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.
Joel Sambrusky, the quarterback who helped Jerry Kill turn Southern Illinois from a perennial loser to a FCS playoff fixture, seemed to enjoy talking about his conversation with Philip Nelson over the weekend. And I was particularly interested in his description of the SIU program when he (and Kill) arrived in 2001.
"It had been so long since (SIU) had had any success, the prevailing culture around the program was anything but positive. I mean, it used to be a point of pride with people that there were more people at the tailgate than at the games," Sambrusky said of the once-notorious party school. "To most people, SIU football was barely a sport. We were on life support as a program, with crummy facilities and little interest."
It wasn't easy being a football player at such a school, he said. "You'd walk around and professors would make snide remarks about the football team. People in the dorms made fun of us. Everywhere you go, there's this prevailing culture of negativity," he recalled. "It was so hard to not let that negativity permeate the program. We never read the papers, because we didn't want to know what people were saying. We tried to block out the noise, block out all the critics who said we would never win."
Hmm. Any of this sound familiar?
The need for an entire culture change is why Kill frequently compares his challenge here with the task he faced in Carbondale. And it's why Sambrusky still sounds, a decade later, as though he can't believe it happened.
"For us (football players) to walk around, ignore all that, and believe in this crazy, bald-headed coach," Sambrusky said, "it was pretty amazing."
The bald-headed guy was Kill, and he led the Salukis to records of 4-8, then 10-2, 10-2 and 9-4 during Sambrusky's tenure at SIU. That track record is why Kill introduced Nelson to Sambrusky after the Gophers' victory in Champaign.
"He went through some of the same things -- the offensive line had been beat up and so forth," Kill said. "So there was some continuity there. (Sambrusky told him), hang in there, keep your guys going in the right direction."
Nelson said the quarterbacks shared their similar experiences. "He says 'Coach Kill is going to get after you in practice,' and he told me I'll understand it some day -- how he turns into your father again (afterward), and he loves you. We all know that," Nelson said. "It was just about trusting in Coach Kill and the process."
And not letting the day-to-day grind of producing that progress distract you from the goal.
"Granted, Philip Nelson has to do it in the Big Ten. Philip has to do it in a major media market. And he's just a freshman," Sambrusky said. "When I (started), veteran guys were sitting there saying, 'Oh we've head this before. Just another guy saying thing will change.' And (Kill) won them over. ... I told (Nelson) not to believe any of the negativity. Because when you get through this process, man, it's the greatest feeling I've ever had. Nothing comes close."
Gopher fans may remember how easily Nebraska I-back Rex Burkhead seemed to slice through the Minnesota defense last season, gaining 117 yards on 23 carries. Burkhead's senior year has been an injury-filled disappointment, and this article in the Omaha World-Herald it sounds as though he's not particularly likely to play this weekend in the Cornhuskers' home finale, not with the Big Ten championship game and a bowl game still to come.
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