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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It's been 10 years since Jerry Kill suffered through a season as unsuccessful as this one, because it's been a decade since he's taken over a program so in need of an overhaul.
And the Gophers' 2-9 season has come with some painful reminders.
"I've been able to go in and turn programs around, but I think I forgot how tough it was," Kill said Tuesday. "You get pounded by people that go, 'I don't think he can do it.' "
That's been the case here, where the optimism of a new regime and a new season quickly gave way to the reality of the task at hand. As the Gophers failed to capitalize on their non-conference schedule, losing home games to New Mexico State and North Dakota State and then appearing completely overmatched by their early Big Ten opponents, more doubters emerged.
Kill has taught himself to tune them out. But "it's not easy to do," he said.
"Thank the Lord I've trained for it and I've been through it before, because if you haven't been through it, it's pretty darned tough," the coach said. "If you've been through it, you kind of live in a bubble, which we do as a staff. We talk all the time, we keep each other going."
The doubts extended even to the players, Kill said, and he could tell that back in the spring. The most important time for a rebuilding program, he said, is the off-season, where weight-room dedication and a culture of hard work have to take hold before a team can be successful on the field.
"I said [during the spring], 'Hey, [the players] haven't bought in. We hadn't worked hard enough,' " Kill said. "All of a sudden, it's kicked in now a little bit, but it's too late. It's too late. I feel bad that I couldn't get that done earlier, but I kept saying, 'We don't know how to work.' I was hoping I could get them to buy in quicker and move faster."
He's seen progress over the past four weeks, and believes the program is moving, albeit slowly, toward a brighter future. And he reiterated that his future is with the Gophers, too -- because he's not up to yet another ground-up reconstruction. "I don't want to do it again," Kill said. "This is it. I've said that since I've been here -- it's too damn hard. It's hard to change a culture."
I wrote in today's paper about MarQueis Gray's progress at quarterback, and how last week's game at Michigan State, though a loss, showcased all the different skills he has developed. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was exuberant about Gray's play, and believes that improvement will only continue.
He said something else that explained some things, too, about why the Gophers may have reached a turning point with their offense. During the bye week last month, after sifting through the wreckage of a 1-5 season and a pair of Big Ten losses that totaled 103-17, he and the other offensive coaches made a decision about the playbook: Get rid of it.
"We had so much in there, we weren't good at anything. As a staff, we kind of had a heart-to-heart and said, we don't have anything we execute well," Limegrover admitted. "Let's at least hang our hat on something this season that we can build on. Let's get these kids really good at x-number of things, and stop trying to do too much."
It took those losses, Limegrover said, for the realization to hit home that the Gopher coaches are completely comfortable with the offense, having designed and run it for a decade or more at various stops, but the players are still learning the A-B-Cs. "Sometimes you want to speed things up, so you convince yourself that they're getting it and you start doing some things that they're really not ready for because they just haven't been in the system," Limegrover said. "So we looked at each other and said, 'Hey, right now, it's broke. Are we really doing ourselves any good by continuing to try to do things that we know but the kids really don't?' "
The result was an even more back-to-basics game plan, Limegrover said. At Michigan State, for example, "We didn't do a whole lot of variety -- I think we had four run schemes and three [pass[ protections," the offensive coordinator said. "Scheme-wise, we didn't do a whole lot, just a lot of base plays, but we window-dressed a bunch of stuff with formations and motions. Got the kids to execute those really well. And I think you saw the byproduct. It was a step forward."
A step forward by taking a step back.
Bret Bielema thought about having Thomas Hammock address the Badgers this week about the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, but decided against it because "there's already so much [attention] around that."
Yes, Hammock straddles the Wisconsin and Minnesota programs, having spent four seasons on Tim Brewster's staff with the Gophers (and rising to co-offensive coordinator last year), two months on Jerry Kill's staff (the only Brewster assistant to be invited back), and now a season as the Badgers' running backs coach Bielema lured him away.
