U's football progress isn't lost on rivals in Big Ten

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2012 - 12:24 PM

Jerry Kill is taking baby steps in retooling the Gophers, but league coaches say he's doing it right.

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Gopher Head Football Coach Jerry Kill

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CHICAGO - Kirk Ferentz was in his first season as Iowa's offensive line coach under Hall of Famer Hayden Fry back in 1981, when he first experienced the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry.

"They knocked us off at our place," Ferentz recalled of the Gophers' 12-10 victory. "The next year, we beat them up there [in Minneapolis, 21-16]. They were both knock-down, drag-out games, very physical. I would suggest the rivalry was even more bitter and probably unhealthy, quite frankly, back in the '80s. There were a lot of bad jokes going back and forth."

But that's better than the games themselves becoming jokes, which has happened occasionally. That's why Iowa's longtime coach -- with the departure of Joe Paterno, Ferentz is now the dean of Big Ten coaches, having succeeded Fry in 1999 -- is pleased, if a little wary, about Jerry Kill's presence at one of the Hawkeyes' biggest rivals.

One year after Kill was hired to resurrect a Gophers team that had lost eight of the past 10 games against Iowa before he arrived, and despite a difficult 3-9 debut season, Ferentz and his fellow Big Ten coaches say they have been impressed with their Minnesota brethren.

Sure, part of it was undoubtedly preseason happy talk; stroking your opponents is as hoary a college football ritual as tearing down the goalposts. Still, several coaches said they admire the way Kill has attacked the challenge of reversing a program in decline.

"He believes it can be done the right way. No shortcuts. That's what I've seen so far, and that's why I think he'll be successful," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "A lot of teams try to hire a quick-fix artist, but no program can be competitive over the long haul without a strong foundation. And building that takes time. [Kill] understands that, and [Minnesota] understands that."

They do, given that the state has endured six consecutive seasons of three wins or worse in the Big Ten. The Gophers haven't beaten one of the traditional powers in the conference -- Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska or Wisconsin -- since 2005. But those teams' coaches claim to be aware of changes coming in Minnesota.

"The job of a coach is to make his players play as well as they possibly can," said Michigan's Brady Hoke, who introduced Kill to the Big Ten with a 58-0 thrashing in the conference opener in Ann Arbor last fall. "They've got a staff in place there that knows how to do that. They have some challenges, but I don't doubt you'll see progress."

That staff is part of the reason Ferentz foresees the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry getting hot again. The Hawkeyes coach last winter had to replace the only coordinators he had ever worked with in his 13 years at Iowa when Norm Parker retired and Ken O'Keefe accepted an NFL job. That's similar to Kill's coordinators, Matt Limegrover and Tracy Claeys, who have assisted the Gophers coach for 13 and 17 years, respectively.

"That staff has been with Jerry a long time, and it gives him continuity that maybe they didn't have there before," Ferentz said. "It's so important for the players to know how things are done, and what they can expect."

What the Badgers expect are more competitive games for Paul Bunyan's Axe.

"I said when they hired him, I'm glad he's not in our division, because I know how effective and competitive [Kill] can be," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who is 6-0 against Minnesota since taking over the Badgers in 2006. "I look forward to [meeting the Gophers], but I know we had better be ready for a battle, or else."

Yeah, just ask Ferentz about that. The Hawkeyes were 5-2 when they visited TCF Bank Stadium in October, and harboring hopes of a Legends Division title. They left with a 22-21 loss -- Kill's first victory in the Big Ten and the second consecutive year that the Gophers had marched that bronze pig around the field.

"To their credit, they beat us straight-up both times," Ferentz said. "Neither one was a fluke -- they beat us fair and square. ... Jerry Kill is a tremendous coach."

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