("I would have coached there my whole life," Kill said. "I was OK with it.")

Check with Saginaw Valley State, where the coach lost 14 games in five seasons. Or Southern Illinois, which was taken from ruin to five consecutive Division I-AA (now FCS) playoff appearances. At Northern Illinois, Kill won 11 in 2010. The Huskies are favored by many to win the MAC this year with many of his players.

Again, how hard can Minnesota be? The fans aren't asking for a national championship. They would probably settle for the Glen Mason years. The Gophers former coach, who was booted after blowing a big bowl lead against Texas Tech five years ago, looks like Pete Carroll in hindsight. Mason's Gophers went to bowls in seven of his 10 seasons. Minnesota has won 23 games the past five years.

"Not many coaches go out on their own terms," Kill said. "You better be thick-skinned, have a little mental toughness to you. I was raised in a small town by a hard-nosed father and mother. I had a few obstacles like everybody does. You just deal with them and keep on trucking along."

"I guarantee you I carried the bags out to practice. I didn't have 14 equipment managers. I've marked lines."

You see, the TSA doesn't care if you're a rock star or a roadie. Kill is reminded of that frequently when he checks in for a flight. The coach says his surname comes from the original German version, "Kile."

"Kill is a good name for a coach. It's not a good name when you get on airplane," he said. "I'm always getting checked out."

Yes, dues have been paid, but Kill isn't going to big-time anyone. He was sitting alone in a recliner at Emporia (Kan.) State in 2000 when good friend Gary Patterson called him with a chance to become an assistant at TCU. At about the same time, SIU called Kill about its job. That fork in the road was a career changer. Kill could begin an ascension up the I-A ranks as an assistant or make an incremental move up as a Division I-AA head coach.

Dennis Franchione then weighed in. Patterson, Kill and Fran are all Kansas natives. They've formed this little Sunflower State coaching consortium of blue-collar coaches from the central and southeastern parts of the state.

"You take that job at Southern Illinois," Franchione told Kill. "You turn that around, that's a bad job right now, [but] it's a good one to get."

Somewhere, Yogi Berra is smiling, but the advice eventually made sense. SIU is where Kill became a national story. Yes, because of his cancer fight, but also because he took the previously moribund Salukis to five seasons of at least nine victories.

When Minnesota AD Joel Maturi was grasping at salvation for a program that was slipping into irrelevance, he (eventually) went with a guy who has been climbing life's stadium steps for a while. Turns out, among Big Ten coaches, only Joe Paterno, Bo Pelini and Bret Bielema have a better career winning percentage than Kill (127-73, .635).

"[It would] be like owning a restaurant and starting work in the kitchen," Kill said. "I've kind gone through the whole regimen of trying to build relationships, meeting people ... [But] once you get the cancer card, you don't figure people are going to hire you."

It would be simple to say that the consortium saved him, but Kill made his own way. He was Patterson's best man, watching his friend "sing Garth Brooks at his own wedding." Fran has been a mentor. "He told me, 'Don't take this wrong, because you're never going to get a great job,' Kill said. "Jobs are open for a reason. If it's a great job, they're usually going to promote the assistant or get a big-name person. The jobs you're going to get are the jobs that are struggling jobs."

His Gopherness has that look again. Not so much as the actual mascot but as a coach driven by more than money or status. All you have to do is look at that staff. They've done this before and they're going to do it again.

Eight of Kill's nine coaches at Northern Illinois followed him to Minnesota. Six have been with him more than a decade. That includes offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, the Gophers' fifth OC in the past six years. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been at Kill's side since 1995.

They've won everywhere, beating the odds, and cancer, together. That's loyalty. That's continuity. That's rare. A renovation is about to hit Minnesota because, under Jerry Kill, it has never failed elsewhere.

Coaching's ultimate roadie is putting the band back together. Might as well let him rock.

"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," Kill said. "I do worry about what happens to them."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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