Tracy Claeys wasn’t a complete mystery when Jerry Kill retired 10 days ago.
Claeys, 46, had succeeded as the Gophers football team’s acting head coach two years ago, when Kill took a leave of absence. The longtime defensive coordinator endeared himself to fans with his unassuming style.
But it was still Kill’s program then. There was plenty about Claeys’ personality and coaching philosophy the general public didn’t know on Oct. 28.
Major college football has a way of unmasking coaches quickly, forcing hard decisions, creating consequences and leaving time for endless cross examination.
The public learned volumes about Claeys as the lead man in last week’s loss to Michigan. Saturday’s test at No. 1 Ohio State should bring more clues. Each day in between, he revealed a bit more about himself, as the university nears its widely expected decision to make him Kill’s permanent replacement.
If he is given that chance, what kind of head coach would Claeys be? Here is a breadcrumb trail of hints:
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When the Gophers win the coin toss, Claeys wants the ball first. Kill often deferred, starting on defense to get the ball first in the second half. Claeys told KFAN (100.3-FM) this week: “I’m a math guy. The common-sense answer is the first person to take the ball has the best chance of getting an extra possession.”
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Claeys has a brashness to him. He didn’t hesitate going for the winning touchdown against Michigan when a chip-shot field goal would have sent the game to overtime.
He later said all good coaches second-guess themselves, but added, “I feel very comfortable with where I’m at in my career, and what we need to do to be successful.”
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Kill kept saying the Gophers had been hit harder by injuries than any team he had coached in three decades. Claeys barely mentions injuries. When the Gophers had three defensive linemen get hurt in the 2014 season opener, Claeys was unfazed. “As far as preparing,” he said, “you can’t worry about the ones you don’t have.”
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Within the team, Claeys might not be as beloved as Kill, but he’s certainly well-respected.
“I would love for him to be around [long-term],” cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said.
“He’s one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever met,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski added. “He’s a great person, and I think he would do an outstanding job.”
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Kill wears his emotions on his sleeve. Claeys doesn’t.
“He gets fired up, but it’s not the same as Coach Kill,” safety Antonio Johnson said. “You’ll see Coach Kill on game day, after a bad call, he gets really fired up. But Coach Claeys is more laid back, like, ‘Hey, we got this.’ ”
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Kill could be stung by criticism. Claeys seems oblivious to it. He insists he pays no attention to Gophers media coverage during the season.
He’s still accountable. After the Nebraska loss, Claeys said it was his fault for not having the defense better prepared. He also said he should have had Mitch Leidner spike the ball with 19 seconds remaining against Michigan.
“I will take all the blame in the world,” Claeys said. “But I could sleep at night because I could tell you that we did our best to get ready for that football game.”
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Claeys is a small-town guy, happily single and has devoted himself to becoming a top defensive coordinator. He has read countless books and attended numerous coaching clinics. Asked to name three other coaches he studied and admired most, he said: Bob Knight, Bill Parcells and Wade Phillips.
“You have to be yourself,” Claeys said. “Otherwise the kids, everybody can recognize when you’re being phony.”
Has Claeys ever thrown a chair in frustration, à la Knight?
“I can tell you this, sometimes you’ve wanted to,” Claeys said. “I do believe every now and then a kick in the butt gets a lot more done than a pat on the back. You just can’t do it all the time. I think kids want discipline. And I think if you don’t demand a lot from kids you’re cheating them.”
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Claeys has said as a head coach, he would seek an offense that fits his personality. What would that look like? “When you’re in the Midwest, you have to be able to run the football and mix some things up,” Claeys said.
Fans can also expect the offense to focus more directly on players’ strengths. He said his basic offensive philosophy is to “move the chains, take care of the ball, period. … You ask kids to do things they’re good at doing, which I think we’ve done a good job of with Mitch [Leidner] the last couple games.”
As defensive coordinator, Claeys’ job was to deconstruct opposing offenses. Zebrowski said “it’s been awesome” having Claeys’ perspective in Gophers offensive meetings the past two weeks.
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A college football “traditionalist,” Claeys was originally opposed to ordering the gray alternate uniforms the Gophers wore against Michigan. He said Kill ran the idea by him three times.
“I was dead-set against them,” Claeys said on his weekly television show. “I think when a team takes the field, by their colors you should at least have an idea who’s playing.”
But Claeys relented, knowing the players loved the uniforms. He reminded them before the Michigan game that they were a gift from Kill and said, “We owe that guy everything we’ve got.”
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Kill stewed over losses. Claeys turns the page. He learned from Marty Schottenheimer about leaving a loss behind by midnight, using the next day to correct mistakes and then moving on to the next opponent.
Last week was cold and gray, until Sunday morning, the day after the Michigan nightmare.
“Every time we’ve lost, it’s one of those things where the sun seems to find a way to come up,” Claeys said. “And I’m moving on and doing what I can to make us better, and give us a chance to win next week.”