Souhan: Kill's talented staff stepping up, making him look good

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2013 - 6:49 AM
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Acting head coach Tracy Claeys, right, keeps it calm on the Gophers’ sideline and makes smart decisions.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com,

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There the University of Minnesota goes again, throwing money at the football program.

The Gophers have thrown money at fired coaches. They’ve thrown money at failed hiring processes that left them with their fourth or fifth choice last time around.

They threw money at Jerry Kill when he asked for a raise before he had won a Big Ten game. They threw money at the supposed problem that was featuring a mediocre team from the University of North Carolina on the nonconference schedule. The check to buy out of that game was latticed with zeros.

Locals call Minnesota “The U” not to denote “University,’’ but because you, the students and taxpayers, wind up paying for a lot of wasteful spending.

Now the U is at it again, throwing money at the football program.

This time, the University is on target.

The athletic department is paying defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys a bonus for working as the acting head football coach while Jerry Kill is on medical leave.

Claeys is more deserving of a raise today than Kill was in 2011.

Claeys is a more worthy investment than escaping a nonconference game against a mediocre team.

He has staved off disaster. If this were a movie, he’d be destroying an asteroid hurtling toward earth while exchanging awkward dialogue with Bruce Willis.

A month ago, Jerry Kill could not make the flight to Michigan. Without him, and perhaps because of the shock of his absence, the Gophers lost to the mediocre Wolverines, 42-13.

The Gophers headed into their bye week not knowing whether Kill would coach again this season, or whether the team would win again this season, or whether Kill would ever coach again. In Kill’s stead, Claeys the team’s defensive coordinator, would run the team on game days, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover would operate with more independence.

In two games since, with Kill watching from the coaches’ booth, the Gophers have beaten Northwestern and Nebraska.

They beat Northwestern because of Claeys’ calm demeanor and savvy in-game decisions. They beat Nebraska because of Claeys’ calm demeanor and decisions, and because Limegrover unleashed the most intelligently designed and executed offensive game plan the Gophers have seen since Tom Moore and Tony Dungy wore maroon.

Kill’s strength is building and running a college football program. He is the stereotypical Type A leader who lets you see him sweat. That is the conventional wisdom regarding Kill, and it appears to be true.

The past two weeks might have taught us more about Kill. We should have given him more credit for the staff he built, and maybe we should have given him less credit for his sideline work.

Kill tends to become frenzied during games, which may explain some of his questionable in-game decisions since he arrived at Minnesota. With Claeys running the team during games, the sideline has been a calmer, more rational place, and the in-game coaching has improved.

Before the past few weeks, it would have been fair to question whether Claeys and Limegrover had stayed with Kill because of loyalty, or because they couldn’t find better jobs. At this point, both appear to be better coaches when given more responsibility. That speaks well of them as coaches and Kill loyalists.

Kill raved about three of his assistants in particular when he arrived: Claeys, Limegrover, and strength coach Eric Klein. Now we know this wasn’t just self-congratulatory spin. Claeys and Limegrover have distinguished themselves in Kill’s absence, and Klein’s work has been evident as the Gophers have manhandled two Big Ten teams that have been ranked in the top 25 this season.

Did anyone ever forsee a day when Gophers quarterbacks would be more physical than Nebraska linemen? That day arrived last weekend.

Kill might want to supplement the cash bonuses that Claeys is receiving. He might want to bake him a bundt cake, or upgrade his parking spot. If Claeys had not calmly and adroitly managed this crisis, Kill might be heading for a postseason meeting at which the University nudged him toward a career change.

Instead, Kill is receiving praise for building a program that can withstand his absence.

If the Gophers were 0-4 in the Big Ten, the season would be a disaster and Kill’s career might be nearing an end. Thanks to Claeys and the other Gophers assistants, Kill looks, at least for the moment, like a wise builder of programs, one who will be given every opportunity by his bosses to keep his job.

Bake a cake for those assistants, Jerry. Or at least take them to Stub & Herb’s.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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