The accolades keep pouring in for Gophers acting head coach Tracy Claeys, who has worked from the sideline for two games since Jerry Kill began his medical leave, delivering upset victories over Northwestern and Nebraska.
“I feel uncomfortable about the whole thing,” Claeys said. “We haven’t changed anything at practice. We’ve stayed with all of [Kill’s] structure.”
Kill plans to spend his third consecutive game in the coaching booth Saturday, at Indiana, so Claeys will try to make it 3-for-3, as the Gophers are surprising nine-point underdogs.
In less than one month, the 44-year-old Claeys has gone from a little-known defensive coordinator to the man credited with helping hold Minnesota’s program together.
Reporters keep asking Claeys if he’s given any thought to becoming a head coach. If someone calls, he’ll listen, he said, adding that he’s content working as Kill’s assistant, as he has for the past 19 years.
“All’s I’ve got to do is call back home because Mom wants nothing to do with me being a head coach,” Claeys said. “And that’s why I have so much respect for Jerry. People don’t understand, [head coaches are] responsible for so many more things every day, that they deserve everything they get.”
The Gophers have no timetable for Kill’s return to the sideline, but he’s been at every practice the past two weeks, he’s been calling recruits, and he’s been heavily involved in the team’s strategy meetings.
Claeys had been handling Kill’s media responsibilities, but Kill resumed those this week, saying Claeys needed more time to focus on stopping Indiana’s high-powered offense.
“I’m just like a proud father,” Kill said of the job Claeys and the rest of his staff have done this month.
“I’ve always said, ‘Hey, take care of my assistants moneywise. I don’t care what you do with me, take care of our assistants. That’s critical,’ ” said Kill, the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten, at $1.2 million per season. “The smartest thing I’ve done is I’ve hired great people around me, and we’ve been able to keep them.”
The Gophers gave Claeys and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover $300,000 salaries when they came to Minnesota and both are under contract through 2015. Claeys’ new deal, signed in August, is paying him a base salary of $346,800 this season, and he’s getting a $13,000 bonus for each week he serves as acting head coach.
For comparison, the highest paid defensive coordinators in the Big Ten are Michigan’s Greg Mattison ($750,000) and Ohio State’s Luke Fickell ($600,000), according to a Detroit Free Press report from last May.
Claeys might not be in that neighborhood, but he’s come a long way. He was working as a math teacher and assistant football coach at Santa Fe Trail (Kan.) High School in 1995. His friend Dave Wiemers had latched on as an assistant coach under Kill at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State, and they convinced Claeys to join them for a job that paid $600 per month.
Claeys and Kill hit it off immediately. They both have small-town Kansas roots, as Kill hails from Cheney (pop. 2,094), and Claeys is from Clay Center (pop. 4,344). So Claeys followed Kill right up the coaching ladder.
“I thought about [a head coaching job] when I was younger,” Claeys said. “But when you go to the [national] convention, they always say, ‘If you can find a really good head coach, it’s a lot better if you can find one to take care of you.’ ”
Claeys has had these discussions with Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who has worked under Hokies head coach Frank Beamer since 1981, when they were at Murray State.
“It’s not all bad when you feel good about the guy you work with,” Claeys said.
When Kill left Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, those administrations asked Claeys to interview for the vacant job, but in each case, he quickly moved on to Kill’s new school.
“I was asked to stay around and go through the interview process, but I’ve got a job with Coach [Kill] I’m very happy with,” Claeys said. “I can’t waste 10 days somewhere else. We’ve got this next job, and we’ve got to get rolling.”
Claeys has turned Minnesota’s defense into a strength. The Gophers allowed 33 points per game in 2010 before Kill’s staff arrived, and 31.7 points per game in Claeys’ first season. But that number dipped to 24.7 last year and sits at 23.1 this year.
Senior safety Brock Vereen said Claeys stayed calm on the sideline last week when the Gophers fell behind Nebraska 10-0.
“I think that’s important,” Vereen said. “To be down 10 to a very good team, and to not panic and to not worry about anything, and to know we can just go out and be confident — I definitely credit that to him.”
Inevitably, Claeys’ success could lead to other opportunities.
“Anytime somebody would approach you, I think you’d look at it and see if that’s a better thing than what you’re doing,” Claeys said. “It’d have to be the right situation at the right place because it’d be awfully hard to go into Coach Kill’s office and tell him I’m leaving after everything the guy’s done for me.”