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.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Jerry Kill's staff is complete now, and it really is a remarkable statement about loyalty, and about the new coach's confidence in the guys who got him here. Assistant head coach Billy Miller was brought in from outside, while running backs coach Thomas Hammock and football operations director Dan O'Brien were kept from Tim Brewster's staff.
But otherwise, everyone around Kill was with him at Northern Illinois this season, and most were with him at Southern Illinois before that.
"We are all really comfortable with each other, and work really well together," Kill said.
They have a system, in other words, and they trust it and each other. And it shows, for instance, in the changes he has made to the Gophers' recruiting process.
"Some people have their recruiting coordinator evaluate film. Not me," said Kill, mentioning that Brewster's coordinator, Dan Berezowitz, did initial evaluation of prospects. "I want guys that have coached the game, side-by-side with me, to evaluate personnel. Our quality-control guys evaluate (a recruit's tape), then it goes to the position coach, then it goes to a (defensive or offensive) coordinator, then I visit with them all."
The former players who met with Kill on Thursday came out sounding impressed with the new coach and enthused about his chances of turning the program around.
"He kind of reminds me of Cal, back in the day," said 1980s linebacker Jim Fahnhorst, referring to former coach Cal Stoll. "He's a genuine guy. He wants people to work hard, be hard-nosed."
Some of the alumni said Brewster had talked about trying to involve them initially, but had never really followed up.
"That was part of his early package, but there was so much (turmoil), it might have overwhelmed him," said former center Ray Hitchcock. "Tim is a friend of mine, and I have nothing bad to say about him. I just think (that Kill), he's been a head coach before. He understands that this is very important and he has to stay consistent. He announced today that spring practice is going to remain open to all the 'M' guys, which is great."
Former quarterback Rickey Foggie likes what Kill has in mind for his new quarterback, MarQueis Gray. "I think MarQueis is in a win-win situation. The scheme that (Kill) has run -- a little bit of option, a little bit of read, a little spread -- I think it fits MarQueis," Foggie said. "I kind of compare him to the guy at Ohio State (Terrelle Pryor). Both guys are athletic. He's got a good bluepring for MarQueis."
Kill taught his Northern Illinois players plenty -- but they must have forgot a few things.
The Gophers coach called several of his Huskies players the night before the Dec. 18 Humanitarian Bowl, just to leave them good-luck messages.
"We had a no-cell (phone) rule the night before games, so I was just getting voice mails," Kill said. "But (running back) Chadd Spann answered his phone. I said, 'Didn't I teach you a damn thing?' He started laughing. He said, 'When I saw your name, I picked it up, Coach.' "
Watching a team he built, coached by a staff that mostly has now joined him in Minneapolis, was a little surreal, Kill said. He was hosting recruits that evening, but he and coordinators Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover watched NIU's 40-17 demolition of Fresno State on the TV in his office.
"Those kids played their asses off. They played really well," Kill said of his former team. "Those kids have been relentless all year. And a lot of that team's back next year. There's 11 wins in there this year, and that's the most in school history."
There's one more bowl game that interests Kill this year: Wisconsin, his new team's biggest rival, against TCU, coached by one of his closest friends, in the Rose Bowl. Kill said he left a message this week for Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson, whom he coached alongside at Pittsburg State in Kansas two decades ago, but didn't want to bother him during preparations.
So which is more important to him Saturday, conference pride or longtime friendship?
"I'll take the fifth on that one," Kill said.
So what does it mean that Iowa and Illinois, the two Big Ten teams the Gophers beat this season, gave the conference a 2-0 start to the bowl season? Well, suddenly I like Middle Tennessee State's chances against Miami of Ohio in next weeks' GoDaddy.com Bowl, considering the Blue Raiders lost to Minnesota back in September.
But yes, it's a great sign that the league really was as strong as it looked this season. Illinois roughed up Baylor in the Texas Bowl, and Iowa's defense was impressive in holding off Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
Less impressive: My picks in Monday's paper -- of Baylor and Missouri. Ouch.
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