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Call him ‘Country,’ but let’s see what Jerry Kill has next in store

(Photo credit: Marlin Levison / Star Tribune) The following column was originally posted on Fringe Bowl Team blog. You read it in entirety there, or below by clicking “Read More.” 

Reader Patrick sends in the following question: “Can we all agree Jerry Kill’s first season has been complete flop?

Alright, a reader didn’t e-mail that. It came from Patrick Reusse on Twitter* after I asked him about his running criticism of Jerry Kill, particularly that the new coach was small time and, of all things, that he has a country drawl.

* - Well, maybe he’s a reader, but I doubt it. I remain grounded that few people care to read Gopher football insight spliced with quotes from “Apocolypse Now.” Anyway, I’ve worked in newspapers for a little bit more than five years. It’s not that long of a period, but long enough where I’ve had the great opportunity to ask tough questions to some incredibly brilliant people – governors, U.S. Senators, congresswomen who’ve become presidential contenders, famous athletes, even Desmond Tutu. After all of those people, I don’t think my dad has ever been as surprised as when on Thursday I said, “Reusse replied to me on Twitter a couple of times.”

My dad’s reply, “Why is he on there responding to people like you?”

Yes, to answer your next question: my dad is a regular viewer of “The Sports Show.”

Reusse is a bit of a lightning rod among some Gopher fans, who complain that he takes his criticism too far. Does he sometimes? Depends who you ask. But to say he doesn’t know what he is talking about or that he isn’t an encyclopedia of Gopher football would be criminal. In his defense, honestly, how else do you describe a team that was outscored 103-3 in the first halves of its first three conference games? I don’t always agree with his takes — particularly his idea to create a rivalry with Indiana, especially after he remarked that fans have too low of expectations in another column — but I’ve yet to read anything that is particularly unfair in his Star Tribune or ESPN1500 columns. Above all, I don’t think he’s a Skip Bayless lightning rod just shouting for the sake of hurting people’s ears. When he’s on, he’s the best sports columnist in the Twin Cities and it’s not even close. 

So while his question was rhetorical, let’s delve into it. Has Kill’s first season been a complete flop?*

* - Yes, I’m going to take a question from a 140-character medium and write a couple thousand words in response. I love the Internet.

* * * *

A day after the Minnesota Golden Gophers lost to Purdue, University of Minnesota Athletic Director and perennial student section patsy Joel Maturi gave Tim Brewster his walking papers, confirming a leaked report that the coach would be fired if the Gophers lost.

Speaking before assembled reporters on Oct. 17, 2010, Maturi tried to assure the scribes that he would find a big-time coach to lead the program back into respectability. He remarked that the new coach “wouldn’t be following Vince Lombardi” and said he had already asked Tony Dungy to take over the program. (The Super Bowl winning-coach and obvious favorite of Gopher fans who still believe in the Easter Bunny declined instantly.)

“The fact of the matter is President Bruininks knows, Joel Maturi knows, others know that football is the engine to every athletic program,” Maturi told the Associated Press. Yes, he even spoke in third-person. “I’ve asked Tubby Smith if he wanted to coach football, but he’s declined. … But we’re out here to find a Tubby Smith. We’re out here to find somebody that people can recognize, people have confidence in, and people are going to bring instant credibility and notoriety to the football program.”

There it was. A Tubby Smith-type hire. The man three and a half years removed from hiring a former tight ends coach with no major head coaching experience now touted his ability to find, and hire, a big name college football coach.

* - Seriously – look at the picture attached to this article. That is the definition of the Joel Maturi face. Eli Manning looks at that, shrugs and says, “Man, he doesn’t seem to confident, huh?”

The Internet went nuts with rumors, some credible, some as laughable as Dungy. Many fans wanted Mike Leach, who even mentioned the job a few times. Still, as much as I like Leach, most were able to realize that he wasn’t a realistic choice for several reasons. Other names floated included Al Golden, Brady Hoke and Randy Edsall, along with outside shots like Phil Fullmer and Troy Calhoun. Mark Richt hadn’t even lost his job yet and fans were thinking the not-fired Georgia coach would come north. While those names spun around Twitter and Gopher Hole, I felt like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin should have been offered the job seconds after showing Brewster the door.

If those names weren’t already driving people to delusions of grandeur, shortly before the official announcement of a new hire was made some people started floating the idea that the Gophers would try to lure Boise State’s Chris Peterson to Dinkytown. I was one of the idiots hoping for that full-court heave to swish through the net, but even that seemed a bit far fetched.

Did Maturi set up his new coach to fail? Well, maybe. In respect of the strategy to use conservative expectations and then over-deliver, Maturi himself failed. Who was his football version of Tubby Smith? Jerry Kill.

I have to come clean, I was completely let down at first. When Kill’s name was announced. I was hoping for Sumlin and had worked myself into outside delusions of Peterson and Dan Mullen. My gut-shot negativity was met by many of the other Gopher fans. (All 10 of us.) But in two Tweets’ time, I conceded that Kill had put together some solid programs. I read more about him and thought he could be the guy to lead this program back toward fringe bowl respectability, at the least. Most of the other Gopher fans jumped on, too.

Kill helped things though at his first press conference by saying the right things and keeping expectations low – he didn’t, for example create a term like “Gopher Nation.” But really, what other choice did we have?

The Gophers had a new coach and the fans a new set of expectations. Any college football expert with a computer or a press pass was labeling the Gophers last in the Big Ten, with no more than four wins for Kill’s first year. Hoping that Brewster’s final year was the bottoming out, I figured the Gophers would improve from 2010. Practices seemed to be going well and MarQueis Gray was developing well with the new offense.

