Gophers put out welcome mat for spring practice

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2012 - 8:35 AM

Trying to drum up interest, Gophers coach Jerry Kill lets fans and media attend spring practice, an oddity in the Big Ten.

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The University of Minnesota football team held their first practice since the death of teammate Gary Tinsley last week. Mark Kravik and Tom Lentz, right, were among the spectators who watched the Gophers football team practice.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Jerry Kill considers himself just as paranoid and suspicious as the average college football coach. Yet he persists in inviting Minnesota's roughly 5 million residents into his work area, to stand on the sidelines while the Gophers practice and prepare for the 2012 season. Come watch our play-action fakes, he says, take note of our blitz packages, evaluate our offensive line's strengths and weaknesses.

Minnesota has the most open practice policy in the Big Ten. Isn't Kill worried that Wisconsin might be watching, that a Hawkeye might be taking notes?

"No," Kill said. "I know who's walking through those doors."

Well, that's not particularly difficult at the moment. The football program estimates that roughly 125 football lovers typically take Kill up on his offer to stand along the sidelines at a spring practice, and close to 1,500 parents, high school coaches and Gophers boosters have signed in at the door this spring. The numbers aren't especially big -- which is sort of the reason Kill holds open practices in the first place.

"We're trying to sell what we do. I want people [to know], this is their team, it's not mine," said the second-year coach, who also opened all practices last spring and even most of fall camp in August. "When I've taken over a [program], they've all been struggling, and the only way to get the interest back in the program is to let the people be a part of it."

Rare for the Big Ten

Kill's slogan for this season is "uncommon," and his practice policy is one of the most uncommon things about this team. No other Big Ten team allows the general public to watch practices other than the annual spring game, and only Northwestern and Wisconsin allow the media to watch more than only a handful. The reasons for the privacy vary; Nebraska, for instance, fears public practices would draw so many fans they would become a circus.

"It's a very passionate fan base. [Practices] would be very well-attended," said Nebraska assistant athletic director Keith Mann, who pointed out that a students-only open practice drew more than 5,000 students about a decade ago, and that roughly 55,000 reserved seats have been sold for Saturday's spring game. "It would be too big a deal" for the team to accomplish much.

Kill understands that rationale, he said; it's a problem he would like to have. And he can't guarantee that his policy never will change, because there are times when he worries about his players' focus, which can be harder to maintain with parents and friends around. But he believes the team benefits by having witnesses, too.

"They practice harder when there are people around. They don't want to be embarrassed, don't want coaches yelling at them when there's people around," Kill said. "And right now, having people around during a tragedy is a pretty good thing, too," he said, referring to last week's death of linebacker Gary Tinsley.

"Our fans have been great for us, and we like having them around," quarterback MarQueis Gray said recently. "It makes us want to do well for them."

Being fan-friendly

Spectators must sign in when they arrive at the football complex, giving their name and address, and pledge not to tape or photograph the practice, interfere with the players or post information about "specific players, plays, injuries, etc.," on Twitter, Facebook, chat rooms or similar Internet sites. When his schedule allows, Kill then signs thank-you cards that are mailed to each fan, encouraging them to come again.

Those who show up seem to appreciate it.

"This is a great opportunity. It's fun to watch some football this time of year, and it gets you excited about the team," said Roger Swanson, a printer from Minneapolis whose nighttime work schedule enables him to attend five or six practices per spring. "I think [Kill] wants to get everybody involved, to see how he's doing, how he coaches."

It's plausible, Kill said, that opponents could benefit from surreptitiously taping a Gophers practice, "if we're going to kick an onside kick, or run a trick play or something, yeah." But the Gophers don't do much of that in the spring, and he has staff members keeping an eye on the crowd anyway, checking out unfamiliar faces.

But he's not particularly worried about spies. "At the end of the day, you're not going to trick anyone. Football comes down to execution -- not turning over the ball, not getting sacked, the defense making a play," Kill said. "We all act like it's a big secret -- eh, we're all doing about the same thing."

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