Hammock's first coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin, hired by Barry Alvarez in 2003. "Coach [Alvarez] had kind of say, 'Hey, he's a good coach.' And I watched him coach, and I watched him handle people, handle players, and then when he left, I watched his career," Bielema said at his weekly press conference in Madison. "I like what he's done. He's a guy you've got to calm down a little bit now and again, but a very, very good coach. I think the players like him."
They did at Minnesota. Hammock was the coach who recruited MarQueis Gray, and the one who broke the news to him in 2008 that he had to go home and retake the SAT. "Coach Ham was a great guy," Gray said earlier this year. "He made you feel comfortable."
But now he's at Wisconsin again, having decided when Bielema called that going to Madison would afford him a better shot at rising to coordinator again, since Kill's staff has so little turnover.
Hammock said he left with a great memory: Helping the Gophers win their final two games of their 2010 season, after Brewster had been fired, after everyone had assumed they would simply crumble. He's proud "of the way those kids responded," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Hammock has been a part of six Minnesota-Wisconsin games in his career, and his side has lost five of them. So when he was hired in February, he went to the Badgers' locker room just to look at Paul Bunyan's Axe.
He's not looking forward to having the focus on him this week, but can't avoid it. Both major newspapers that cover the Badgers published feature stories on him leading up to the Gophers game. "No, I don't enjoy that," Hammock told the Wisconsin State Journal. "This game has nothing to do with me. I won't take one carry or score one touchdown. It's about these kids and how they go about their business this week."
Bielema says he feels the same sort of spotlight when the Badgers play Iowa, his alma mater and the school where his coaching career started. Alvarez "said maybe a couple of things during the week" before his first trip back, Bielema said, "about, it's all about the play on the field. Don't let yourself get involved. ... I expect Thomas to handle [coming to Minneapolis] pretty easily."
Jerry Kill declined to comment on the Penn State scandal and Joe Paterno's future Tuesday, other than to say that if the 84-year-old coach's career ends this way, "that would be sad."
But Kill also noted that "as coaches, we get paid a hell of a lot of money, and we have a huge responsibility. We're certainly role models."
The Gophers' coach, speaking at his weekly press conference, said he is aware of the child-molestation allegations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, and while he didn't want to discuss "my personal opinion, I think everyone knows what my opinion would probably be."
It's impossible to know everything that's going in a program, Kill said, and to know for certain what's in a person's character. "If I have a problem on our staff or we have a situation, I'm going to take care of it. No different than I am with the player. I've done it all my life," Kill said. "I've had to make some hard calls in my life, but I've always felt like they were the right ones."
Mostly, Kill said he is concerned for society as a whole.
"We've got a lot of problems. My dad told me a long time ago, he said, 'This world is getting messed up,' " Kill said. "So it keeps spinning, and now it's leaked into the coaching and the teaching and all those kind of things. Sooner or later, I told you all a long time ago when I took the job -- kids aren't the problem, grownups are. That's the bottom line."
The seizure that struck Jerry Kill on the sidelines of TCF Bank Stadium last Saturday was the worst one he has ever experienced, the Gophers' coach told Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman on Friday, and he experienced additional seizures during his five-day stay in the hospital.
Kill is tired but recovering -- "It's kind of knocked me out," he said one day after being released from the hospital -- and he intends to coach his team against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. Kill said he has not decided whether to watch from the sidelines or the press box.
Kill said he doesn't remember much about Saturday's seizure, which occurred with 20 seconds remaining in the Gophers' 28-21 loss to New Mexico State. He recalls waking up in the hospital.
Kill spent Friday meeting with his coaches and taking part in the Gophers' walkthrough for Saturday's game. The Gophers stay in a hotel on the night before home games, but Kill said he would not accompany the team.
The team is well-prepared for Miami, he said, because his staff has worked well together in his absence.
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