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.
I sat down with Gophers AD Norwood Teague this morning to get his thoughts on the football program with spring practice in full swing. Teague has been understandably busy of late, replacing men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith with Richard Pitino.
Asked what that move signifies for the football program, Teague said, “I think it shows we have high expectations, but when I look at football, I don’t know if anybody on this Earth has higher expectations for himself or his program than Jerry Kill. I mean, he is relentless. So the basketball change was difficult, but I think something had to happen. But with football, I mean, let me tell you something: Jerry Kill runs 100 miles per hour every day, and he has high expectations for himself, no doubt.”
Asked to describe his vision for a successful football program, Teague said it’s a team that’s “in the upper half of the league and competing for championships, and one that there’s an incredible amount of hope each year for our success and people seeing improvement. Not only the way the program is managed, but seeing improvement in recruiting and also -- this is very big for football -- seeing improvement in player development, and also your retention."
Asked how excited he is for this fall, knowing Kill’s track record for success in Year 3, Teague said: “I’m real excited, but I think we’ve all got to be careful about putting a number on how many games we think we should win to see progress. Building a football program is an art. And as long as I’m excited about what I see, which is what I am excited about -- his management of the program, his building of the program, doing all the right things behind the scenes, recruiting really well, developing our kids and making retention a big priority -- then we’re growing.”
Kill’s recruiting classes at Minnesota have ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten, but Teague said, “That does not cause me any pause. I follow recruiting quite a bit, and ... football kids develop. They grow. A lot of football is growing into your body. And I am so confident and so impressed with Jerry’s group and how they evaluate. They trust their own judgment and I think that’s tremendous.”
Pitino’s contract allows him to spend up to $50,000 per year on a private jet for recruiting. Will Kill have access to a private plane now, too?
“Yeah, we’ll do that for Jerry moving forward,” Teague said. “It won’t necessarily be in his contract, but when appropriate, we’ll use those planes. They provide a lot of logistical benefits more than any type of luxury. To get our coaches from one point to another quickly, to see multiple recruits in one day and get them back for practice is invaluable.”
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill is the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten, but athletics director Norwood Teague sounds open to changing that soon.
“I’ve talked to Jerry about it, and we want to work hard in that area,” Teague said in a wide-ranging press conference Thursday. “It’s going to be an issue going forward because he’s the lowest-paid by several hundred thousand dollars.”
Kill makes about $1.2 million per year. Purdue’s Danny Hope was making $970,000 before he was fired, and his replacement, Darrell Hazell, now makes $2 million in guaranteed money each year.
“We’ve gotta get [Kill] up,” Teague said. “Because when you’re in the bottom of the league -- and you’re the bottom, by far, -- that’s an issue. So we’ve gotta work hard to do that, and Jerry feels good. He knows I’ll help him in those areas because it’s important.
“And one thing for him is paying his staff. But we’ll work in those areas too because it’s a free market. People leave and get paid more and what not.”
Teague said the continuity of Kill’s staff is one of its great strengths. The AD said he’d likely address the assistant coaches’ contracts next year.
“There were games this past year we won because of great coaching, and they’re on top of it,” Teague said. “I think their recruiting class was solid as a rock. They are so confident in what they do on the recruiting side, how they evaluate. They don’t fall victim to the stars -- the five-star and the four-star [players]. Granted, I’m sure they'd love a couple five-stars, they’re human, but where they are now, they’re getting kids they think can play."
For more on what Teague said, especially related to Tubby Smith's program, check out Amelia Rayno's blog. We'll wrap it up with some other highlights of the press conference for tonight's first editions.
MarQueis Gray is the Gophers' most valuable player for the second straight year, the team announced Sunday after its annual awards banquet Sunday afternoon.
Gray, who opened the season as the starting quarterback but moved to receiver after suffering knee and ankle injuries in the season's third game, was also named the winner of the Paul Giel award as the most unselfish player and most concerned about Minnesota.
Gray joins Laurence Maroney in 2004-05 and eight other Gophers as back-to-back winners of the award. The last quarterback honored in two straight seasons was Rickey Foggie, who won it in 1984-85 and also 1987.
Coach Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure during halftime of Saturday's 26-10 loss to Michigan State, did not attend the banquet at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
Tailback Donnell Kirkwood, who finished the regular season with 849 rushing yards, was chosen the team's outstanding offensive player, and defensive back Michael Carter was named the outstanding defensive player -- an award won by his cousin, cornerback Tyrone Carter, in 1998 and 1999. Punter Christian Eldred was named the outstanding special-teams player.
The inaugural Gary Tinsley Award, named for the former Gophers linebacker who died in April, went to his former roommate, linebacker Keanon Cooper. The award will be given annually to the player "who best embraced Tinsley's underdog personna," the university said.
The award for best competitor on the field and in the classroom went to linebacker Aaron Hill for the second straight year. Receiver Connor Cosgrove, who has become active in cancer fundraising since being diagnosed with leukemia two years ago, received the team's community service award, while senior linebacker Mike Rallis was honored with the Neil Fredenburg Award for "the most courage and love of the game."
Quarterback Philip Nelson and tailback Rodrick Williams shared the award for best freshman on offense, while defensive tackle Scott Epke was the top freshman on defense.