Then the USC game happened.

A game that Vegas oddsmakers tabbed to be separated by 20 points came down to the final minute, with the Gophers roughly 40 yards away from a chip-shot field goal and a huge upset. Yahoo’s Pat Forde (then with ESPN) had picked the Gophers to upset and if you remember, Gophers kicker Chris Hawthorne missed a 42-yard field goal earlier in the game. (He also had a 51-yard attempt blocked, but in all honestly, that block probably saved everyone from watching a ball fall short of the endzone.)

Suddenly, everyone was on the Kill bandwagon.

This is the danger with the close loss, the so-called moral victory. It makes people think that a team is better than it is. It gets people like Charlie Weis 10-year contract extensions. It allows people to have revisionist history, even when they are still caught in the moment.

The only important things that Gopher fans should have taken from the USC game was that USC was able to pass the ball at will to Robert Woods and that the defense couldn’t pressure Matt Barkley. Instead, we all looked at the schedule, penciled in three wins – New Mexico State, Miami (OH) and North Dakota State – and looked to the conference schedule optimistically.

The expectations now were out of whack. At the very best case, 2010’s goal was six victories and a lower-tier bowl. The realistic expectations were beating New Mexico State, Miami (OH), the Bison and then some combination of Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern and Illinois.

Of course, the optimism was short-lived. That USC near-win led everyone into the first train wreck of the year, the New Mexico State loss, which went down again to the final minutes as Kill writhed on the sidelines in a seizure. The awful loss immediately went to the back of people’s minds, as most just wondered if Kill would be healthy.

Two weeks later, the Gophers would be outplayed and outmuscled by North Dakota State. Suddenly, this team was in zero-win territory. But it got worse, 58 points worse. I’m not going to rehash the losses in excruciating detail – the Michigan running diary and the Gophpocalypse Now column are available for that – you already know that the year got ugly, fast. The team committed stupid penalties – five on special teams against Michigan alone. It seemed as if the Gophers were the best team in the nation at moving before the snap.

This year had low points that made you seriously question spending time watching the Gophers on Saturdays. But just as the the Gophers were demolished by the Wolverines, embarrassed by the Boilermakers and dominated by the Cornhuskers, something happened.

Certain players started to get it. MarQueis Gray started to pick up the offense. Receivers started to make catches. Marcus Jones showed why Kill raved about him during spring practice. Offensive linemen – with injuries forcing a sort of a musical chairs playing rotation – stopped rolling over at the line of scrimmage. The Gophers started playing football successfully.

They beat Iowa in a surprise win. The following week, the Gophers punched Michigan State in the mouth and had the ball on the Spartans’ 45-yard-line before an interception left the Gophers a touchdown short against a team that will play for the Big Ten Conference title this Saturday. That growth and optimism was tempered by the next two weeks, losses to a gilt-edged Wisconsin team and a Northwestern squad that the Gophers outplayed.

The season ended on a strong win Saturday, as Kill’s team throughly outplayed a lifeless Fighting Illini squad that played as though they had somewhere else to be. (Saving their coach’s job was apparently not that appointment; Illini coach Ron Zook was fired today.)

* * * *

Was Kill’s year a complete flop? No. They held on to Floyd, which at least keeps one trophy in the case at the Gibson-Nagurski complex.

Although the start of the season should have been sponsored by both Waste Management and the Bic Lighter Company, the Gophers improved by the end of the season and were able to beat two teams they shouldn’t have. That was the biggest goal this year, for the team to show marked improvement since the beginning of the year.

Now, the critics will say that Kill’s record this year is the same as Brewster’s last year. I would argue that the two teams are different for various reasons, you know, especially players. I would also argue that fixing a four-in-a-half-year mistake isn’t going to happen overnight (some of these players have been through five different offenses).

Reusse has said that “Country Jer” isn’t the right guy for the job, that he wanted Sumlin instead. Hell, I agreed at the time of Kill’s hire — I would have loved it the Gophers had hired Sumlin. But what would have Sumlin done differently? Would he have made a big difference? What game can you point to that the Gophers lost because of coaching? You can’t. The reality is that Tim Brewster left a team without much depth, especially at offensive line and defensive back. You can’t coach what you literally don’t have.

We don’t know what we have yet with Kill (Reusse also said as much here). We won’t know likely until next year gets underway. Chasing the quick-fix dream led us to Brewster. Patience can be a dangerous thing to ask for when rebuilding a mistake-filled program, but that’s exactly what this program needs going into next year. Kill’s squad improved as the year went on and the team has solid players coming off of redshirt and coming into the program as freshmen.

Country or not, Kill has built two programs and established another. If someone is “country” because they aren’t grinning with blinding white teeth or parading around with a square of Rose Bowl turf while ranting about the temperature of chili, grab me a strand of hay and a pair of overalls. This year was going to be ugly regardless of the coach, but the Gophers made improvements as the year continued under Kill.

If we’re here next year talking about the Gophers finishing 3-9 again, then let’s talk about complete flops.

::FBT::

Elliot Mann has worked for several newspapers, including the Wichita Eagle in Kansas and the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Stillwater Gazette, both in Minnesota. He joined Fringe Bowl Team Blog as a columnist in 2011 and is a Minnesota native. Read his personal blog here, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliotmann or send him an e-mail here.

Filed under Minnesota Golden Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers Football Minnesota Gophers Jerry Kill Big Ten Football B1G Football 2011 Minnesota Gophers Football Patrick Reusse