Jerry Kill keeps a calendar with all his speaking engagements and public appearances on his desk. He had 22 events in June alone.
His assistant already has him booked for appearances through August.
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
It means people care about Gophers football again. They are starting to believe in Kill’s program. Speaking of believers, four different church groups hosted Kill this summer.
“I think they all felt as ornery as I am, I need a little religion,” he said with a smile.
Want to see Kill’s feisty side?
Mention that his team has a tough schedule this season and might take a step backward after playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time in forever.
Listen to him explain the sweat equity his players invested this offseason because they are ticked off — he used a more colorful term — after a loss to Missouri in the bowl game left them unsatisfied.
Hear him talk about a quote from an unidentified writer that — paraphrasing here — said the Gophers will never have as much talent as Nebraska, which owns a two-game losing streak to Kill’s team.
Kill displayed that quote somewhere in the team’s facility where players can’t miss it.
“They’re a confident bunch, I can tell you that,” Kill says.
As well they should be. Kill’s program no longer should be treated as the Little Engine That Could. The Gophers have shed their “Kick Me” sign and deserve to be taken seriously.
Last season was fun and fresh and offered a different narrative of Gophers football. Their success gave the program and its fan base a shot of adrenaline.
“You get a taste of it,” Kill said.
That’s a good starting point in setting goals and expectations. The Gophers might not win the Big Ten’s West Division, but they should be contenders again.
They have better talent, more depth and have shown they can compete with the blue bloods in the conference. Why not think that way?
Their 2015 schedule is a bear, no denying it, starting with Texas Christian in the opener. The Gophers conceivably could have a better team but an identical record this season.
But in overall talent, in eye test, in confidence that players exude, the program feels night-and-day different from even a few years ago.
“I’m not a guy who is going to predict,” Kill said. “I don’t stick myself out there. I’m not like the coaches here previous me. But I’ve got confidence in our kids.”
Expectations should increase because there is nothing fluky about the program’s steady climb or what took place last season.
The Gophers won at Michigan because they had better players. They won at Nebraska with comparable talent. They still must conquer their Wisconsin demons, but the gap between the two programs is not nearly as wide as it once was.
Kill always champions an underdog mentality. That’s just his personality. The Gophers would be foolish to lose that chip-on-their-shoulder edginess because they will remain in prove-it mode for the foreseeable future.
“Our kids have really worked their tails off,” Kill said.
Something happened this spring that crystallized the growth of Kill’s program. On the 14th spring practice, Kill’s staff turned things over to the players.
Coaches stood to the side as players ran practice. They conducted drills, ran through their plays, organized and policed themselves. It was their deal.
Coaches were there to offer guidance, if needed. Otherwise, the players handled the entire practice.
Kill had never done that in his long coaching career. He got the idea from Duke coach David Cutcliffe, his close friend.
Four years ago, Kill struggled to find enough leaders to run captain’s practices in the summer. A bunch of players were in danger of being declared academically ineligible.
The program was in disrepair.
And now Kill trusts his players to run a full practice on their own.
“I was very proud of them,” he said.
By any measure, the program has evolved and matured under Kill. (Well, except for facilities, and the school needs to get shovels in the dirt soon.) Players expect to win. Rivals respect the Gophers as a legitimate threat. The program is trending upward.
Expectations should change along with that. The bar is higher now. Winning in the manner of a stable, relevant program no longer should be viewed as a novelty.