Also honored at the season-ending banquet:
Offensive Lineman of the Year – Zac Epping
Offensive Back of the Year – Donnell Kirkwood
Wide Receiver of the Year – Isaac Fruechte
Defensive Lineman of the Year – D.L. Wilhite
Linebacker of the Year – Mike Rallis
Defensive Back of the Year – Michael Carter
Offensive Work Team Player of the Year – Cole Banham and Mitch Leidner
Defensive Work Team Player of the Year – Matt Garin and Jack Lynn
Jerry Kill sounded more surprised than upset Monday over A.J. Barker's sudden, public departure from the Gophers' football team, but the coach defended his handling of the junior receiver.
"I feel bad for A.J. I feel bad that's the way he feels about the situation," Kill said of Barker's 4,000-word explanation for quitting the team. "But I don't treat my players any differently than I treat my own two daughters."
Kill, at a news conference called Monday in response to a series of media interviews Barker has conducted since announcing his departure, said he interceded during practice last Thursday when he noticed Barker having a "confrontation" with the team's athletic trainer. "I called A.J. over and let him know I wasn't very happy. ... Players have to do all the things we ask all our player to do," Kill said. Barker had not followed the trainers' instructions for treating the ankle injury that had kept him out of action for three weeks, Kill said, and he "very vividly" made it clear that that was unacceptable.
"You do not talk to an adult or someone of authority in that voice," Kill said, describing what he told Barker after finding out about his conversation with the training staff.
Once practice ended, Kill said, he had another 20-minute conversation with the 21-year-old receiver, in which he emphasized how much success he could achieve if he followed instructions.
Barker, in his explanation posted on a blog, called that second conversation particularly offensive, saying it was an attempt to "manipulate" and "deceive" him.
Kill said he has tried to contact Barker since the story became public, but has not spoken to the receiver. Barker, in an interview on KSTP Radio, said he was particularly upset that Kill had not awarded him a scholarship for his strong play -- the junior walk-on remains the team's leading receiver, with 30 catches and seven touchdowns this season.
But Kill said Monday that the football team's 85 scholarships have to be awarded by the first day of classes, and the Gophers had played only one game by that time -- a 30-27 victory over UNLV in which Barker caught three passes for 101 yards.
The coach defended his methods as a disciplinarian, and said he has "saved" many players with his approach. "When you have a roster of 120 players, to keep them all happy isn't possible," Kill said. "I'm not here for a popularity contest."
The Gophers led by only a touchdown last Saturday, and eight minutes still remained to play. So Jerry Kill's decision to run a play on fourth-and-five from the Illinois 32, rather than send in his field-goal kicker or punter, may have seemed like a spur-of-the-moment gamble.
But it was really a decision that had been made three hours earlier, Kill said.
"You don't want the guys that worked their tail ends off all week long (to lose because) the head coach goes and makes a crazy decision," Kill said. "So we talk about it (ahead of time). We try to get everybody on the same page -- 'We may do this. How do you feel about it?' "
That happens every week, Kill said; he and his staff discuss as many situations that may come up as they can, and write down their consensus so they don't need much discussion at the time.
In the case of the Gophers' eventual 17-3 victory over Illinois, Kill had prepared for just such a call since the moment he got off the bus. Rather than head to the coaches' office in Memorial Stadium, he headed straight for the field. "It's always windy in Champaign. So I walked around and checked the wind conditions from my standpoint," Kill said. "Then we got the punters and kickers out there. I grabbed a seat, got my chart out and watched our guys kick."
After writing down his observations, he then he discussed the conditions -- a stiff wind of 20-25 mph blew from the south end zone to the north during the entire game -- with the kickers and special teams coach Jay Sawvel. They concluded that Jordan Wettstein could reliably hit a field goal from no farther than 40 yards kicking to the south, meaning the ball had to be on the 25 or closer. But when they were headed north, Kill said he would have been comfortable trying a field goal of up to 57 yards. "That's how strong the wind was," he said.
The turf between the 30 and 40 yard lines is a sort of no-man's-land for coaches, often too far to kick a field goal, since the defense would get the ball at that spot if the kick misses. But in Kill's opinion, it's also too close to punt, since any kick that reaches the end zone comes out to the 20; with so little yardage to gain, the odds of converting the fourth down seem worth trying. "It's always a close decision," he said.
So when the Gophers' drive stalled at the 32 in the fourth quarter, Kill briefly discussed taking a delay-of-game penalty, in order to back up five yards and give punter Christian Eldred more of a cushion for a pin-them-deep punt. He considered, just for a moment, having Eldred try a rugby-style punt in order to keep it from rolling into the end zone. And he had already reviewed the pregame findings with Wettstein.
"I went down to Jordan as we were moving the ball (and said), 'Hey, are you sure we can't go from 30?' You can tell if they go, 'Oh yeah, Coach, let's go.' Or, 'Aw, (I don't know),' " Kill said. "I didn't get that, 'Hey, I'm ready to stick it.' So we made a decision."
They tried a pass that Brandon Green couldn't hold on to, and the ball went back to Illinois. But the Gophers' defense held, and the decision ultimately didn't matter.
"There are some games when you know you're going to have to go make a play," said Kill, whose team is 7-for-15 on fourth downs this year. "You're going to have to roll the dice."
But it's not as big a gamble if you game-plan ahead of time.
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