– Cameron Botticelli laughs about it now, but those first few weeks and months of Jerry Kill’s tenure at Minnesota were no picnic for the players.

“Grueling,” said the defensive tackle, who remembers being too tired to think about anything except trying to survive to the next day.

Safety Cedric Thompson doesn’t recall those initial workouts with much fondness, either.

“That was definitely something different from anything I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Heck, even Kill admits he pushed the limits in attempting to change a negative culture after inheriting a mess of a football program.

“The first day we came in there, they probably thought we were crazy,” Kill said.

That was early 2011, and the guys who refused to quit when Kill demanded so much more of them have witnessed the Gophers program grow and steadily improve because of their own sweat equity.

Freshmen back then, they had no clue where their journey would take them. The path reaches its conclusion here Thursday in the Citrus Bowl, the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl game in 53 years.

The school and fans of the program owe a debt of gratitude to this senior class, the leaders. Guys such as Botticelli and Thompson, along with David Cobb, Donnell Kirkwood, Zac Epping, Tommy Olson, Drew Goodger and a few others.

Those players endured their share of lumps and ridicule and disappointment before being able to enjoy the rewards of their sacrifices this season.

Some of them went through a coaching change. They experienced the death of a teammate, Gary Tinsley. They faced the uncertainty of Kill’s struggle with epilepsy. They won three games in 2011, and endured a 58-0 skunking at Michigan.

It hasn’t always been easy. But that group kept pushing and believing that better days were on the horizon.

“You get tired of turning on your TV and everybody is talking about Wisconsin or Nebraska or Michigan, like we don’t have good athletes,” Cobb said. “It’s kind of frustrating. But you have to look yourself in the mirror and stop pointing fingers.”

Every senior class carries certain responsibilities as the glue that binds a team. Some senior classes succeed, some fall short. The members of this Gophers senior class left an indelible mark that can’t be overstated.

Sure, they didn’t win a championship, or even a Big Ten division title. But the program bears no resemblance in substance to the dysfunctional nonsense they walked into as freshmen.

“My freshman year, we were definitely bad,” Thompson said. “We were bad in a sense of not winning games, but we were awfully bad at being teammates and being a family.”

As a freshman, Thompson was disheartened by locker room cliques, and upperclassmen often ignored younger players. Before this season, Thompson gathered the defense and told the players that a football team should act like a family.

“You need something,” he told the freshmen that day, “you call one of the seniors or an upperclassman and let them know that you need something. I told the seniors that you make sure you help these kids.”

Teammates spend so much time together now, Kirkwood said, that people often ask if they ever get sick of each other. This is how a program gets built.

“I’ve been in the program for five years so I can see the changes,” Kirkwood said.

Those changes are obvious on the field, too. The Gophers are tougher now, mentally and physically. They don’t crawl into a shell when hit with adversity. Opponents no longer view them as pushovers.

That starts with the seniors, the leaders — Botticelli, Cobb and Thompson, in particular — who embody Kill’s competitive fire and “spiteful resilience,” as Botticelli calls it.

“I want this senior class to be remembered as the guys who were tough enough and resilient enough and committed enough to weather Coach Kill’s first year,” Botticelli said. “Because he put this football program through the gantlet and it needed to be put through the gantlet.”

The seniors survived it because they had conviction, the right kind of character and faith in Kill’s plan. They wanted their program to be taken seriously, to be relevant.

The Gophers must continue to improve and win more games and attract better talent, but the future looks promising.

The legacy of any senior class can be captured in one simple question: Is the program in better shape now than when they arrived?

In this case, yes. Most definitely, yes.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com