Tracy Claeys sat in the family Oldsmobile in the parking lot of an oil company, waiting for his stepfather to finish his shift as a fuel delivery driver.
Ione Walker had all three of her kids with her that day. Tracy was 5 years old, the middle child, the quiet one.
Ione was married at 16, a mother at 17 and divorced with three kids at 21. Life was hard in the farming town of Clay Center, Kan., population 4,200.
But then she met Bob Walker, who promised to take care of her and her kids. Claeys never had a relationship with his biological father. He adores Bob, his stepfather for 43 years.
“He’s a good guy,” Claeys said after another day spent as Gophers defensive coordinator, a job his family couldn’t have imagined long ago that he’d hold.
As they waited for Bob that evening in 1973, Ione and the kids saw ambulances racing out of town. The sirens were headed for Bob.
It was a particularly windy day. At Bob’s last stop, a hose broke as he refilled gas at a service station. The fumes fueled an explosion. Bob ran from his truck as fast as possible, but flames engulfed him.
A trucker passing by stopped and tackled Bob with blankets.
“His guardian angel,” Ione said.
Bob suffered burns on over 70 percent of his body. He lost most of his left ear from an infection. He spent 65 days in a burn unit and was out of work for a year.
Bob’s workers’ compensation paid him $56 a week. Ione received $120 a month in child support. Medical bills piled up.
The family went on welfare.
“I don’t eat bologna sandwiches anymore,” Claeys said. “We ate so much bologna and popcorn.”
Their lack of material items never conquered their family spirit. They knew they always had each other.
“We may have been raised poor, but I never went to bed at night wondering if somebody cared about me,” Claeys said.
As their kids grew older, the Walkers ran a pool hall in town and later managed the bowling alley.
Family vacations consisted of making the 30-minute drive to Manhattan, Kan., where they would stay in a hotel and swim all day. Once, the family took an outing to the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City.
They parked the car, rode a trolley to the front gate and saw the price of admission. They turned around, took the trolley back to their car and went to the Royals game instead.
“We did get to ride the trolley,” Claeys said.
He smiled at that memory. His pride in his family and his roots came pouring out as Claeys dined on a burger and chips at a neighborhood pub.
“Don’t ever forget where you come from,” he said. “It’s made me a better person.”
• • •
The perseverance and love that guided his family through tough times became Claeys’ bedrock as he climbed the ranks as a college football coach.
In four seasons as Gophers defensive coordinator, Claeys, 46, has accomplished something previously considered unthinkable. He has turned a historically inept defense into the team’s strength. Claeys was nominated this season for a national award that honors the top assistant coach in college football. His $600,000 salary makes him the highest-paid assistant in program history.
Despite his success, Claeys has maintained his small-town sensibilities. He knew he wanted to coach football by the time he was in eighth grade. He was always realistic about his talent as an offensive lineman.
“Probably below average,” he said.
He was a better bowler than football player, once rolling a 260. As a freshman at the University of Kansas, he tried out for the bowling team and averaged a little more 200 for eight games. The other kids brought two or three balls to use depending on the lane conditions.
“I was happy that I had one ball,” Claeys said.
He performed well enough to earn an invitation from the team, but he had his heart set on coaching football. He became a student manager at KU as a freshman and later a student assistant under Glen Mason, who later became coach of the Gophers.
Claeys, however, ran out of money before finishing his degree and returned home. He took a semester off, got a job to save some money and then enrolled at Kansas State. He found a high school teaching job near Topeka paying $22,000 a year. He also served as an assistant coach on the football and baseball teams.
Then a friend called with an offer: Come join Jerry Kill’s staff at Saginaw Valley State for $3,000 a year with no health benefits.
Claeys found his big break. His parents were not happy.
“He had a college education and was going to give it up for a couple of thousand a year,” said Todd Claeys, his older brother by 1½ years.
That part-time job led to full-time employment under Kill at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. He has been with Kill for two decades, his defensive coordinator since 1999.
Claeys believed in himself and in Kill, but those early days required sacrifices.
“If you’re going to do that,” he said, “do it while you’re young.”
• • •
The car pulled out of Clay Center at 5:30 a.m., but not before Claeys’ siblings made a pit stop at the Tasty Pastry to pick up a box of nut rolls and strawberry twists.
“Tracy thinks those are gold,” his sister Teresa Garcia said.
Teresa and Todd had never visited Minnesota and wanted to surprise their brother before the Iowa game this season. They told no one, other than Kill’s wife, Rebecca.
Claeys walked out of a 2 p.m. staff meeting Friday to find his brother and sister staring at him.
The big guy melted.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
The next day they watched the game from Kill’s suite as the Gophers pummeled the Hawkeyes 51-14. The middle brother’s defense held Iowa to 205 yards and forced three turnovers.
Claeys asked his siblings how they’d like to celebrate that night. They bought a pizza from Wal-Mart, a 12-pack of beer and watched college football at Claeys’ apartment.
