Jerry Kill wanted his players to meet a special visitor who stopped by to see the new Gophers football coach one day during spring practice.
Kill had struck up a friendship with a 9-year-old girl who is battling cancer. She has his cell phone number, he keeps track of her progress. Kill took the girl around the football complex, introducing her to his players.
He gathered a group of three or four players afterward for a little heart-to-heart chat. They hadn't bought into the new program fully yet, weren't on board with all their responsibilities. Kill hit them between the eyes with a message.
"I pulled them aside and said, 'Hey, do you know what this little girl is battling?' Kill recalled. "'Do you see her smile and see how positive she is and you're out here moping around and you can't get your butt to class and do what you're supposed to? Shame on you.'"
This is Jerry Kill in a nutshell. Direct, to the point, always willing to deliver tough love when needed. He cares about his players, but he also holds them accountable. If you stray, you could find yourself wearing a shirt that reads "I let my teammates down" in pink letters. Or scooping up horse manure in a barn.
This is exactly what the Gophers football program needs at this moment. Instead of hot air and pie-in-the-sky promises, the Gophers need reality and a stern hand. Maybe even a (figurative) kick in the pants at times.
Discipline is at the core of Kill's being. It's how he intends to build a foundation for future success, a blueprint he employed at previous stops.
Make no mistake, Kill must change the culture of a program that admittedly has certain inherent challenges but too often operates with a palpable defeatist attitude borne of years of losing.
The Gophers never will have enough talent to cut corners. They have to win by being disciplined and tough-minded.
Change won't happen overnight, and attrition will be part of the process. But Kill wants his players to know that it's not OK to skip class, it's not OK to arrive late to study hall, it's not OK to jump offsides on third-and-2. If his players don't believe those things are interrelated, they will continue down the same path they're on.
"I can say right now players are definitely scared of getting in trouble," quarterback MarQueis Gray said.
That's a start. Kill doesn't like using the word punishment, though. He prefers to call it an "educational experience." Which is a polite way of saying, ''You'll learn the hard way that there are consequences for your actions."
Kill hatched an idea for another educational experience while having lunch with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. The two created a community service program this summer for players who fell short of their responsibilities, either academically or off campus.
The players were required to perform at least four hours of labor at the Three Rivers Park District in Medina on Saturday mornings. Their work included cleaning barns of police horses that patrol the parks. They also pulled weeds from a community garden that supplies vegetables to homeless shelters and food shelves.
"We spend our Saturday mornings doing some old-fashioned hard labor," Stanek said.
Both Kill and Stanek note that few players required a second visit. Several of them got to see a horse in person for the first time in their life so, hey, it was an educational experience.
Amazingly, some fans have complained in e-mails that Kill is too hard on his players, which is utterly ridiculous. This isn't Pop Warner. A program trying to find its way can't be half-committed. You either are, or you're not.
Junior linebacker Mike Rallis said teammates had numerous conversations during the coaching search about what kind of coach they wanted and needed. They kept coming to the same conclusion.
"It was a general consensus that we needed someone who's going to provide some discipline for us," he said.
Well, they got him. Now it's up to them to take advantage. Kill's tenure at Minnesota ultimately will be judged on wins and losses and not how many barns his players clean. But those two things are not mutually exclusive.
"My job is to take an 18-year-old and make him a better man by the time he's 22," Kill said. "If we win some games, that's great. But more importantly to me, they're not going to put my wins and losses on my tombstone. But if I can teach them to do the right things, we'll win a lot of games. Plus, when you go to the pearly gates someday, you're put on Earth to help people. I'm educating kids. It's not being mean or tough. I'm just educating them the way that I think they need to understand the importance of doing the right things."
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org