Kill excels in art of the deal in U recruiting

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2012 - 11:35 PM

The Gophers coach eventually gets around to football talk, but he also asks about siblings and touts job opportunities.

Recruiting season finally ends Wednesday, and here's some of what Jerry Kill learned during the blur of the past eight weeks: One recruit's mom makes a terrific lasagna. The Cuban food at another recruit's house is fabulous. And the Flintstone-sized ribeye he had on one home visit? No steakhouse does it better.

Yes, along with the two or three dozen young football players Kill is bringing to Minneapolis once they sign their national letters of intent Wednesday, it's almost inevitable he'll bring home a few extra pounds, too.

"For two months ... you're either eating in kids' homes with their parents, or in the car, on the run, as you drive to the next city," the Gophers coach said. "You eat whatever and wherever you can."

NCAA rules prohibit Kill from talking about members of this year's recruiting class until players have officially signed, but he should have plenty to say. That's because, since the Gophers season ended in November, he's been criss-crossing the country as if he's running for president, flying to Dallas one day, Milwaukee the next, and the Florida panhandle after that, chasing between 40 and 50 potential recruits.

He hustles home on Fridays to act as ringmaster for three-day-weekend official campus visits, then gets in the TSA line at the airport first thing Monday morning, headed someplace else. He's on the road by 7 and usually checks into the next hotel after 10 and begins preparing for the next day's visits. Eventually, Kill said, it's all a blur of boarding passes, rental cars and Marriott lobbies, with a schedule that is sometimes rewritten mid-trip as he reacts to the whims of indecisive or hesitant teenagers.

"Sometimes I'll hear we're in trouble on a recruit -- maybe another [school's] coach has gone in and now he's changing his mind," Kill said. "So you go, 'OK, let's get me down there.'" Some visits are simply "flying the flag," reminding a player how much he's wanted by stopping by his high school to confer with his coach or attend his basketball game.

Some visits are more elaborate, with groundwork done well ahead of time by assistant coaches, each of whom is assigned an area to recruit. Head coaches are allowed to stop by each player's home only once, and almost all of those visits, some of which last for five or six hours, occur in December or January, as close as possible to signing day.

"You don't want to go too early," Kill said, "because some kids [make their choice] on their last impression."

Making an impression is Kill's specialty, however, and one of the cornerstones of his recruiting success. According to recruits and their parents who have sat down in their living room with the Gophers coach, Kill's gimmick is that he doesn't have a gimmick. In a profession that sometimes seems to reward hucksters and used-car salesmen, Kill comes across as the last honest man.

"It was one of the most genuine visits I've ever had. That gentleman made me feel like I was talking to my long-lost cousin," said Norton Hinojosa, father of Miami Central lineman Jordan Hinojosa, who is expected to sign Wednesday. "He doesn't try to tell you what you want to hear. He told my son what would be expected of him, and why Minnesota might be right for him."

Kill tries to make a connection, he said, and gets to know the players' siblings as well as parents.

"I'd say only about 25 percent of the conversation was about the university," estimated Pat Nelson, father of quarterback recruit Philip Nelson. "Most of the time, we were talking about our families. He was genuinely interested in my youngest daughter and her college plans."

He tells stories about his own childhood or football career, explains the benefits that make Minnesota unique -- the Twin Cities' 23 Fortune 500 companies, most per capita in the nation and an advantage in future employment, is a standard pitch -- and answers any question a player has. He shows parents all the text messages his staff sends him, updating him constantly on his current players' progress, academic and athletic. It's basically unscripted, Kill said, though he has thoroughly prepared for each visit; teenagers, he said, can sense when they're being manipulated.

"He's really a fun guy to listen to. He has a lot of stories, but he also wanted to learn about me and what I want [in a university]," Lakeville South quarterback Mitch Leidner said.

One thing Kill doesn't do, recruits say, is demand a commitment. Kill and assistant coach Bill Miller offered Hinojosa a scholarship, the high school player said, but wouldn't allow him to accept it until he had thought about it for a day or two.

Sometimes he leaves disappointed. It's a competitive business, and he can't promise anything but a scholarship and a chance to play football.

Well, and maybe a minor pek or two.

"We were sitting at the dinner table, and Philip mentioned that he's always wore No. 9," Pat Nelson said. "Right there, Coach Kill took out his cell phone and called Minnesota's equipment guy, who told him that the guy who wore 9 [safety Christyn Lewis] was graduating. Coach said, 'No. 9 goes to Philip Nelson.' It was a neat moment."

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