Coaches can be overrated at times, after all they don't play the game on Saturday's and if you know some head coaches their role on gameday can be quite minimal. However, that doesn't describe Jerry Kill in the least and anyone that's seen him coach or speak knows that.
He's not just a figurehead – his stamp is all over whatever program he is in charge of and as we enter 2013 most on the outside still see this program as the laughing stock it has been in the past few years. While the program was a joke before Kill came to campus (try talking Tim Brewster to a Gophers fan once… it won't end well) questions remain as to if Kill can lead this team to heights it hasn't experienced since 1967.
What happened then? Well, for all the "We've won seven national championships" talk this program hasn't won a Big Ten championship since that 1967 season. That sobering thought gets even more sobering when you consider that's the same amount of time since INDIANA has won a Big Ten football championship.
That's the challenge facing Jerry Kill – it's clear that competing for championships is what's expected in the Gophers athletics department these days. So, with that in mind, let us explore some history and take a look at whether or not Kill can get this team to heights it hasn't seen since the Cold War and Vietnam were at their heights.
History Tells Us:
Unlike a few coaches coming into the conference over the past few seasons Kill has a long track record to look at and thus a fairly accurate model of what has happened and what could happen as well. He has been a head coach at four other schools outside of Minnesota – starting his journey at DII Saginaw Valley State and then moving on to Emporia State, Southern Illinois, and Northern Illinois.
Looking at his career as a head coach one thing is abundantly clear off the bat – it never took him long to write a sinking ship or to get a program stuck in neutral moving forward. In fact, if you're a Gophers fan you have to be encouraged by what history tells you.
That's because history tells us that the third season has been the place where Kill coaches teams make their move. At both of the last two stops on his coaching journey the turnaround has been spectacular. At Southern Illinois he went from 4-8 in year two to 10-2 in years three and four. At his next destination, Northern Illinois, Kill's team went from 7-6 to 10-3 and and undefeated MAC season at 8-0.
Expecting those kind of meteoric rises may be a bit much, but it gives you an indication that Kill can flat out coach and has a good eye for talent that fits his system in recruiting. It also tells me that he's got a great eye for assistant coaching talent – that's where the real differences are made up from year to year.
If you've been paying attention over the past four or five years in the Big Ten, where change both on and off the field has become the new norm rather than an irregularity, then you already know the value of keeping a staff together. Just look at what took place last season at Wisconsin – sure they won the Big Ten Championship game, but they went 7-5 during the regular season…. A lot of that had to do with the massive changeover and a mismatch on the coaching staff.
Luckily Minnesota doesn't have that problem. Kill values loyalty and trust in his coaching staff's and it shows on this one. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with Kill at every stop since joining the staff at Saginaw Valley State in 1995. Yes, you read that right… 1995! Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrower has a similar story, being on Kill's staff since 1999.
I think you get the overall point, this staff knows each other inside and out and that can really help speed along a reclamation project and make no mistake about it, where this program was when Kill took over following the 2010 season warrants that title.
Coaching is all well and good, but if you aren't recruiting the right kind of players to accentuate your coaching style and the philosophy you want to play it won't matter. However, recruiting can be a funny thing.
What the "gurus" and recruiting sites say is an awesome class doesn't always make it so. Kill isn't the flashiest of guys out there and thus recruiting at Minnesota isn't flashy either. However, what he has managed to do since coming to Minnesota is give this program an identity and that more than anything else helps recruiting.
Of course, it also helps that he is beginning to not see the top talent in the state of Minnesota leaving for rivals like Wisconsin ad Iowa. That was something that was killing this team in the Brewster era to say the least. While the "rankings" may not really like what the Gophers are doing in recruiting, the results on the field show that they're striking more of the right notes than wrong ones and at a program that's never going to attract massive 5-star recruits on an annual basis that's about all you can ask for.
As we are talking today, Kill has a verbal commitment from the top player in Minnesota for the 2014 class, a 4-start running back named Jeff Jones.
What Does it All Mean:
Sure, history is great, but there's a difference between getting it done at the FCS and MAC levels than doing on the biggest stage possible – the B1G. However, all signs do point to this being a season for Kill's Gophers to make a move. He's got a veteran offensive line, some talent at all three defensive position groups and a solid set of running backs. For Kill, that's how you win football games – the question remains though… How do you measure success and "major improvement" this season.
Is it record? Is it in playing better football? Is it winning a rivalry game or two? For me it's a combination of all three. If Kill wants to show this team is going to be reckoned with come the new look conference next season this is the year the corner needs to be turned. Look for better football to be played on the whole, no matter the record. However, winning Paul Bunyan's Axe or The Little Brown Jug would certainly be the stamp needed to show the fans in Dinkytown that things are indeed looking up. As for record… Well, if this team can muster up an actual winning record and possibly get to 8 games then 2013 would be a wild success if you ask me.