Experience is critical in football, and never was that more clear to the Gophers than when their coach collapsed.
While the assistants and coordinators, most of whom have worked for Jerry Kill for more than a decade, immediately reverted to their well-practiced roles, the players, who met Kill nine months ago, were more traumatized.
"Everyone was rattled, even the guys on the sidelines," quarterback MarQueis Gray said. In the locker room after their 28-21 loss to New Mexico State on Saturday, "guys were crying. The coaches barely got to speak because they heard players sniffing a lot. We were just very emotional knowing our head coach, a guy who just got here and who we believe in, went down. ... It wasn't a good thing for us."
But the followup has been. The calm showed by Kill's staff, the reassurance that he's OK and the determination that the team's daily routines will not change, has helped the Gophers players get their minds back on football, and on Saturday's game against Miami of Ohio. The Gophers held their first full practice Tuesday since Kill's seizure in the final 20 seconds of Saturday's game, and nothing was different but the mood.
"It was kind of weird not having Coach Kill around, but we still had guys flying around," Gray said of his coach, who remained in a Twin Cities hospital Tuesday. (The university offered no new information Tuesday on his condition or when he will be released.) "It was good to have guys with smiles on their face and just [having] fun."
That's according to plan. Kill's plan.
"I worry about people thinking we take it ho-hum, business as usual. But we've been through the situation before, and everybody knows the job they have to do," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who has worked for Kill for 17 seasons, six of which have included short hospital stays for his boss. "We're doing it the exact way he wants it done. If we didn't do that, we wouldn't have a job when he got back."
The coaches' preparation has even extended to the team's recruits, who were quickly contacted and reassured about Kill's condition.
Those first moments after Kill was stricken were "scary, because you just don't know what's going on," center Ryan Wynn said, but the coaching staff "was just like, 'Oh, he'll be good.' They weren't being light about it, they're obviously concerned, but they had dealt with this before. I couldn't believe how the coaches" took it in stride.
The players needed to as well, for a final fourth-and-10 play to keep their rally alive. Gray gathered his stunned teammates in the huddle "to tell them we've got to finish the game strong, and not worry about what happened to Coach," the quarterback said. "Just know he's going to be in good hands. Just play the last play and we'll worry about him after the game."
But Gray, placed in an impossible situation given the team's distress, was quickly surrounded by a pass rush, slipped trying to escape, and threw a desperation pass that was batted around until it hit the turf.
"It was tough for the kids," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "There was some momentum that had been built up, and I think it got squashed a little bit. But give credit to New Mexico State. They covered some people up. MarQueis didn't have a throw."
It's too early to know whether Kill will coach Saturday, though neither coordinator doubts that he will.
"I would be totally shocked if he's not there," Claeys said. "He's showed up every time."
In the unlikely event he doesn't, Claeys is in charge, though both coordinators would remain in the press box, and leave the sideline duties to another assistant.
"At some point, there's got to be somebody who leads. Tracy is that guy," Limegrover said. "If we're in a situation where we might be in four-down territory, I'm going to turn to him and say, 'How you feeling on this? Should we think four downs, or if we don't get it, are we going to punt?' You can't have it being debate class when you get down to key situations."
The only debate this week is over whether the players can visit Kill. Gray said he asked permission Saturday night, but was told to let the coach rest and be with his family.
"I texted him yesterday," Gray said. "I don't know if he had his phone or not, but I sent him a text message."