Tracy Claeys has long said if his coaching career doesn’t pan out, he can always head home to Kansas and tend bar.
Now the Gophers defensive coordinator even has a place to do it.
Claeys bought an old Dairy Queen last year in his hometown of Clay Center, Kan. (pop. 4,300). He had the building renovated and opened Coach’s Grill and Pub. His mother’s potato salad is on the lunch menu. The steaks, burgers and pork tenderloin sandwiches have drawn rave reviews.
“My sister takes care of it,” Claeys said. “I don’t have time to mess with it, but she’s done a great job. They’ll keep it going for me because I’d sure like to continue what I’m doing for a while.”
Claeys’ true passion is renovating defenses, and his latest project keeps getting better. He inherited a Gophers squad that ranked 98th nationally in scoring defense four years ago, at 33.0 points per game. By last year, it ranked 25th, at 22.2.
Claeys, 45, found himself in the national spotlight last year, filling in as acting head coach while Jerry Kill took a two-week leave to treat his epilepsy. Kill then resumed most of his duties but coached from the press box on game days, with Claeys on the sideline.
This year Kill plans to coach from the sideline, and Claeys will be in the pressbox, back in what he calls his “comfort zone.”
“I had fun doing what I did a year ago, with the guys and the kids — we had a good time,” Claeys said. “I think it gets overblown just because Coach [Kill] was around a lot more than people thought he was.”
With Claeys’ star on the rise, some smaller schools reached out last winter, through backchannels, to gauge his interest in their head coaching positions. Claeys wasn’t tempted enough to leave, but the Gophers still gave him more incentive to stay.
Kill’s new contract, which raised his salary to $2.1 million this season, included a clause ensuring his assistant coaches’ salary pool will rank in the top six of the Big Ten. By April, all of his assistants had pay raises. Claeys got a three-year deal that nearly doubled his salary to $600,000.
The Gophers have since elevated Claeys’ title to associate head coach, with offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover listed as assistant head coach.
The money is no small change for Claeys, who made about $4,000 when he first started working under Kill in 1995, as an assistant coach at Saginaw Valley State. It was there, working for a Division II program in Michigan, that Kill and Claeys honed their defensive philosophies.
“Wayne Fontes was with the Lions, and we got to go up there and spend time with him,” Kill said. “That was the time when [former Lions defensive line coach] John Teerlink was there. Teerlink is aggressive, hard-nosed, and they were playing wide-9’s and 5’s.”
That’s a reference to defensive end positioning. The Gophers run a 4-3 defense — four down linemen, three linebackers. By moving their defensive ends out slightly wider, this adds pressure for offensive tackles.
Claeys employs aggressive blitz packages, using linebackers and defensive backs. Another signature element of his defense is press-man coverage, with cornerbacks often playing close to the wide receivers.
“We kept learning more about it, spending time and researching, and we were different with the wide 9’s and some of the things we were doing,” Kill said. “Michigan State does that, but I don’t see many other people doing it. You’ve got to have secondary people that can play. We had that toward the end of our tenure at Southern [Illinois] and at Northern [Illinois].”
Career goals met
The Gophers must replace five starters from last year’s defense, including three current NFL players — Ra’Shede Hageman (Falcons), Brock Vereen (Bears) and Aaron Hill (Rams). But Claeys said he will be disappointed if the defense doesn’t improve for the fourth consecutive season.
Theiren Cockran returns after leading the team with 7½ sacks last season. Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell could be two of the Big Ten’s better linebackers, Claeys said. And the biggest strength is the secondary, with Eric Murray, Derrick Wells, Cedric Thompson and Co.
They have all learned from defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel, who joined Kill’s staff at Southern Illinois in 2001 and helped mold Vereen and former Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward into NFL picks.
Few outside the Gophers program were touting Vereen’s NFL potential at this time last year. Now he’s an NFL starting safety as a rookie.
“I think our secondary will be as good as anybody’s in the Big Ten,” Kill said. “I’ve said that all along, kind of like I said Brock Vereen was going to play in the NFL.”
Continued defensive success for the Gophers could lead to more head coaching opportunities for Claeys. Michigan State has seen it with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Connecticut was among the schools that tried hiring him, but the Spartans kept him, bumping his salary above $900,000.
Claeys hasn’t shut the door on someday becoming a head coach, but he doesn’t sound eager to leave.
“I think it all goes back to career goals,” he said. “I have all the confidence in the world I can run a football program, but that’s never been a career goal of mine to be a head coach.
“Being with Coach Kill and the rest of the staff this long, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve reached my career goal. When you build something like this, and it’s getting better, it’s awfully tough to leave.”