To be successful, "you have to be brutally honest about a player's weaknesses," Matt Limegrover explained, "really kind of cutthroat about what he can't do -- and yet you have to be careful not to cause too much friction. You stay supportive, because you want him to have a great year for you."
Not a bad philosophy for a football coach, right? Except that the Gophers new offensive coordinator wasn't talking about his experience coaching college kids. He was reminiscing about his internship assignment: Helping prepare salary-arbitration cases for the Chicago White Sox.
"I used to think my career in sports," Limegrover said, "would be as general manager of a baseball team."
It might have happened that way, too; his college classmate and White Sox co-worker, Kim Ng, is now assistant general manager of the Dodgers. "I sit here thinking, 'That could have been me,'" he said.
But after graduating from the prestigious University of Chicago, where he played offensive line on the NCAA Division III football team, Limegrover wasn't sure where his career would take him.
"Just before graduation, all my buddies were doing interviews for Harvard Business School or some big financial companies, and I was building in-ground swimming pools," Limegrover said. "Then my football coach from college said, 'Hey, I've got a job that pays $250 for the entire fall.' I took it. I rode the bus to work, and I lived on a buddy's porch, and I learned to coach football. And I've never looked back."
That's because Limegrover, a Pittsburgh native who also interned for the Pirates, eventually became an assistant coach at Ferris State in Michigan, where he met a bright young head coach at nearby Saginaw Valley State, a guy named Jerry Kill.
"I remember how I met him -- his offensive line whipped our butts one weekend," Kill said. "As I got to know more about him, I had a great deal of respect for how he did things."
When Kill was hired at Emporia (Kansas) State in 1999, he offered Limegrover a job on his staff, and they've been together ever since.
Kill calls Limegrover one of the smartest men he's ever met -- "Perfect on the ACT [test], University of Chicago, master's degree from Northwestern," Kill said. "He's got a tremendous mind" -- but the Gophers' new offensive coordinator said he doesn't consider himself an X's-and-O's wizard as so many coaches try to style themselves.
"I'll be honest, I'm no revolutionary offensive mind," Limegrover said. "That's not how we operate. Coach Kill does a good job of making sure his staff fits together well, and I happened to be a very organized guy. I can bring it all together on Saturday."
The game-planning is done by the entire staff, using a system it has developed over several seasons. On Sunday, the coaches watch film of their next opponent, then brainstorm ideas for attacking the defense, encouraging each other to be as creative as possible.
"Every game plan is like a snowflake; it's unique. Even if we're running similar packages, like power rush, we won't run it the same way," Limegrover said. "And we'll throw some crazy stuff on the board, then see how everyone feels about it."
They narrow the possibilities during the week, after seeing what works and what doesn't during practice, then go through an exercise called "defending your thesis" in slotting particular plays into various situations for Limegrover to order up during a game.
"If someone really believes in a play, I'll say, 'Defend your thesis: What do you like about it? When do you feel good about it?'" Limegrover said. "The important thing is we're honest. If we think something is too risky or the protection isn't right, we leave it out. And at the end, we have something we're confident in, and the kids can have confidence in."