Story by Joe Christensen • Photo by JERRY HOLT • Star Tribune
The new football coach pulled into the high school parking lot each morning in a '73 Ford Galaxie, a beastly yellow ride with a green roof. Nobody knew quite what to think. Jerry Kill was 26. He had spent three years making $250 a month as a Division II assistant in his home state of Kansas. In February 1988, he negotiated a $24,000 salary at Webb City High School in southwestern Missouri and started immediately.
"He came to the high school every day, and we weren't paying him a penny yet," said Ron Lankford, the superintendent who made the hire.
Kill made sure the players frequented the weight room, and he recruited others in the hallways. He'd bring doughnuts to share, along with his grand visions for Friday nights in the fall.
Webb City never had won a state championship in anything. It was Kill's first rebuilding project. It wouldn't be his last.
After earning a reputation as a plain-spoken, bespectacled turnaround artist, Kill arrived at Minnesota in December 2010 with another overhaul to make. Heading into his fifth season opener, Thursday against No. 2 TCU, his meticulous formula is working again.
The Gophers went 5-3 in the Big Ten last season, their first winning conference record in 11 years, and they played in their first New Year's Day bowl game since 1962. The Gophers haven't won a bowl game or hung a banner, but Kill and his long-tenured staff have unmistakably transformed the program. They have done it just as Kill did almost three decades ago in outstate Missouri: by changing the culture, inside the locker room and beyond.
Kill turned 54 this past week. He is the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year. His new contract will pay him $2.5 million this season. And he is still constantly on the move.
He spoke to 22 different groups in June alone, raising money and promoting the program at booster rallies, businesses and churches.
"We've had to change the culture in the state, just like in Webb City," Kill said. "I make a point to be the most visible person in the state of Minnesota."
Making them believe
That first summer in Webb City, Kill showed up at a Little League gathering and asked if he could speak. He had this new idea, inviting the kids to be "Bleacher Creatures" at the football games that fall. For $5, they'd get a T-shirt and a season ticket behind the north end zone.
"He got 200 kids to do it," Lankford said. "It was just amazing the fire he generated in the program. It wasn't Jerry Kill the X's-and-O's guy. It was Jerry Kill the person."
The first game was against Carl Junction, a long-superior rival that drove inside Webb City's 10-yard line twice in the first quarter. Both times, with the Bleacher Creatures whipped into a frenzy, the Cardinals kept the Bulldogs out of that north end zone.
"Right there," Lankford said, "you could see the belief come over the players."
Never show weakness
The first step for Kill everywhere he's gone has been to establish new, unwavering standards.
Summer workouts, for example, begin at 6 a.m. Many mornings, the Gophers begin with a drill called "One perfect jumping jack." The whole team bounces in unison, counting aloud "1-2-3-1," ending with hands at their sides.
If any player is out of sync, the whole team does it again. Sometimes it takes four or five repetitions to get it right.
"You always have that one guy who messes up, and it's usually a freshman," senior captain Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. "But I think it brings us together as a team. It's the middle of July, it's 6 a.m., you don't really want to be there. But that one perfect jumping jack can really lock you in."
Kill rarely misses a chance to teach, to build better discipline, focus, consistency.
The Gophers drill basic fundamentals — tackling, blocking — every practice, and he demands that they hustle between stations. No matter how grueling a conditioning session gets, players learn never to hunch over, no hands on knees.
"That's a part of mental toughness," Kill said. "You're never going to show weakness."
When there's a collision in practice, bringing players to the ground, Kill urges them back to their feet immediately. It's a race to see which player is showing the best body language. "Let's go! First one up!" he'll bark, in that familiar Kansas drawl.
Practice officially ends when Kill blows his whistle. But if the players don't sprint to him from wherever they are on the field, he sends them back and does it over again. His speech waits until they do it right.
"Attack! We are always on the attack!" he'll say, jabbing a finger forward, with his face flushed and a half-week's worth of gray stubble on his cheeks.
'Who is this guy?'
Mark Smith was an eighth-grader in Webb City that first winter. Smith wanted to be a pro basketball player. Then the new football coach started twisting his arm.
"I remember thinking, 'Who is this guy?' " Smith said. "He looks now like he did then, with a little bit thicker hair and glasses. He came in and had that chubby finger in the air, telling everybody how great football was going to be."
That fall, Smith played varsity linebacker as a freshman, and Webb City went 11-1. The next year, Smith played quarterback, and the Cardinals went 14-0, winning Missouri's Class 4A state championship.
After the celebratory parade, Kill left to become offensive coordinator at Division II Pittsburg State in Kansas. Smith eventually went to Arkansas, where he became an All-SEC linebacker before playing two seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Twenty-five years later, I still remember it," Smith said. "It was one of those deals where kids are looking for a leader, and for some unknown reason, Coach Kill showed up in Webb City."
Gopher culture was 'bad'
At Minnesota, Kill followed Tim Brewster, whose teams finished 7-6, 6-7 and 3-9 in his final three years, changing offensive coordinators each season.