“We had an absolute blast,” Teresa said.
That’s Claeys in a nutshell. The title of football coach doesn’t nearly encapsulate his true being.
He’s a numbers whiz who earned his degree in mathematics education and taught algebra in high school. He reads the Sunday business section, plays the stock market — he’s big on Apple and put a couple hundred bucks into oil stock recently — and wakes up every morning with CNBC on his TV.
“If I ever won the lottery, I’d have him be my financial guy,” said best friend David Lund.
Claeys purchased a shuttered Dairy Queen in Clay Center last year and renovated it into a bar and grill. He studies the Point of Sale numbers on Sunday mornings to see how items are selling.
Born on Christmas Day, he was a bright child, a thinker, always methodical. He made straight A’s in school in everything except for music — “I got C’s in music,” he said — and became the first person in his extended family to graduate from college.
He helped design and renovate two homes in previous coaching stops. He avoids plumbing and electrical work, but he’s skilled at framing and hanging Sheetrock.
He’s also handy in the kitchen. He loves to slow-cook meat especially.
“If you have beef and add a little bacon to it,” he said with a smile, “life is pretty good.”
• • •
Claeys’ coaching style reflects his personality. He’s soft-spoken, analytical and raises his voice only when he notices a lack of effort.
“I’m a teacher,” he said. “You can’t tell me that it’s fun to teach if you’ve got to scream and holler all the time.”
That shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a lack of aggression. He loves to attack and blitz, often using defensive backs to create pressure off the edge.
The Gophers finished 34th nationally in scoring defense this season, allowing 23.4 points per game. They ranked 24th last season at 22.2 points.
Claeys judges his defense’s performance on a specific chart: 17 points is a great day, 21 a good day and anything more than 28 a bad day.
Claeys eliminated huddles to save time because of the abundance of no-huddle offenses in college football. He doesn’t watch other Big Ten games on TV because “I get to see it on film.” Plus, he worries he’d lay in bed all night thinking about a game plan.
He believes a fresh mind is critical because he estimates he has 5 to 7 seconds to make his defensive call and have it relayed to the players on the field before every snap.
“That’s an extremely small window to make some of the decisions you have to make,” he said. “If you’re tired, it’s not going to happen.”
That’s why in a profession marked by ridiculously long hours, Claeys tries to keep some sanity. He doesn’t believe in sitting in a film room until 2 a.m., if nothing productive comes of it.
Sometimes, he keeps members of his defensive staff late if they’re not comfortable with the plan. Often, he goes home at a reasonable hour and clears his head by watching his favorite sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”
“We work until the job is done,” he said. “[Work] until we feel good about what we’re doing.”
• • •
The restaurant business always intrigued Claeys, so when he got a good deal on a building and land, he made the plunge on the aptly named “Coach’s Grill and Pub.”
He hired his sister to oversee renovations and then manage the place. Business is a family affair.
Claeys and Teresa brainstormed on the menu and came up with some of their favorite dishes. Claeys made sure they served meatloaf, pot roast and chicken-fried steak.
Ione makes her potato salad for the Wednesday lunch special and her chicken noodles in wintertime.
Claeys had certain rules and demands. Family always comes first. If it causes family problems, the business gets sold. The restaurant also can’t interfere with his coaching or become a distraction.
In the planning phase, he asked that prices be affordable and that every seat in the building have a clear view of a television (there are nine TVs total). The restaurant is closed on Sunday, and the place must be kept spotless. That one is not negotiable.
He found the perfect manager in Teresa, a noted “clean freak.” As part of its one-year anniversary on Dec. 21, the restaurant had an inspection.
“[Teresa] called me, proud,” Claeys said. “The guy said, ‘This is probably the cleanest restaurant I’ve been in.’ ”
Claeys missed the restaurant’s opening because of the bowl game last season, but he returned for two weeks in the summer and worked every job in the place to better understand the operation.
He tended bar, cleaned floors, served food and worked the fryer, though that job left him haggard. He manned the fryer the night of the fried chicken special.
“In 2½ hours, we sold 52 orders of fried chicken,” Teresa said. “At the end of the night, Tracy said, ‘I love fried chicken, but I really wouldn’t want to have a piece right now.’ ”
Claeys figures he’ll help run the place once his coaching career is over. That might not be for a long time. Single and without kids, he loves his lifestyle and coaching defense and trying to develop players.
“Working with kids keeps you young,” he said.
He said he’s not consumed by thoughts of becoming a head coach. It’s a goal, he said, but only if the fit feels right. He said he has no desire to take a head coaching job at a small school that doesn’t have the same resources as a Power Five school.
“I’m not going to base my career off being a head coach,” he said.
He finds happiness in simple pleasures. An effective blitz. A third-down stop. A spirited practice.
He doesn’t need much. He’s perfectly content with a well-played game by his defense followed by a pizza and a few beers with his family in a Saturday night full of laughs.