There was no mistaking Sunday how much last week took out of Jerry Kill, how beaten-down he was during one of the most difficult weeks of his coaching career -- one that began with a hospital stay, became consumed by a tsunami of public criticism over future scheduling, and closed with a 25-point loss to Wisconsin. The day after his team fell to 0-3 in the Big Ten, Kill was relentlessly, doggedly ... upbeat?
That he was, and for good reason. Five games remain in the Gophers' season, and allowing his players, or even himself, to wallow in defeat would only make matters worse, Kill said. So weekend film sessions would focus on mistakes, sure, but also reinforce all that is going right.
"There are some good things going on here," Kill said. "You've just got to really look hard at it right now."
That message is difficult to sell to the public when you're 0-3 in the Big Ten, Kill said, but it's critical that his players understand it.
"There is so much negativity around. When you go into a program that hasn't won for a lot of years, there's instant negativity, and more so now because of all the social media and stuff," Kill said. "That can get to the kids. They don't need to hear it when they come in Sunday with the coaches, because they're so pounded down by then."
Kill took a pummeling himself last week, on and off the field, but said that's nothing he hasn't been through at his other coaching stops. The important thing is to keep the players from buying into those opinions.
"I know what losing does to you, the frustration. You take that and put it on a 19-year-old kid -- I worry about that. I worry about the kids and their mindset," Kill said. "You don't want them saying, 'Well, I'm not any good.' No, no, no, no, no. ... We're all we've got at the end of the day. We'll go to work, and it'll be all right."
That message was reinforced, Kill said, when Wisconsin's Hall of Fame former coach and current athletic director, Barry Alvarez, waited for him by the team bus after the game. Wisconsin's two decades of success are Alvarez's legacy, but they began with three consecutive losing seasons, of which he reminded Kill.
"There are people who understand we're going the right way," Kill said, "but it's always reassuring to hear from people who have been there before."
There were plenty of reasons for optimism in Saturday's loss, Kill said, most notably the debut of freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who the coach made clear will be the starter for the foreseeable future. Nelson's first series was a dud -- two running plays that moved the ball only 2 yards, and a fumbled snap that cost 11 yards and forced a punt. Yet as Nelson came off the field, Kill was struck by his demeanor: annoyed, but unbowed.
"It didn't bother him. ... He's a pretty intense kid. Very confident. Believes in what he's doing," Kill said of the 19-year-old freshman. "He was very composed the whole game."
He avoided sacks by stepping out of trouble and eluded tacklers when he ran with the ball. He made a few freshman errors, but he didn't act like a terrified teenager because of them.
"He throws an interception, he's [upset], but he gets over there and talks to the receiver," Kill said. "It isn't like he's apologizing -- he wants to know what he needs to do to get it fixed."
Now the coach is looking for similar answers about his entire team, with an urgency about finishing this season strong. The Gophers are 4-3 on the season, still two victories away from qualifying from their first bowl game since 2009. An extra game, any game, is important, he said, and not just as a symbol of progress.
"We've got to find a way to rally the wagons here a little bit. We need to reward the seniors who have gone through so much," Kill said. "These kids have survived a lot of changes. They're coming to work every day. They're doing everything they can. We can't let them get down on themselves."
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org