The stage was really set for Tracy Claeys to succeed Jerry Kill as Gophers football coach, with Minnesota leading Michigan 16-14 at halftime, in university President Eric Kaler’s suite at TCF Bank Stadium.

I visited with Kaler, interim athletic director Beth Goetz and Dean Johnson, chairman of the Board of Regents, in the president’s suite at the stadium and was given the definite impression that Claeys would soon be offered the job. They were impressed beyond words with the way the Gophers played against then-No. 15 Michigan in an eventual 29-26 loss.

Sources in the know informed me that Claeys, in a visit with Kaler, made a great impression and was no doubt the top candidate for the job. The only way Claeys would not have taken over for Kill would have been if Ohio State ran the Gophers off the field last Saturday by some ridiculous score like 60-0. The Gophers lost to the then top-ranked Buckeyes 28-14.

Kaler, Goetz, Johnson and some other members of the Board of Regents flew to Columbus for the game, and once Claeys showed he could coach two great games against two outstanding teams, the decision was made on the flight back from Columbus last Saturday. On Tuesday afternoon, Claeys was offered the job by Goetz, who brought the contract over and Claeys signed it.

Then early Wednesday morning, a happy group of Gophers football players heard the news before an announcement was made at a 10 a.m. news conference.

Claeys and his staff miss Kill, but they still came within one foot of beating Michigan and they might have upset the Buckeyes had it not been for a reversal of a roughing the passer call on quarterback Mitch Leidner that resulted in an Ohio State touchdown and an offensive interference penalty when the Gophers were moving the ball.

Negotiations went smoothly on the three-year contract, averaging $1.5 million per year ($1.4M next year, plus a $100,000 raise in each of the next two years), with Claeys not using an agent or attorneys. The deal was exactly the same as Kill’s first contract.

Claeys was asked when he felt he had the job.

“I had a good idea on Monday, a really good conversation with Beth, and felt things were going really good and on Tuesday afternoon,” Claeys said. “I got the contract right before practice and signed it after practice. Ever since Monday, I had a pretty good feeling I was in good shape for it.”

Will Claeys keep the staff?

“That’s the plan,” he said. “We’ll finish out the year and then obviously evaluate what we need to do to continue to [make] things better.

“We haven’t talked about it much. It’s one of those things where we all had a little happy moment there. We’re all glad that we’re going to have the opportunity and we’re just right in the middle of the Iowa game and getting ready for it. We’ll sit down and talk and maybe guys have options, but we’ll discuss it after the year is over. Let’s get through this year.”

What’s the feeling around the staff?

“I think we’re all excited because I think it’s a vote of confidence from the university to the path of our program and what we’ve been doing the last four years both on the field and off.” Claeys said. “This program, the year before we got here, was giving up [41] points and losing to South Dakota. We’re in a one-score game against Michigan, TCU and Ohio State this year. We’ve come a long way, we have a long ways to go to get where we want to get to, but we feel good with the progress we’ve made. We just have to continue to get better.”

Kill believes in Claeys

Meanwhile, Kill is down in Florida convalescing, but he took time to talk about why Claeys is the right man to lead the Gophers.

“Number one is we’ve been together 21 years and to be a head coach, you have to be a guy that can juggle a lot of things and he’s very, very intelligent,” Kill said. “He knows football inside and out. That’s all he does. He’s not married, doesn’t have children. That’s all he does. Football is his life, also. He has no distractions outside of it so to me, I think that’s a big factor in it. He’s smart, intelligent, does a great job adjusting things in the game. You know he’s a person that is very detailed, very organized, and he’s a great teacher.”

Can he recruit?

“The good thing is we have great recruiters on the staff,” Kill said. “That situation is already set in place and as a head coach, he’ll go in there and he’s a guy that he can go in and close a deal. He has been around it enough. We all worked together. I worked with him for 21 years and he’s been on visits with me and so forth. I have all the confidence in the world [in him]. I have confidence in all of those guys and I know they’ll do a good job. He’ll put his spin on what he’ll want to do. That’s what you’re supposed to do. When I left coach [Dennis] Franchione [as offensive coordinator at Pittsburg State in Kansas], I put my own spin on it. It worked out pretty good. Everybody has to be who they are. We’re all different. So he’ll do a good job.”

Kill said he will continue to advise Claeys when asked.

“I’ll always be available to Tracy,” he said. “I mean, he’s called me on Friday nights and then wants me to critique the game. He calls me on Monday. I’ve been doing that the last two weeks, and will continue to do that. He certainly has said that, ‘Coach, if you want to stick around and anything you want to do, we’d love to have you.’ But right now, I’m not going to decide on anything for what I want to do for the next two or three months.”

When it was mentioned that Claeys has been primarily a defensive coach, Kill said one of the benefits of coming up the coaching ranks the way he and Claeys did is you learn everything on offense, defense and special teams.

“The good thing about somebody that coached on the defensive side of the ball, and I coached on the defensive side of the ball when I started, is when you’re defending offenses from the defensive side, you’ll figure out what’s the hardest thing to defend,” Kill said. “From that side of the ball, you get a pretty good [indication] of what’s hard to defend and what you want your offense to look like. It’s a deal where he has been around it all.

“He started with me at Saginaw Valley [Mich.] State, a Division II school, so when you come up the way we came up, you learn everything. You have to. We came up the hard way and I’m just happy. I think at Saginaw Valley State, my first head coaching college job, I think I made $40,000 a year. [Claeys] was a high school coach. I think he coached on the defensive side of the ball in high school and he wanted to get into college football. A guy named David Wiemers recommended him, and I think he got paid, oh, about $600 a month. That’s it. I tried to take care of him the best I could. He has been with me 21 years later, and we’ve climbed the ladder since then.”

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com