WILLMAR, Minn. -- When she's not sporting her gold-and-maroon football get-up, the Rev. Kathy Hartley wears pastor's robes at Peace Lutheran Church in New London. So she knows natural talent when she sees it.
"That guy," Hartley said, nodding toward the man being mobbed at the front of the room, "can preach." Amen.
New coach Jerry Kill took his Gopher Revival Tour on a 250-mile road trip Thursday, sharing his vision for the program with roughly 500 not-so-skeptical fans, donors and alumni in three Minnesota cities. Over sausage and eggs in Hutchinson, he vowed to instill discipline in the Gophers. Between bites of lunchtime barbecue in Willmar, he declared he has "married" Minnesota's football program, so strong is his commitment to a turnaround. And at a cocktail party in Mankato, he confessed that only 75 percent of his players "are headed in the right direction," and the other 25 percent "have my foot up their tail end."
Like a politician sharpening his stump speech with repetition, Kill's I-need-your-help pitch grew more polished and powerful at every stop, not that the university's victory-starved fans needed much encouragement to buy in. "Two or three got so emotional, they watered up a little bit" as they introduced themselves, Kill said. "That passion, that's just neat to see. Those are the people that make you determined to get this done."
Determined, perhaps, but cautious about promising anything beyond his own commitment to hard work. Perhaps mindful of his predecessor's over-vivid optimism, Kill is careful never to fuel unrealistic expectations too quickly, instead telling Willmar's lunch group that he fears "we've got a mess on our hands" when it comes to academic progress. And on the field, where his players represent the state of Minnesota? "Going through spring ball," he deadpanned in Hutchinson, "they didn't much represent you or me."
But Kill's sermon has the odd effect of making Gophers fans more optimistic every time he describes the enormity of his task.
"He's real. You can believe what he says," said Dave Larson, who owns a financial-services company in Hutchinson and played defensive tackle for the Gophers in the 1970s. Referring to former coach Tim Brewster's over-the-top promises, Larson said he appreciated "that this guy doesn't tell us we're going to the Rose Bowl every year, or have his players touch grass from [Pasadena]. He's being realistic. We know it takes time."
Praise for MarQueis Gray
Kill mostly stuck to evangelizing about his methods and his work ethic, saying he was encouraged that 47 players have chosen to forego their between-semester time off to remain on campus and work out. But he did offer one strong opinion about a player: Quarterback MarQueis Gray, the coach said, has impressed him with his transition from receiver to quarterback, a move that Kill admitted he once doubted could succeed.
"When we walked in the door here, we were told he couldn't do it," Kill told the Willmar crowd, though he clarified later that it wasn't Brewster's staff that offered that critique; it was more a reflection of Gray's inexperience at the position. "He flat surprised us during spring ball."
In fact, Kill said, he has daydreamed about how skilled the 20-year-old would be if he hadn't spent most of the past four seasons injured, ineligible or catching passes instead of throwing them. "If he had played quarterback all along," Kill said, "he'd be as good as [Ohio State's star quarterback] Terrelle Pryor. He just lacks experience."
That's about as much optimism as the coach would betray, however, preferring instead to emphasize his kinship as a Midwesterner, born and raised in rural Kansas, with his newly adopted state. "He really fits this place," alum Don McGrath said in Willmar. "All he lacks is some Scandinavian blood."
The work never ends
Even during his tour, which will include Red Wing, Rochester, Owatonna and Brainerd next month, Kill lived up to his own work-never-ends mantra. He brought a driver along so he could tackle his to-do list -- calling assistant coaches for recruiting updates, receiving briefings about various meetings at this week's Big Ten meetings, revising the program's player-policy manual -- between stops.
His next agenda item comes Friday, when spring grades are posted. There was reason for concern about 10 or 11 players, Kill said, "and we may lose a couple along the way. But I think there will be good news. We've got some kids who have done some good things."
And he's got a fan base that appears almost unconditionally eager to rally around its new straight-talker. You are the owners of this team, Kill told each gathering on Thursday. Making them proud is his No. 1 goal, though "I hope it happens in my lifetime."
Referring to both his players and their sing-the-Rouser supporters, Kill sounded like a preacher again when he stressed that "those who stay with us, you'll be rewarded. And the ones who exit through that door, you'll be sorry someday."
How welcome was that message for the Gophers' down-trodden fan base? "I'm ready to suit up!" exclaimed 74-year-old Janesville resident Dorothy Kiner.