Brandon Kirksey has felt Jerry Kill's wrath. He's heard him curse. He's been on the wrong side of a Kill tirade.
"Coach Kill," Kirksey said, "he's tough, man. He rode me like there's no tomorrow."
Kirksey also loves Kill. He respects and appreciates the impact Kill had on his life and football career, which is why he called his former coach and offered his support Monday morning over allegations of psychological abuse, among other things, leveled by wide receiver A.J. Barker as reasons for leaving the team.
Barker's 4,000-word diatribe directed at Kill and his subsequent media tour put Kill on the defensive and forced him to explain his coaching style. Nobody understands Kill's temperament more than Kirksey, a former defensive tackle who now coaches at Division II Lincoln University in Missouri.
Kirksey was a senior captain in Kill's first season with the Gophers. He thought he had things figured out and was set in his ways. He also maintained a certain stature inside the locker room, particularly with younger players.
Kill wanted to set a new tone and new standard for doing things, and he zeroed in on Kirksey.
"It was never a personal attack on me," he said. "I never thought anything that was said or done to any of the guys while I was there was a personal attack on anybody. There's a method to the madness."
Did he ever consider that method a form of abuse?
"No, not at all," Kirksey said. "Anything he said to me or any other guys, it was always a way to get guys to push themselves to be better than they were. I like to believe that he loves the program, he loves the guys. He's not the type of person that he's being accused of. I hate to see him being looked down on."
Barker clearly feels differently, and he's entitled to his opinion and feelings. In a series of media interviews, Barker presented varying reasons as the basis for his unhappiness. Whether it stems from a confrontation at practice, his lack of a scholarship, his injury or a combination of things, Barker wrote that he felt compelled to "protect myself against the manipulation and abuse."
Kill admittedly coaches hard. He makes no apologies for that. He's old school and anyone who has attended one of his practices has witnessed it. He demands accountability, makes players go to class and expects them to follow certain rules. If they don't, they face consequences. That's what this program desperately needed.
Players who skip class or show up late for study hall are required to wear shirts to practice that read: "Minnesota Loafers" and "I let my teammates down." Is that abusive?
Kill introduced a program last summer with the help of Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek in which players who fell short of their responsibilities were forced to clean barns of police horses and pull weeds at a community garden for four hours on Saturday morning. Is that abusive?
I watched Kill scream at defensive end D.L. Wilhite and throw him out of practice one day last year. It was around the same time that Wilhite invited me to attend a research presentation he made as part of his scholars program. Kill arrived, too, listened to Wilhite's speech and then put his arm around Wilhite's shoulders and said he was proud of him. Is that manipulative?
Frankly, this whole ordeal is confusing. We can't presume to know how Barker feels personally, but college football coaches scream and cuss and use different ploys to motivate their players. That's hardly a news flash. The majority of players accept that fact and deal with it in their own way. It's not particularly enjoyable, but it's just part of the deal.
Occasionally however, an athlete reaches a breaking point and decides that he or she has had enough. They don't like the message or the tone or how they're being treated. Maybe they just don't like their coach. It happens all the time.
The difference now vs., say, five years ago is that social media provides athletes a forum to voice their displeasure. Instead of complaining to their teammate, parents or girlfriend, they can unload on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr. The Internet is a powerful tool in that regard. But it's also permanent and any chance to talk things out is diminished with a click of a button.
It's too bad that things ended this way because nobody wins in this situation. Not Barker, not Kill, not the program.
Unfortunately, all we're left with is a lot of finger pointing.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org