CLAY CENTER, KAN. – When Tracy Claeys returns to his hometown, he never needs an appointment to see the mayor. Jimmy Thatcher has known the Gophers football coach since they were kids, growing up in the same trailer park.
Last month, Claeys invited Thatcher to his parents’ house, and they sat on the deck, discussing football, small-town politics and the old neighborhood.
“I don’t look at him as some celebrity,” Thatcher said. “When he’s back here, he’s just Tracy.”
Minnesota fans know him as the longtime Jerry Kill assistant who got thrust into head coaching duty when Kill resigned for health reasons last fall. Now, Claeys has a chance to make his own mark, with the Gophers’ drive to rebound from a 6-7 season starting Friday, with the first practice. It’s a pivotal year for Claeys. For all his success as a defensive coordinator, he remains unproven as a head coach. He also has a new boss, in recently hired athletic director Mark Coyle.
Amid his offseason preparation, Claeys knew one sure way to stay centered. He returned to the place where he grew up as a quiet, industrious kid from a family that worked tirelessly to survive financially.
In Clay Center last month, the coach hosted a barbecue and showed visitors around the tight-knit farming community. When the tour ended, he was standing in the shaded square outside the Clay County courthouse. One of the town’s 4,200 residents spotted him from across the courtyard.
“I’d walk as far as it took to say hi to this guy,” Mary Jo Bull said, coming over for a hug. “It’s just such a neat feeling to see you on the sideline and know that, hey, ‘This kid’s from Clay Center.’ ”
Claeys, 47, smiled and put his hands on his hips.
“Well, I appreciate that,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy coming back. Good people.”
Withstanding the heat
Back in his Minneapolis office, Claeys has a framed photo of himself with Kill perched over his shoulder. They spent 21 years together and still talk by phone each week.
But Kill is working as an associate AD at Kansas State now. Claeys has the program to himself. The Gophers went 2-4 after Kill resigned last year, with hard-fought losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa.
Claeys expects more, saying the Gophers should at least contend for a Big Ten West title every November.
His three-year contract pays $1.4 million this year but contains a small buyout — just $250,000 per season. If the Gophers sputter, the temperature around Claeys could feel like a steamy Kansas summer day.
“Farmers say the corn needs to be knee-high by the Fourth of July, so it can withstand the heat,” Claeys said.
How about Claeys? At some point his Gophers will lose a game they’re supposed to win. Can he withstand the heat?
“The difference is the heat on the corn and crops will kill it,” Claeys said. “The crops can actually feel the heat. I don’t look at it that way. I’ll put more heat on myself from the inside-out than what any group of fans or media will ever put on me.”
Coaching football remains an all-consuming job for Claeys, who has stayed single, while his siblings have married and given him four nieces.
Claeys tries to return home once or twice a year, staying in his parents’ basement. They have a two-story house in a comfortable neighborhood, not extravagant but clearly an upgrade for the family from its years in rental properties.
For perspective, Claeys’ mother, Ione Walker, showed a photo of the small, dilapidated farmhouse where she and seven siblings were raised.
“Listen, we were poor,” she said. “I got married when I was 16. I was pregnant and dropped out of school. My dad would roll over in his grave if he thought a dropout could have a kid who was on TV, as the head coach.”
She was divorced with three kids by age 21. In stepped Bob Walker, who’s been married to her now for 43 years. Claeys has no relationship with his birth father.
“He never wanted anything to do with me, and I don’t have any regrets about it,” Claeys said. “Bob’s my real father.”
This made it all the more harrowing in 1974, when tragedy struck. Bob was a fuel delivery driver, and his tanker exploded, engulfing him in flames.
Burns covered 78 percent of his body. Infection claimed most of his left ear. The family feared for his life. After two months in a Kansas City burn unit, he finally made it home.
With three growing kids — Todd (6), Tracy (5) and Teresa (2) — Ione was getting $120 per month in child support, and Bob received $56 per week in worker’s comp. For a while, the family needed food stamps.
“It wasn’t a matter of pride,” Claeys said. “It was truly a security net, what it was meant for.”
Once Bob’s wounds healed, he and Ione managed the Idle Hour bar for about 18 months. They also ran the local bowling alley for several years. Claeys helped with the labor — sweeping floors, grooming pool tables, oiling bowling lanes — and worked on farms to earn extra cash.
“I’m not saying we didn’t have a lot, but we worked for what the hell we got,” Bob said. “I used to work two and three jobs. I don’t think they ever went to bed hungry.”
The ’74 explosion left Bob scarred but didn’t change his sense of humor. Silver-haired and wearing a gold Minnesota shirt, he described the joy he gets watching the Gophers on TV from his basement.
The neighborhood knows if Minnesota wins. Bob celebrates every victory by setting off his car alarm.
At last month’s barbecue, Bob entertained guests with stories, while Claeys handled the grilling. The coach returned with a platter of bratwursts, burgers and chicken breasts cooked to perfection with his secret seasoning.
Claeys owned Coach’s Grill & Pub in town for a couple of years, with his sister, Teresa, running the place. But the restaurant business has its hassles, and Claeys closed it last fall. For his next venture, he purchased a 70-acre pasture near brother Todd’s house, with 15 pairs of black angus cattle — calves and their mothers — and a 2-year-old bull. Todd tends the cattle before and after work as a mechanics supervisor at the Fort Riley Army base.
