Tracy Claeys is usually a sweatshirt and sweater guy, but this was a big occasion, so he figured he’d better buy a new sports coat.
The University of Minnesota announced Wednesday that Claeys, a longtime behind-the-scenes assistant, had signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract as head football coach.
“I had to hurry out and get this done,” Claeys said of his navy blue blazer. “It’s probably the most uncomfortable part of the job, the coat and tie.”
Aside from the attire, everyone’s comfort level was clear, as the Gophers removed the interim tag they gave Claeys after Jerry Kill retired for health reasons Oct. 28. University officials were so content with Claeys, they decided against conducting a national search for Kill’s replacement. Claeys was so confident, he negotiated his contract without an agent.
“We believed in Tracy and his leadership and his abilities to run this football program from the beginning,” interim athletic director Beth Goetz said. “But with any hire of this magnitude, it’s really important that you do your due diligence. So we’ve spent obviously a handful of weeks really evaluating all of our options.”
The Gophers stuck with Claeys, who had spent 21 years working as an assistant under Kill, mostly as defensive coordinator.
Claeys, 46, grew up in tiny Clay Center, Kan., tried out for the football team at Kansas, and quickly became a volunteer trainer under then-Jayhawks coach Glen Mason. Claeys eventually got his degree in mathematics education from Kansas State.
He flummoxed his mother in 1995, when he left a teaching job for an assistant coaching job paying $3,000 at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State. He told her he had a good feeling about the head coach there, another small-town Kansas native named Jerry Kill.
“I still think she thinks I’m crazy to do this, and that’s not very supportive,” Claeys said, smiling. “I was fortunate enough to get on with a great guy and family and staff. I’ve always wanted to be a head coach, but not as long as I worked for Coach Kill.”
Kill, 54, retired suddenly two weeks ago for health reasons after going 29-29 in four-plus seasons leading the team. He had just signed a contract in August with a $2.5 million salary for this year, and would have made another $11 million over the next four years.
During his tearful final news conference, Kill made it clear he wanted Claeys to replace him.
Three days later, with Claeys chomping gum on the sidelines, the Gophers came just short of upsetting then-No. 15 Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium. Trailing 29-26, the Gophers had the ball inside the 1-yard line with 19 seconds remaining but failed to get into the end zone on the next two plays. Claeys blamed himself for not having quarterback Mitch Leidner spike the ball to stop the clock.
The Gophers followed with a loss at then-No. 1 Ohio State. In that game, the Gophers trimmed the Buckeyes’ lead to seven points with 2:05 remaining but couldn’t recover the onside kick in an eventual 28-14 loss.
“I tried to get [Kill] to take those last two games on his record, since I’m officially starting today,” Claeys joked.
Claeys also took over as acting head coach when Kill took a leave to treat his epilepsy in 2013. The Gophers responded by reeling off their first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973.
Claeys was nominated for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, each of the past two seasons. He has helped turn the defense from a perennial weakness into a strength.
Claeys was making $616,000 this year as defensive coordinator. For the rest of this season, he’ll make a prorated salary of $1.3 million. He’ll make $1.4 million next year, with $100,000 raises each of the next two years.
“I’m comfortable with three years because, really, any head coach has got three years,” Claeys said. “They could say there are five years on the contract. If [the coach doesn’t] have three good years, they’re done.”
The buyout terms of Claeys’ deal are $250,000 per year. If the school decided to fire him after next season, for example, it would cost them only $500,000 to buy out the remaining two years of his deal. For comparison, Kill’s buyout would have been $600,000 per remaining season.
University President Eric Kaler, who was traveling on school business overseas, issued a statement that said, in part, “Tracy Claeys is the right person for this important job. I applaud and fully support interim athletic director Beth Goetz’s decision to bring continuity and stability to our football program, which is clearly on an upward trajectory.”
Regent chair Dean Johnson attended Claeys’ news conference and said, “Hardly a person by way of e-mail or text — in fact, I can’t think of anyone — who said we shouldn’t hire Tracy Claeys. The public support of this decision today was very strong.”
The university gave no assurances, however, to Claeys’ assistant coaches, many who’d worked for Kill for at least 15 years. Claeys has praised the job Jay Sawvel has done as de-facto defensive coordinator, while hinting there could be changes coming for the offense.
“We’re right here in the middle of the season,” Claeys said. “We’ve got three big games left that we feel good about. Kids are excited.
“So you won’t see anything tremendously [different] here in the next three weeks. Like we always do when the season’s over, we’ll evaluate everything and [make] a few adjustments that fit my personality.”
Claeys knows he might have to continue sprucing up that wardrobe, too