BYRON, MINN. – The first time Tracy Claeys met his new boss, they were at a Dairy Queen.
Mark Coyle, the Gophers new athletics director, had spoken to the football coach by phone multiple times. But their first in-person greeting came at the DQ in Hutchinson, Minn., last week on the first leg of the Gopher Road Trip.
“That was all a strategy,” Claeys said Wednesday.
Claeys referenced Illinois, where two months ago, new AD Josh Whitman fired football coach Bill Cubit on his first day on the job.
“The first time Bill Cubit met with his AD, it didn’t go so well,” Claeys said. “So I was like, well, I’m going to meet our [AD] out in public. And so far it’s worked.”
Claeys’ comments drew laughs from a room filled with about 200 fans at Somerby Golf Club, outside Rochester, on the final leg of the annual Gophers caravan.
“I could go and tell [Coyle], ‘We’ve got a lot of problems; we don’t have this, we’ve gotta get this taken care of, and if I had a seven-year contract, I could solve all of those problems,’” Claeys said. “But that would be lying because we know this fall we’re going to have our best football team since we’ve been here at the University of Minnesota.”
Claeys arrived at Minnesota in December 2010, as the defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill, and since then the Gophers have gone 3-9, 6-7, 8-5, 8-5 and 6-7.
“We really feel like we’re to the point now,” Claeys said, “that every year, when you get to the end of November, those last two or three weeks of the season, that people are going to be talking about the Minnesota Gophers going to Indianapolis and having a chance to play for the Big Ten championship. And that’s our goal.
“We’re closer than people think. Two years ago, had I done a better job in the second half at Wisconsin -- we win that ballgame, we go play for the Big Ten championship.”
In 2014, the Gophers led Wisconsin 17-3 in a winner-take-all game for the Big Ten West title, but the Badgers stormed back for a 34-24 win.
The Gophers have lost 12 consecutive games to Wisconsin and haven’t won a share of the Big Ten title since 1967.
“I think we have those types of kids -- they love being at the University of Minnesota,” Claeys said. “So we’re really looking forward to this year. We’re going to have to stay healthy up front; we don’t have a lot of depth on the offensive line, but if we stay healthy I’m excited about what we’ve seen this spring.”