After the barbecue, Claeys climbed into his parents’ SUV and headed south to check on his latest investment.
“We’ll sell the calves once they get around 600 pounds, turn around and have another set of calves in February,” Claeys said, staring out over the sloping pasture, clearly pleased.
“Tracy and I both have agricultural backgrounds,” Todd added. “Not directly living on family farms, but we cut more pig weed [than most]. The majority of the income living in a farming community was working for farmers. So if you’re a wise guy, you take note of your surroundings.”
As the brothers talked, the sun was setting on a perfect summer evening.
Claeys cherishes those Kansas sunsets, saying, “No two are ever alike, depending on how much dust, if it’s harvest, or whatever’s in the air.”
He remembers his first Minneapolis sunset, too.
“I got out of the airport, and I drove in on 35,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, the skyline when you come around that one curve — it’s as beautiful a sight as there is. When the sun’s going down, the Stone Arch Bridge — I mean, it’s just a different type of beauty.”
After surveying his pasture, Claeys turned the SUV toward home and explained what first drew him to sports. It wasn’t just the fun. It was the sense of equality.
“You had to get along, and everybody relied on each other,” Claeys said. “It didn’t matter how much damn money you made. They’d wear the [Air] Jordans, and we wore the Pro Wings from Payless. When you got out on the football field, none of that mattered anymore.”
At Clay Center High School, Claeys was class president and posted the third-highest GPA in the Class of ’87. He valued his education but threw himself into sports — football, basketball and baseball — even though he never considered himself a great athlete.
Claeys wore No. 70 and played offensive and defensive line. His family gave him a frame with his old jersey, and he used it to help recruit freshman Sam Schlueter last year.
“He likes the No. 70, and I told him I wanted him to wear it,” Claeys said. “I wasn’t worth a darn, so I want to see somebody who’s good wear that number.”
Claeys has saved other mementos in a blue wooden trunk. There’s a newspaper clipping noting his nomination for Clay Center’s “King of Winter Sports.” There’s a T-shirt signifying his first coaching triumph — a youth baseball state title.
There is also a blue Kansas foam finger and ticket stubs from the Jayhawks’ 1988 NCAA championship run. That was Claeys’ freshman year.
He went to Kansas with a Pell Grant and applied to be a grunt on the football training staff.
“I learned to tape ankles, do little things like that, but for the most part I was a glorified water boy,” Claeys said.
He had no interest in athletic training. He just wanted to study the coaches, including Glen Mason, who took over at Kansas in 1988.
After four years, Claeys’ Pell Grant expired, and he had yet to graduate. So he returned home for a year and hit the reset button. Clay Center’s varsity coach, Larry Wiemers, hired Claeys as an assistant. The job paid $1.
The team framed the dollar bill with the inscription: “Coach Tracy Claeys, congratulations on your first coaching dollar.”
Claeys finished his mathematics education degree at Kansas State, commuting the 45 minutes to become the first in his family to graduate. Then, Claeys made a career-defining decision.
He’d been hired as an algebra teacher and assistant coach at Santa Fe Trail High School, for $22,000 a year, more than his parents made combined. But after one season, Claeys left for a job at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State that paid $3,000.
Ione thought her son had lost his mind. Bob swears she didn’t speak to Claeys for six weeks.
“Listen, I wasn’t happy, I really wasn’t,” Ione said. “That’s a lot of money to give up, 20-some thousand.”
But the move became a pay cut that paid off. The head coach at Saginaw: Jerry Kill.
Kill and Claeys would rebuild Saginaw’s program, and then do the same at Emporia (Kansas) State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before coming to Minnesota.
A forever home
Clay Center has six stoplights, mostly concentrated around the old clock tower-topped courthouse.
“We don’t deserve all the stoplights we have,” Claeys said. “I think Senator [Bob] Dole took care of us all the years he was in congress.”
Some quick trivia: Clay Center is the geographic midpoint between America’s two biggest cities — New York and Los Angeles. It’s exactly 1,224 miles from each metropolis. Some would call that the middle of nowhere. Thatcher calls it a town on the cutting edge.
“With fiber optics to every premise in town, we have the fastest Internet in the nation,” Thatcher said. “We have 100 percent reverse osmosis water, and we have our own power plant. We can go completely off the grid and power our entire city.”
Claeys showed off Clay Center’s new swimming pool, which has shattered attendance goals, and noted the renovations to the town zoo. He’s proud of the town’s upgrades.
“Ten years ago, there were a bunch of [condemned] houses, and the roads were all torn up, and it was like, ‘This place is falling apart,’ ” Claeys said. “And since [Thatcher’s] been mayor, they’ve passed a couple taxes and done a good job moving it forward.”
Under Kill and Claeys, Minnesota’s program has made progress, too. The Gophers had fallen behind, on and off the field, during the Tim Brewster era. Now they’re among the national leaders in academics and are just one season removed from back-to-back 8-5 finishes.
Claeys can look out his office window and see construction crews overhauling the land for the $190 million Athletes Village project. And as a digital subscriber to the Clay Center Dispatch, he also keeps a close eye on his hometown.
“Paying property taxes here, it’s good [to stay informed],” Claeys said. “And who knows? It wouldn’t bother me to come back here and live when I’m done coaching. I really enjoyed being raised here. I think it prepared me awfully well.”