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.
BYRON, Minn. -- The Gophers athletics department went through the second leg of its new barnstorming tour this week, with stops in Rochester, Austin, Owatonna and Red Wing.
The Rochester event was technically in Byron, at the Somerby Golf Course. It coincided with the 40th annual Rochester Golf Outing, and about 300 people filled tables inside the banquet room, most of them wearing maroon and gold.
AD Norwood Teague, Jerry Kill, Richard Pitino, Don Lucia, Brad Frost, Hugh McCutcheon and several other coaches spoke. I was there for a football scheduling story but thought the whole 90-minute program was pretty entertaining.
Teague noted that Frost’s women’s hockey team finished 41-0 and joked, “We’re looking for more out of him.” M.C. Mike Grimm mentioned that the volleyball team made the Elite Eight last year and has the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class. McCutcheon shrugged and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s tough to win the derby on a donkey, right?”
Pitino and Lucia added some funny lines, and men’s gymnastics coach Mike Burns spiced up the lunch program by walking to the podium -- on his hands.
Kill takes the mic
Kill talked last. He’s given countless speeches to groups this size, and his comfort level showed. The native of tiny Cheney, Kansas, talked about how much he’s enjoyed going around the state and getting to know Gophers fans.
“Two years ago, I didn’t know much about Minnesota,” said Kill, who was hired in December 2010. “What we have to do is create a football team that reflects you because it’s your football team at the end of the day.”
Kill said the Gophers have placed 24 players from Minnesota on scholarship since his staff arrived, including several who came to the University as walk-ons. The Gophers went 3-9 and 6-7 in Kill’s first two seasons, including a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in last year’s Meineke Car Care Bowl.
“I remember running off the field, I turned to one of my assistants and said, ‘We will get there.’" Kill said. "It’s the first time we hit somebody in the mouth. We played physical. I think we played the way we want to play. We didn’t win the game. ... We found a way to lose. Too many mistakes.”
Examining the foundation
Kill said the team continued to improve through spring practice and especially with the work being done in the weight room.
“As a coach, I feel like we’re better than we were in the bowl game -- right now,” he said. “But what we do in the summertime is critical, and how are our young kids going to handle the summertime? Because we [coaches] can’t be with them. Our strength coach can.
“I think the key to where we’re at right now, is we’ve been fortunate to keep our [assistant] coaches. We’ve had the same coaching staff for two years. That hasn’t happened very often. MarQueis [Gray] had five different coaches, so that will give you an example. To turn around a program, you have to have stability.”
Then Kill mentioned the team’s academic turnaround, saying the team had a dangerously low APR (Academic Progress Rate), when he arrived.
“This is an amazing story,” Kill said. “We were in big time trouble two years ago. I can tell you, we’ve had four back-to-back semesters of 3.0 [cumulative GPA] or better.
“We’ve gotten ourselves out of a hole. And a big reason that’s happened is people working together to help us get out of that hole. We have over half our football team that’s over a 3.0. That’s a miracle in where we were at before.
“So I’m proud of the kids. Now we have to translate that discipline over to the football field. We haven’t done that yet. We haven’t played as clean as we should, but I do think we’re headed that way.”
Recruiting will be the difference
Kill’s recruiting classes have ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten. But the more teams win, the easier it is to attract top recruits.
“There’s not a quick fix,” he said. “It comes down to recruiting. It comes down to getting the right fit, and your strength people have to do a great job. I’d invite you to come down and watch us. We are changing. We used to have 6-foot-3 tackles; we’re about 6-7 and 6-8. We’re starting to look the way you look like in the Big Ten, and our recruits coming in [this month] are going to look a little better.”
Kill took two questions from the audience. Asked about the quarterbacks, he said Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner make him as confident as he was at Northern Illinois, when he had Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. Asked about recruiting obstacles at Minnesota, he said, “I think the biggest obstacle we have is we don’t tell our story well enough.”
“I was 5-6 hours down the road [at Northern Illinois] and played the University of Minnesota [in 2010]," he said. "When I got the call from Joel [Maturi], I really didn’t know that much. My wife and I have been here for two years. I will tell you it’s important for me to win; my wife’s not going anywhere.”
The audience ate that up. Kill had introduced his wife, Rebecca, at the beginning of his speech.
“I’ve been married 30 great years in May -- that’s pretty good No. 1,” Kill said. “Second is, I’d like to continue that marriage, so it is important to win because it’s a great place, and I just don’t know if we brag and tell our story enough. And we’re maybe not proud enough, but we need to tell it throughout the country.”
This barnstorming tour – officially called the “Gophers Road Trip: Chalk Talk 2013” -- is part of that mission. The third and final leg runs through Willmar, Alexandria, Moorhead, St. Cloud, Duluth, Hibbing, Coleraine and Walker, from June 17-20.
“If we can get a young person on our campus, we’ve got a chance,” Kill said. “The biggest part is just getting them here. You hear about the cold. That’s the first thing you hear. People have no idea what this state has to offer, and if we get them here, we’ve got a shot.”
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