The University of Minnesota was completing a 17-12 upset of Washington State in the 2016 Holiday Bowl. This improbable victory allowed Tracy Claeys to complete a first full season as Gophers head coach with a 9-4 record.
There was a photo of university President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle on the sideline late in that game in San Diego. The duo looked as if news had just reached them that beloved family dogs had been run over by garbage trucks.
“They weren’t around the team at all in San Diego,” Claeys said. “When I saw them on the sideline, looking like that, I knew that I was fired.”
Which is what happened. Claeys had gotten crossways with Kaler and Coyle over the suspensions of 10 players — and then a brief team boycott — in early December. This was based on a university committee deciding against the players on a student’s accusation of sexual assault (uncharged by police). Coyle waited a week after the bowl game to fire Claeys, as P.J. Fleck was completing his Western Michigan duties with a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. Claeys was fired Jan. 3 and Fleck was announced as the coach three days later.
“I had never met Mike Leach until the news conference before we played his Washington State team in the Holiday Bowl,” Claeys said. “And a week later, when I was fired, the first coach to reach out to me was Mike Leach.”
Leach commiserated with Claeys for a time, and also made it known he had an opening for a defensive line coach, if Tracy felt like he wanted to make a quick return to coaching in 2017.
“I told Mike that the guy he should bring to Washington State to coach the defensive line was Jeff Phelps,” Claeys said. “Jeff had been with us at Northern Illinois and Minnesota. I told Mike, ‘He’s a heck of a football coach.’ ”
Phelps was named Washington State’s defensive line coach on Jan. 20, 2017. He was working for Alex Grinch, a young, wired-up defensive coordinator. There were rumors late in Washington State’s season that Grinch could be leaving for Ohio State.
Which is what happened. He’s now the co-defensive coordinator with Greg Schiano, spending this week trying to digest how the Buckeyes gave up 49 points to Purdue.
Claeys already had been in contact with Leach. He went to Leach’s home in Key West, Fla., for a four-day interview in early January 2018, and was announced as Cougars defensive coordinator Jan. 8.
Last Saturday, Washington State sent Oregon to its second loss, 34-20. Claeys’ defense was dominant in the first half and held on in the second. The Cougars moved from No. 25 to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll. Now, there’s a road game at Stanford, followed by California, Colorado, Arizona and then the Apple Cup with Washington — pitfalls everywhere.
“We had a great weekend here,” Claeys said. “ESPN was here with ‘GameDay.’ I’d never been around that. It’s unbelievable how that adds to the excitement. And then, you have to come down from that in a hurry and get ready to go to Stanford.”
Grinch considerably improved the Cougars defense. There were five excellent players from the 2017 D gone, and a reasonable nucleus of players back when Claeys arrived.
“Jeff Phelps sent me a few game tapes before I interviewed with Mike, and they were doing a lot of the same things we did at Minnesota,” Claeys said. “They had a different terminology. Rather than make everyone learn my terminology, I learned what was being used here.
“We didn’t want to complicate things more than was necessary for the players.
“Mike Leach says, ‘Any time I spend coaching defense, I’m wasting my time.’ He’s pretty much locked in the offensive room all day long. That was important for me to come back as an assistant — to run the defense.”
Pullman is a town of 33,000 (plus students), 75 miles south of Spokane and in the area of southeastern Washington called the Palouse, amid thousands of acres of picturesque rolling mounds and hills.
“They call ’em hills; they look like mountains to a guy from Kansas,” Claeys said. “What’s amazing is I grew up surrounded by all those wheat fields on the Kansas prairie, and here the wheat fields are on the side of the mountains, and they get more bushels per acre than Kansas.”
Claeys spent much of his year away from football back home in Clay Center, Kan., with his mom and the rest of his family. He took a minor dip into the cattle business with his brother, and was an invited guest to various college football programs — including Texas A&M-Commerce, which wound up winning the Division II national title.
He talks to a few Minnesotans on a regular basis, including Dan O’Brien, part of Jerry Kill’s football operation with the Gophers and now back in head coaching at St. Thomas Academy.
“OB sounds as happy as can be, back coaching high school kids,” Claeys said.
Claeys is also happy, being associated with Leach — “He’s not all ate up with football; he talks about more different things than any coach I know” — but he is a bit sick of hearing about the “culture” change with Gophers football.
“We were 11-and-8 after I took over for Jerry and six of those losses were to teams with 10 or more wins,” Claeys said. “We didn’t lose to teams we were supposed to beat; except that Iowa game at home in 2016 … that one still kills me.
“We left a nine-win team. We were going to play Seth Green at quarterback in 2017, and he was going to keep getting better. We would’ve won eight games last season and been better this year.
“Much as they want to, don’t let ’em blame too much on me.”