Gophers football coach Jerry Kill danced with his players in the locker room after Saturday’s 24-10 victory over Penn State, and by Sunday afternoon, that video had more than 85,000 views on YouTube.
“I thought some things were supposed to be sacred,” Kill said, joking that the team’s video crew might not have a job come Monday.
A staffer quickly assured Kill that Gophers fans and recruits loved seeing him so happy. The coach couldn’t argue. With his team riding its first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years, Kill is starting to look like a conference Coach of the Year candidate.
The Gophers landed at No. 25 on Sunday in the USA Today Coaches Poll. They didn’t crack the Associated Press Top 25, receiving enough votes from the writers to sit No. 27.
Still, this is the first time the Gophers have been ranked in either poll since they were No. 20 in both polls on Oct. 26, 2008, under Tim Brewster.
“We’re 8-2, but our expectations are a heck of a lot more than that,” Kill said.
The Gophers have a bye this week before playing host to Wisconsin on Nov. 23 in the annual battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Badgers rank No. 17 (AP and No. 20 (coaches), so that could be one of Minnesota’s biggest games in years.
The last time the Gophers played a game in which both teams were ranked was Oct. 15, 2005, when Minnesota was No. 22 and Wisconsin was No. 23. Gophers fans don’t need the reminder, but that day a last-minute blocked punt gave the Badgers a 38-34 triumph at the Metrodome.
This time, Minnesota can use the bye week to rest up, coming off victories against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Besides making sure they’re healthy, the Gophers can spend Saturday studying how Wisconsin plays against Indiana.
And they’ll see how Michigan State fares at Nebraska. Few would have thought it possible, but at 4-2 in Big Ten play, the Gophers are still alive in the Legends Division race. They have the head-to-head tiebreaker against Nebraska (4-1) and still get a chance to play No. 14 Michigan State (5-0) in the regular-season finale.
“We’re playing for something in November; that’s what it’s all about,” Kill said. “We set some [goals] at the very beginning. I think last year, you said, ‘Well, we want to get to a bowl game,’ and that’s all you do. To me, you set the mission higher.”
The Gophers were picked to finish last in the Legends Division in the preseason Big Ten media poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Kill’s teams went 2-6 in the Big Ten each of his first two seasons, so few outside of the Gophers locker room saw this Year 3 turnaround coming.
That’s one reason Kill has been mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate. Or, as Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo wondered on Twitter last week: “#Gophers — has there ever been a ‘coach of the year’ award given to a staff instead of just the head coach?”
Kill began a leave of absence on Oct. 10 to treat his epilepsy, but his staff has held things together. Though Tracy Claeys remains acting head coach, Kill has basically been back to work full-time behind the scenes for the past three games.
In 2004, Kill won the Eddie Robinson Award as the Division-IAA coach of the year for Southern Illinois. In 2010, after leading Northern Illinois to a 10-3 record in his third year there, he was named National Coach of the Year by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Asked Sunday about a potential Big Ten honor this year, Kill said, “I’ve never been coach of the year. … It’s the whole team. … I think the sign of a good leader is you’re smart enough to know you surround yourself with good people.”
Surrounded by his whole team Saturday, Kill was so happy, he had to dance.
Joe Christensen • firstname.lastname@example.org