Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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Last Sunday's story on Jerry Kill is now available online, and my thanks to those who emailed about it. It's interesting doing a story about someone I know so little about, and I didn't know what to expect.
What I found, as you'll read in the story, is a no-nonsense football coach who has an amazing habit of connecting with people he comes in contact with. Few story subjects have provoked as much praise as I found in researching Jerry Kill. I don't know if he can turn the Gophers into Big Ten contenders, but he certainly has plenty of people around the Midwest rooting for him.
Here are a few leftover impressions that didn't fit into the final cut of the story:
-- It was especially fun to interview John Roderique, the longtime head football coach at Webb City (Mo.) High, because he was recruited by Kill, played for him, worked alongside him on the Pittsburg State (Kansas) coaching staff, then eventually succeeded Kill at Webb City. They're still close friends, and you can tell they like to needle each other.
For instance, Roderique described how demanding Kill was as his linebackers coach, but when I asked him what was most memorable about Kill in those days, he had a funny answer: "I remember the day I found out he was only 24, 25 years old. I couldn't believe it. Heck, he looked 35, with that bald head. I thought he was kidding."
Roderique also recalled a road trip that he, Kill and Gary Patterson, now head coach at TCU, took in the early 1990s to visit their coaching mentor, Dennis Franchione, who had been hired at New Mexico. They drove from southwest Missouri to Albuquerque in Roderique's car, with Kill riding shotgun.
I was fascinated by the idea of that trip, considering that Franchione's resume includes stints at Alabama and Texas A&M, Patterson coaches the third-ranked team in the nation, and Roderique is one of the most successful coaches in Missouri prep history. Roderique said it was notable for another discovery about his friend: "He has no sense of direction. Jerry sat there trying to figure out where to go, but he was useless."
Plenty of people talked about watching Kill's 110-percent practice style, and his way of handling players. The old Dan Fogelberg phrase "a thundering velvet hand" suggests itself, because more than one person talked about how demanding he could be, how the players fear his wrath, but how he also makes sure he doesn't destroy a kid's confidence. That will be an interesting challenge for him this spring, because both players and coaches will be trying to establish their credibility with each other.
Roderique recalled one practice he watched when Kill confronted a player who wasn't giving a full effort. He demanded to know why, and the player said, "I'm hungry, Coach. I missed lunch." Kill called over an equipment assistant, gave him some cash, and sent him to a nearby grocery store for Ding-Dong cakes. When the intern returned, Kill stopped practice and had a "Ding-Dong break" for his players. I thought it was interesting anecdote to illustrate how he takes what might be a confrontational situation and turns it into a team-bonding gesture -- Ron Gardenhire is good at turning mistakes into teaching moments, too -- and I'm sure the player got the point.
-- As I mentioned in the story, Ryan Morris was a particularly powerful endorsement for Kill, because the former Northern Illinois quarterback had every reason to resent the coach. He had waited his turn for three years at NIU, believed he was about to be the starting quarterback, then was told by the just-hired Kill that he wouldn't be the quarterback.
The fact that he stayed in the program and grew to respect and appreciate Kill anyway said a lot, I thought. He had some insights into how Kill runs his team, and how the emphasis is on preparation.
Morris also gave some hope to some of the lesser-used players on the Gophers' roster, because he said Kill won't make judgements based on reputation or past performance. He wants his players to prove their worth to him, and at NIU, Morris said, he ended up giving significant playing time to a couple of walk-ons who proved they had talent in practice. They eventually became starters and were granted scholarships, Morris said.
-- Paul Kowalczyk was the Southern Illinois' athletic director who hired Kill for what seemed like an impossible job, of turning around one of the least successful programs in college football. Kowalczyk worked at Kansas State and at Northwestern when each of those longtime losers suddenly blossomed into winners, yet he said Kill's work at SIU topped them all, because conditions at the school were so bad, there were whispers that the school might drop football.
Even worse than the crumbling infrastructure and lack of resources, though, was a pervading cynicism among the fans. Few came to games, and the majority opinion around Carbondale was that the program would never compete, that it was hopeless. Sound familiar?
Within a few months, Kowayczyk said, "I couldn't believe the recruits Jerry was able to get. He could sell the program like nobody I had ever seen." Within three years, SIU, 1-10 his first season, won a conference championship. "I don't even think Coach Kill believed it could happen that fast," said Kowalczyk, now at Colorado State. "But it shows the power of belief. He gets people to believe in what you can accomplish together."
Yeah, the Gophers can use a little of that right about now.
Kowalczyk said Kill's ability to inspire belief even extends to his coaching staff, because some assistants were approached about other jobs while working in Carbondale. "We weren't paying them enough to expect them to stay," he said. "But they're incredibly loyal to him."
-- A couple of other quick impressions: Mario Moccia, the athletic director at Southern Illinois, talked about the lasting influence that Kill had, that the program's ongoing success is still linked to him. And Jim Phillips, who hired Kill at Northern Illinois before taking the AD job at Northwestern, had lunch with Minnesota president Robert Bruininks the day Minnesota offered Kill the job. Phillips "could hardly sit still in his seat, he was so excited for Coach Kill," Bruininks said.
That's true, Phillips said, because his impression of the coach is someone who is ambitious and driven to succeed, but almost totally without ego. Phillips said he stayed in contact with Kill as the Huskies improved over his three years in DeKalb, and was struck by how Kill always deflected credit to the players and his coaching staff.
"He doesn't talk about what he did and what he'll do," Phillips said. "He just gets you fired up about what you can do to help everyone succeed."
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