In a sport filled with oversized coaching egos, Tracy Claeys is about as unassuming as they come. He has said if things don’t work out as Gophers defensive coordinator, he’ll head home to Clay Center, Kan., and tend bar.
Now Claeys is serving as acting head football coach with Jerry Kill on an indefinite leave to treat his epilepsy.
Claeys gathered the players at 2:30 p.m. Thursday to tell them the news, then went to the press conference wearing sweatpants, glasses and a plain, charcoal-colored sweatshirt. He was back in time for a 3:30 practice.
“As a staff, we are all happy [Kill has] made the decision to do this,” Claeys said. “We support him 100 percent, and we will represent him well, I can tell you that.”
Claeys, 44, was making $20,000 as a math teacher and assistant football coach at a Kansas high school in 1995 when Kill convinced him to come coach the defensive line at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State. The Division II job paid a $3,000 stipend, with no benefits.
“It didn’t make much sense to my family, but it was what I always wanted to do,” Claeys said in a 2011 interview with the Star Tribune. He made it work, bunking with a fellow assistant coach from Clay Center, Dave Wiemers.
“[Claeys] was one of those guys who was born to be a coach,” said Wiemers, who’s now the defensive coordinator at Pittsburg (Kan.) State.
As a player, Claeys had tried walking on as a lineman at Kansas, until a coach gently told him he wasn’t going to make the cut. He hung around the Jayhawks for the next three years as a volunteer trainer, studying how to coach, before finishing his undergraduate degree at Kansas State.
Claeys has worked under Kill for 19 years, becoming the quintessential right-hand man. Kill has missed parts of four games because of seizures in three seasons at Minnesota, and Claeys has taken over each time as acting coach.
Claeys has remained in the coaching booth in the past, but he said he’ll move to the sideline if Kill can’t make it back for the team’s next game, Oct. 19 at Northwestern.
“I think that would be important,” Claeys said. “Nobody knows how long [Kill’s leave is] going to take. The good thing is, he’s going to leave it up to the doctors.
“He’s tried this [treatment] before, and he [ended it] early because he felt better, so we’ll just have to see. I know I would be more than happy if he showed up at 10 a.m. [an hour before the Northwestern kickoff]. I’d gladly say, ‘Here’s your headset, get after it.’ ”
‘We’re not losing ground’
Kill has battled epilepsy since 2005, when he was coaching at Southern Illinois. After taking extensive steps to try to gain control of his seizures last offseason, Kill suffered one at halftime of the Western Illinois game on Sept. 14, and he had another seizure episode last weekend, missing the Michigan trip.
It was the first time that he missed an entire game. Claeys said that was the tipping point, the moment Kill knew he needed to focus exclusively on his treatment.
The Gophers are 4-2 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten at the halfway point of the season. Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague said his support for Kill is unwavering and wants the coach to take all the time he needs.
Asked to look ahead to end-of-season scenarios, Teague said: “I’m taking it day by day, trying not to get ahead of things. Right now, I am extremely happy with the program under these [coaches]. They are terrific people, terrific leaders of the program. They are turning a major project, and it’s going to take time.”
Kill’s decision came during a key period of recruiting, but Claeys insisted, “We’re not losing ground.”
Adam Weber, who played for the Gophers from 2007 to 2010 and is the school’s career passing leader, applauded Kill and the university for taking this latest step.
“It’s nice to know that they are taking this very seriously and that they have his best interest in mind,” Weber said. “The fact he’s taking a leave allows him to focus on his health, which is very, very important. It’s hard to be the best football coach you can be if you’re unhealthy and you’re worried about other things. As sad as it is to see this happening, I think it’s best for Coach Kill and hopefully the whole football program.”
Claeys said there won’t be drastic changes without Kill. The two will keep in touch via cellphone. The team’s routines will stay the same.
“We’re going to miss him as a friend and our biggest fan,” Claeys said. “But besides that, we’ll be fine.”