Kill brought most of his staff with him from Northern Illinois. Strength coach Eric Klein has been with him for 22 years, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys for 21, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover for 17 and down the line.
"There's nobody in America, no CEO in the country, who can be successful by himself," Kill said.
Brewster took the Gophers to new heights in the recruiting rankings — the 2008 class was ranked No. 17 by Rivals.com — but the pieces didn't all fit.
"Here's my whole recruiting philosophy: I don't want some kid I've got to beg to come," Kill said. "Because then, they're going to transfer anyway, or they're not going to be committed to the program, and they're going to be a pain in the rear end. I know it hurts us, but at the end of the day, we get the kids who want to be here."
Kill inherited several players from Brewster who keyed the program's turnaround, including Brock Vereen, Ra'Shede Hageman and Cameron Botticelli. But the team's overall reputation wasn't great.
"Our culture was bad," Kill said. "We had people in trouble every week."
Kill's staff places a premium on character. The Gophers use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to help learn what kind of people their recruits are. If there are too many red flags, the team moves on.
This month, former San Jose Mercury News reporter Mike Rosenberg ranked the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) based on arrests accrued over the past five years. That was one top 25 the Gophers were happy to miss, as they ranked 83rd with three arrests. For comparison, Iowa ranked 12th with 18 arrests.
Players policing now
Fans focus on the scoreboard, but when Kill arrived, he quickly realized that the Gophers were losing in the classroom. He said the Gophers had 22 players on academic probation and four who had been kicked out of school.
In 2009, under Brewster, the NCAA penalized the Gophers by taking away three scholarships because of the team's poor academics. Under Kill, the Gophers have not only climbed above the penalty zone, they have soared to an all-time high in the Academic Progress Rate scoring the past three years. The team has raised its cumulative grade-point average from 2.4 to 3.0 since Kill arrived.
To him, it's all about accountability. His first two years with the Gophers, players late to class or meetings had to wear brown shirts at practice that said, "I let my teammates down" and "Minnesota Loafers."
The number of brown shirts gradually dwindled until Kill felt comfortable shelving them before the 2013 season. These days, the players do a lot of self-policing, enforcing the team's disciplinary rules.
"We have strong leaders now," junior linebacker Jack Lynn said. "They'll take care of it."
Fix defense first
Kill seeks talent and character in recruiting, but also players who fit the Saturday game plans. The on-field goal is to rank toward the top of the Big Ten in three specific categories: rushing offense, turnover margin and scoring defense. A strong running game helps teams control the clock, which keeps the opposing offense on the sideline, helping the defense.
"Go back and look at the last 20, maybe even 25 Big Ten champions," Limegrover said. "With the exception of a few outliers, you're going to have teams that are in the top three or four in rushing, the top three or four in turnover [margin] and top three or four on defense."
The Gophers ranked 98th nationally in scoring defense in 2010, Brewster's final season. In Glen Mason's final season, 2006, they ranked 86th in that category.
Kill was determined to fix the defense first, just as he had at other stops. By limiting points, the Gophers have made themselves competitive even as they rebuild their own offense. Last season, the Gophers ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense and scoring defense, and second in turnover margin.
This year, Kill thinks Claeys could have his best defense yet, but the offense needs to continue improving, especially Mitch Leidner and the passing game. Quarterback and wide receiver are two positions the Gophers have yet to solve under Kill, but he hopes this year changes that.
At Webb City, the traditions endured after Kill left. The Cardinals have won 12 more state championships since that first one in 1989.
"I think a lot of things came together that led to that success, but Jerry Kill lit a fire that still burns there," said Lankford, the former superintendent. "He's a blue-collar guy, and he came to a blue-collar community, and he showed us that we could be first-class and compete with anybody."
The story was similar at Division II Saginaw Valley State in Michigan, where Kill went 6-4 his first year and 9-2 his final two years. At Southern Illinois, Kill's teams went 1-10 and 4-8 before making five consecutive trips to the Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) playoffs.
"It's the greatest college football story never told," said Paul Kowalczyk, the athletic director who hired Kill there. "Our program was a mess. I can't even begin to describe it."
Kill's staff had to build gradually at Southern Illinois, and it has been that way at Minnesota.
"We're not going to get a five-star athlete right now," Kill said. "So we recruit length and speed and build them up in the weight room."
But with back-to-back 8-5 finishes, the Gophers are recruiting more talent now, too. Kill's first five classes included only one player ranked among the top 250 recruits nationally by Rivals.com. That was Jeff Jones, now a redshirt freshman receiver, the 44th-ranked recruit in 2014.
For the 2016 class, Kill already has three commitments from the Rivals 250: Eden Prairie linebacker Carter Coughlin (No. 213), Florida receiver Dredrick Snelson (No. 141) and Illinois offensive lineman Sean Foster (No. 229). Kill also is closing the borders, with commitments from nine Minnesotans and counting in this class.
"I remember watching the news conference with my wife right after Minnesota hired [Kill]," Kowalczyk said. "I thought, 'Those people have no idea what they're getting. He's going to take them for a ride.' "
Kill is doing just that. Long after the '73 Galaxie went to the scrap heap.