Jerry Kill relaxed in his chair inside a ballroom at a downtown Chicago hotel this summer. Outside the room, no more than 30 feet away, Glen Mason and Tim Brewster mingled among reporters and Big Ten officials.
It was an odd sight. Three generations of Gophers coaches so close in proximity. One made Gophers football competitive, one set it back, one is now charged with cleaning up the mess.
If only they could've cut out the middle man.
The Jerry Kill era officially begins Saturday at Southern Cal. His pull-no-punches approach has charmed Gopher fans in a way that Brewster's rah-rah routine never did because his lacked substance and a pause button when things went south.
Kill has promised the masses nothing except that he'll work hard, stick to a plan and bring discipline to a program that needs it. Whereas Brewster conjured up Rose Bowl trips, Kill preached patience, comparing his latest rebuilding job to others he's fixed.
"When they're broke, they're broke, and you've got to fix them," he said.
His message has resonated with a fan base that tired of Brewster's bluster. Muffled expectations are not necessarily a bad thing if they are realistic. Undersell, overdeliver is much easier to digest than the opposite.
Solid foundation needed
Kill defines his vision with a particular saying: He wants to build his program on concrete, not sand. That starts with recruiting and holding players accountable academically.
Instead of overhyping recruits before they step foot on campus as Brewster did, Kill's model is to find the right type of kids and then develop them. That second part is critical. Brewster vowed to compete against college football's heavyweights in recruiting, but that simply is not going to happen at Minnesota. Maybe occasionally but not consistently.
Brewster deserves credit for bringing in talented players such as MarQueis Gray, Troy Stoudermire and Da'Jon McKnight. But he also took too many risks and gambled on too many kids who couldn't cut it either athletically or academically. The result is a roster that now has more freshmen (53) than juniors and seniors combined (41). That doesn't make for a healthy program.
That's why Brewster's comments at the Big Ten media day were so laughable. He bragged about the talent level and claimed that upsets of Illinois and Iowa at the end of last season were evidence that he had the program headed in the right direction.
Earth to Brew: The Gophers won in part because they could breathe again. Instead of walking on eggshells, they were able to cut it loose and have fun.
What this program needs right now is continuity. Kill joked this week that coordinators and academic advisors rolled through the football facility under the previous regime "like club sandwiches." His line got a good laugh, but he was spot on.
Does anyone truly believe that Adam Weber's struggles as an upperclassman were solely a product of his talent? It was absurdly unfair to his development that he had four offensive coordinators in his career.
Some of the turnover was out of Brewster's control. Coaches left for better gigs. But programs need to foster an environment that fuels stability.
Kill understands that essential tenet as much as anyone. His coaching staff has a combined 94 consecutive seasons of service under him. Even if the Gophers go 0-12 this season, it's a safe bet Kill will return with the same staff, the same systems, the same plan.
"I came in here saying this is what I'm going to do, so I ain't changing," he said.
He can't solve the problem on an island, though. Kill is a proven coach, but he's not a magician. He's not going to pull a Big Ten title out of a hat or make challenges disappear by blowing a whistle.
Mason often used a one-word answer whenever someone questioned an aspect of his program. Commitment, he would say. Mason's tone turned off the bigwigs in Morrill Hall, but he had a valid point.
Minnesota has to be fully committed to football. It has to become important. Not just kind of important. It's a collective mindset.
Wisconsin has figured it out. So has Iowa. Sure, the border rivals hit home runs with coaches who built strong foundations, but they also understand institutionally the importance of having a successful football program. Perhaps the Gophers will strike gold with Kill too, but he needs help.
Stadium is just a start
The school made a huge investment with TCF Bank Stadium, but that's not the end-all, be-all. It's a critical and expensive piece to the puzzle and the school has made strides in other areas too, but the work can't stop there.
If that means stepping forward financially to keep or hire a top assistant, so be it. They need to keep pace in the arms race, continually improve facilities, make sure they have enough academic support for athletes and so much more.
This is not to suggest they hand the keys over and give any program carte blanche. That's just inviting trouble. Every program needs oversight, and the Gophers certainly can't afford any more scandals.
But decades of losing has resulted in a defeatist attitude and half-hearted acceptance of things, such as complaining about 11 a.m. kickoffs because of their inconvenience. No one denies the Gophers face inherent challenges. Our winters stink, the campus is located in a big city and they play in the Vikings shadows. But at some point those things no longer can be used as a crutch.
The dearth of Division I high school talent in this state is a real problem that isn't easily corrected. But with the right plan, work ethic and commitment, even that can be mitigated.
Jerry Kill wasn't the first choice for this job, but he just might be the right choice. He has a plan, and he won't cut corners implementing it.
It took time to dig this hole. Now it will take time to climb out of it.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org