This football thing is working out for Tracy Claeys. So well, in fact, that even his mother agrees.

And that wasn't always the case.

"My mom didn't talk to me for four months after I went into coaching," said Claeys, the new Gophers defensive coordinator. "She wasn't very happy."

That's because Claeys is the first member of his family ever to earn a college degree, an achievement that he initially turned into a job as a high school math teacher in tiny Carbondale, Kan. He was earning a starting salary of more than $20,000, with health insurance and a retirement account and a chance to help coach the Santa Fe Trail Chargers football team after school.

And when friend-of-a-friend Jerry Kill, head coach of Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State at the time, called to offer him a $3,000 stipend and no benefits to get into NCAA Division II football, Claeys jumped at the chance once his contract ran out. "It didn't make much sense to my family," Claeys said, "but it was what I always wanted to do."

Well, that's only partly true. Claeys' first dream, ever since grade school, was to play football for the University of Kansas. So much so that when the Jayhawks showed no interest in a so-so lineman from Clay Center, he decided to walk on, earn a roster spot and show them their mistake.

On the first day of practice, Kansas coach Bob Valesente "gave me the best advice of my career," Claeys said with a laugh. "He said, 'Why don't you watch practice for a couple of days?' I did, and I got his point. Quite frankly, I didn't think I'd be able to play there."

Determined to be a Jayhawk, though, Claeys applied for a manager's job but found them all filled. So he asked the team's athletic trainer for a volunteer job among the med-school candidates, taping ankles, cleaning treatment tanks and being "the best waterboy in the country. I said I'll do whatever job nobody else wants to do."

Of such modest but devoted service, an impressive career was born. Claeys got an education in coaching football every bit the equal of his math degree, perhaps more immersive than had he been on the football staff.

"I did it for three years, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me," said Claeys, who finished his undergraduate work at Kansas State in order to be closer to home. "Every year, I worked with a different position. I got to see the drills, watch the coaches work with the players, be up close on the sidelines."

And true to his math background, he developed a taste for problem-solving -- which translated to a preference for defense. He then took those skills and followed Kill to jobs at Emporia State in Kansas, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and now Minnesota.

"He's got a great, analytical mind. He can take a film and right away spot the countermove to anything you try" on offense, said Kill, who has kept Claeys running his defense for 16 seasons. "It's a chess match to him."

Like chess, the key is anticipating moves, Claeys said. "We're going to try to take away what teams do best. We'll work on stopping their four or five best running plays and the 8-10 best pass routes," Claeys said. "Make them try to beat you with something they don't do as well."

If he has a core philosophy, it's this: Pressure is power.

"You have to make the offense feel stressed. The more pressure you apply, the better the chance they'll make a mistake," Claeys said. "We want speed, we want energy. We want to get to the quarterback or make him get rid of it. The quicker the ball comes out, the sooner you can run after it."