Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Before Jerry Kill had Jordan Lynch and Mitch Leidner, he had Mark Smith.
The lineage of Kill’s strong running quarterbacks really stretches back to his first head coaching job, at Webb City (Mo.) High School.
Smith was in eighth grade and didn’t even play football when Kill arrived as Webb City’s new coach in 1988.
“I thought I was heading to the NBA,” Smith said Saturday, after watching a Gophers spring practice. “Coach Kill talked to me, and he told me I was going to play quarterback, and I was like, OK.”
Webb City had a decent football program, good enough to win a conference title here and there but never a state championship.
“Coach Kill got to town, and he went to all the schools and wanted any male student to at least come and listen to him talk about the program,” Smith said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’
“He looks like he did then, only he had a little bit thicker hair and glasses. But he came in there, he had the chubby old finger sticking up there, telling everybody how great football was going to be. He said, ‘Just give them the opportunity, people will get so excited, they’ll be throwing babies in the aisle.’”
In the fall of 1988, Smith played linebacker as a freshman under Kill as Webb City went 11-1. The next year, Smith played quarterback, and the team went 14-0, winning Missouri’s 4A State Championship.
There’s a fantastic highlight video from that season, featuring an interview with Kill, who sounded the same as he does now, talking behind those huge glasses. Smith looked like a man among boys, even as a sophomore.
Kill left the following year to become the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh (Kan.) State. Smith eventually went to Arkansas, where he played four years and became an All-SEC linebacker. He also played two seasons with the Chiefs.
These days, Smith still lives in Southwest Missouri and works as a regional insulin salesman for Norvo Nordisk.
“I mean 25 years later, I still remember [Kill’s coaching],” Smith said. “He talked about the mental aspect of the game, being able to handle adversity. That’s a blue-collar town anyway. The kids were all close, and he just kind of tied it all together and told us to go.
“It was one of those deals that kids are looking for a leader, and for some unknown reason Coach Kill showed up in Webb City.”
For Smith’s 40th birthday, his wife surprised him with a trip to go visit Jerry and Rebecca Kill in Minnesota. Smith is staying at their house this weekend.
“It’s the best present I’ve ever gotten,” Smith said. “It’s been 25 years, and he’s a head coach at a Division I school. My wife calls him up, and he opens up his home to me,” Smith said. “That tells you what kind of person he is.”
Mike Sherels has officially been promoted to Gophers linebacker coach. The team made it official Friday with a press release touting Sherels' rise from walk-on player to two-time captain to graduate assistant and now full-time coach.
Sherels replaces Bill Miller, who left to become the linebackers coach at Florida State.
"I am very happy for Mike,” Coach Jerry Kill said in the press release. "He has been with us for the last three years and knows and understands what we are trying to do here. He is a former two-time Gopher captain and truly loves Minnesota. This really is a dream come true for him.
“Mike is a terrific on-field coach and is a relatable presence to today's players. I cannot wait to see him recruit, as nobody can tell our story better than him. I expect his transition to be a smooth one and am excited to see him embrace his new role."
A Rochester native, Sherels made 30 starts at linebacker for the Gophers between 2003 and 2007, recording 219 tackles.
“I am extremely thankful to Coach Kill and the rest of the staff for having the belief in me to handle this job,” Sherels said in the press release. "It is a dream come true to coach at my alma mater and to represent my home state.”
Note: The Gophers will hold their third spring practice on Saturday at 11:20 a.m. They were originally scheduled to practice Sunday, as well, but they announced today that they have moved that practice to a later date, to be determined.
Former Gophers linebacker Mike Sherels already received one promotion this offseason. Now he’s about to be promoted again.
There were indications Monday that the Gophers plan to tab Sherels as the linebackers coach. The news was first reported by ESPN1500.
The Gophers were still finalizing the hire after opening a search to replace Bill Miller, who left to become the linebackers coach at Florida State.
Sherels played linebacker for the Gophers from 2004 to 2007, recording 219 tackles. The Rochester native is the only walk-on ever to be named a two-time captain.
He has worked for the Gophers since 2011 and spent last season as a defensive graduate assistant before being promoted to an assistant recruiting coordinator.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill raved about University president Eric Kaler's commitment to football at a press conference Monday, in the coach's first extended comments about a new contract that will pay him an average of $2.3 million through 2018.
"I’m not going to turn the program around by myself," Kill said. "It all comes with the people of the state, and the most important person in that whole thing, is [University president Eric Kaler]. ... I can guarantee you, he doesn’t want to be middle-of-the-road on anything."
Kill, who made $1.2 million under his previous deal, has tried hard to keep the money in perspective.
"I’m the same guy who lived in a trailer house, I believe for five years, and made $250 a month," Kill said about his early coaching days. "And I was very appreciative then, very appreciative. And if I had to go back to doing that, I’d be alright."
Kill said his brother called to heckle him about his new deal, saying "'You ain't worth that. I’m sitting here working on beef cattle, and they’re paying you that to coach football. Is this country crazy?"
"I just chuckled and said, 'Hey, I can’t answer that question. They may be.'"
Kill said he wouldn't have signed his new contract without the provision that guarantees his assistant coaches' salary pool will rank in the Top 6 of the Big Ten.
"And the president understood that," Kill said. "So did [Athletics Director Norwood Teague]. That’s more important to me because we all work together. I think the administration realized that, and we’ve got good coaches.
"Again that credit goes to the people a the top. Everybody questions, but president Kaler -- he wants to win. I don’t think there’s any question about it."
Gophers linebackers coach Bill Miller is leaving to become the linebackers coach at Florida State, according to CoachingSearch.com.
Update: Gophers coach Jerry Kill confirmed that Miller is heading to Florida State.
Miller, whose title with the Gophers also included assistant head coach, has been a well-respected member of the staff with 36 years of experience. He had a previous stint with the Gophers, coaching the defensive backs from 1986 to 1988. He went on to become defensive coordinator at Miami, where he coached Ray Lewis.
Miller returned to Minnesota when Coach Jerry Kill took over in 2011.
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