Tracy Claeys spent 21 years building his career to the point where he had a chance to become a head football coach in the Big Ten. He spent 19 seconds blowing the interview.
After Jerry Kill retired as Gophers coach last week, Claeys became his emergency and interim replacement. Claeys helped the players position themselves to upset a ranked Michigan team. Then he managed to run only two plays in 19 seconds near the Michigan goal line, despite having a timeout. The Gophers lost and so, too, it seems, did Claeys.
The reaction on social media was rapid and predictable. Claeys had eliminated himself from consideration for the job. He had proved that Kill’s remaining staff couldn’t function without the boss. He had awakened the echoes of Gophers collapses past.
That’s not the right way to look at Claeys and the program right now. The loss might have been for the best.
Claeys’ botched clock management might position the University of Minnesota to make a considered and rational decision, which would be even rarer than a Gophers victory over the Wolverines.
Let’s say Claeys orders a quick snap and a straight-ahead run on the goal line, and the Gophers score the winning touchdown. Wonderful, right?
Not if you’re interested in what is best for the football program long-term.
Had Claeys upset Michigan in his first game as head coach following Kill’s retirement, Minnesota might have felt compelled to make him Kill’s replacement. A victory over Michigan, following a torturous week at the U, might have prompted a university with a less-than-proven president and an interim athletic director to wrap both arms around Claeys and wallow in irrational exuberance.
Losing to Michigan means Claeys will have to prove himself in many ways — as a coach who can elevate his team against difficult competition the rest of the way, as a leader who can rally players crushed by Kill’s departure and a depressing loss, as a human who has to prove he can learn from an embarrassing mistake.
The Michigan loss sets up an ideal job interview for Claeys. If he can win games under these circumstances, he deserves a multiyear contract. If the team collapses, we’ll know he’s not the right guy.
President Eric Kaler should hope Claeys finishes strong. Even if Claeys fails in the next four games, there is little evidence that the university can hire a better football coach than him.
Claeys is an excellent defensive coach. His secondary, in particular, plays with better technique than most NFL teams. He’s likeable, credible, loyal and a worker.
If Minnesota was capable of hiring the next Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, then Kaler would be justified in letting Claeys finish the season before replacing him. Minnesota has shown no signs of being able to identify or lure a great football coach, and currently does not even employ the person who should be charged with the search.
Because of their former ineptitude and current situation, the university will be forced to let Claeys use the rest of the season as an audition. Before the final 19 seconds on Saturday, Claeys was doing pretty well.
He took over for Kill during the 2013 season. After a blowout loss at Michigan, Claeys coached the Gophers to consecutive victories over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Saturday, he positioned the Gophers, in a week of crisis, to beat a good Michigan team. His clock management damaged the Gophers’ chances, but do you think he’ll ever make the same mistakes again?
There is one other perceived strike against Claeys populating the ruder corners of social media: That he is overweight.
This is an understandable concern. There is no way a football program such as Minnesota’s should ever hire someone who might remind you of Bill Parcells.
Let’s be honest, and patient. I don’t know yet whether Claeys should get the job. You don’t know. The decision-makers at the university might know less than the rest of us.
Instead of panicking over Claeys’ mistake, let’s see how he reacts to it.
When you’re the University of Minnesota, what have you got to lose?