His job title has changed by only one word. But Tracy Claeys understands how profound a difference that semantic switch will make, as his identity shifts from associate head coach to interim head coach of the Gophers football team.
Upon Wednesday’s sudden retirement of his boss, Jerry Kill, Claeys became the man in charge for the first time in his career. The longtime defensive coordinator has led the Gophers before as acting head coach, going 4-3 at the end of the 2013 season while Kill — recovering from epileptic seizures — oversaw everything from high up in stadium press boxes. This time, though, Claeys stands alone at the top, meaning more responsibilities, more pressure and more visibility for a coach who prefers the hands-on work of teaching players and constructing game strategy.
Claeys made it clear Wednesday that he is ready to adapt, saying he wants to be the Gophers’ next permanent head coach. As he auditions for the position over the next five weeks, though, the Kansas native doesn’t intend to change much aside from his job description.
Over the span of 21 years, Claeys, 46, rode shotgun with Kill as they worked their way from Division II Saginaw Valley State to the Big Ten. They developed a joint vision of how a college football program should operate, one that Claeys promised to honor after Kill’s unexpected departure.
“The path is not going to change,” Claeys said. “I’ve been with [Kill] 21 years. I believe in what we’re doing.
“Everything that we do, we’re going to have the same principles, but different personalities. We’re going to give it our best shot and see what happens. Is it a challenge? Yeah. But, hey, life’s a challenge.”
Challenge is an apt word for Claeys’ immediate on-field future. Five games remain, and the Gophers will be big underdogs in the next three — against Michigan, at Ohio State and at Iowa — starting Saturday night when the Wolverines arrive as 14-point favorites.
Claeys already is addressing the long-range game, too. Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after his out-of-the-blue promotion, he began calling recruits. He told them the program will continue to operate as if he and the rest of the staff, most of whom are also longtime Kill loyalists, will be staying for the long term.
Interim athletic director Beth Goetz said Wednesday that she has the “utmost respect” for Claeys. Though there is no timetable in place for naming Kill’s permanent replacement, Goetz praised Claeys and the rest of Kill’s staff for their work ethic, values and unity.
“They’re a tremendous group,” she said. “I have all the confidence that [Claeys] and the coaching staff will get this thing going.”
Claeys said Gophers football is in “a whole different place” than it was when he and Kill arrived in 2011, and he embraces the heightened expectations he helped create. His work as defensive coordinator has earned him nominations for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football, in each of the past two seasons.
Growing up in tiny Clay Center, Kan., Claeys was an average offensive lineman but a superb student who knew by eighth grade that he wanted to coach. A math aficionado, he loves the analytical and strategic aspects of football. Though he isn’t keen on dealing with the media — he predicted that would be his hardest adjustment — Claeys enjoys getting to know players and their families, and he speaks passionately about the “unbelievable” feeling of sharing victory with a team.
Defensive back Eric Murray said the Gophers have confidence in Claeys and view him as a strong leader. Claeys said he was “trained well” while filling in for Kill two seasons ago, a stint that showed his capabilities to quarterback Mitch Leidner.
“He really didn’t miss a beat,” Leidner said. “Just the way he carries himself, he’s just a guy that you want to follow in that situation.”
Though Claeys said he and Kill “think an awful lot alike,” he stressed that the two have disparate personalities. Claeys is not as outwardly emotional as Kill, and he is better able to ignore criticism. He focuses on what he can control, he said, and does not read local papers or watch local TV news during the season.
Claeys expects the biggest immediate change in his duties will come in recruiting, as he takes responsibility for staying in touch with all recruits. He quickly made some minor adjustments with the coaching staff but is loath to do much tinkering with a group that has a long history of working well together. Claeys also will walk around more at practice to get to know all his players better, and he will sit in on more meetings with the offensive staff, though he doesn’t plan to “tell those guys what to do.”
In the short term, Claeys does not intend to be in close contact with Kill, because he wants to give his former boss time to adjust to life outside coaching. Kill does not expect Claeys to need a great deal of help.
“I think everybody knows how good a coach he is and how smart he is,” Kill said. “From my standpoint, where our program is at and where it’s going, there’s no better person to take it there than Tracy and our staff.”
Before the Gophers played in the Citrus Bowl last January, Claeys said he was confident he could run a football program but did not feel he needed to be a head coach to have a satisfying career. Wednesday, he revealed he had been approached about other head coaching jobs during his time with the Gophers. None were with “big-time schools,” he said, and he did not want to return to a lower level of competition just to rise up the ladder.
When he followed Kill to the Gophers, Claeys said, he considered it a dream job. That hasn’t changed, either. He will handle Kill’s departure in much the same way he has dealt with losses on football Saturdays: by accepting the challenge and moving forward.
“Every time you lose a game, a piece of you dies,” he said. “But you’ve got to get back up and go again.
“It’s our obligation to be ready to go on Saturday. That’s one thing this game teaches you. It’s for tough people. And tough people get through tough times.”