When Jerry Kill rose to address a banquet hall full of Gophers coaches, alumni and supporters Monday at the Somerby Golf Club in Byron, Minn., he opted not to stand behind the podium.
The first-year Gophers football coach from rural Kansas said he felt more comfortable using his “football voice” to address the gathering the old-fashioned way, without a microphone or note cards. It was the second of three speeches he gave in southeastern Minnesota during the day as part of his “On the Road With Coach Kill” tour of the state.
“I’m not a coat-and-slack guy,” Kill said in the opening minute of his speech. “I wasn’t raised that way. If I was back home where all my family’s at, I’d be baling hay today. It’d be about 105 degrees, [so] thank God I got hired to coach football here [at Minnesota].”
Since University of Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi named Kill to succeed ousted coach Tim Brewster in December, Kill has used that football voice — a booming baritone with a thick drawl uncommon in this part of the country — to court a restless fan base to which Maturi pledged a well-known, proven winner to take over the school’s free-falling football program.
While Kill has posted a winning record in 14 of his 17 seasons as a college head coach, he was not exactly a household name at the time of the December announcement.
Since then, though, his folksy appeal, frank demeanor and mastery of oration and humor seem to have energized Gophers fans eager for a fresh football start.
“We have great fans here,” Kill said. “[But] we have to get a football team that relates to you, and that’s what we’re working on. I’m not going to tell you something that I can’t back up. I don’t know where we’re at right now. We’re working at it, but we’re not where we need to be.”
For a football community weary of failure and wary of lofty, unrealistic promises, Kill’s blunt assessments of the state of the team and his refusal to guarantee anything besides hard work and dedication have been a refreshing change from Brewster.
“That’s one thing I liked right away,” 1958 Minnesota graduate Dave Wernecke said with a laugh about Kill’s reluctance to set the bar too high too quickly. “But he seems to be enthusiastic as far as taking on the job.”
If anyone has a stake in that enthusiasm translating to success, it’s Maturi, who hired Brewster and bore the brunt of fans’ and boosters’ ire over Brewster’s failure to live up to expectations.
After vowing to bring in a Tubby Smith-caliber replacement for Brewster and delivering the successful but relatively unknown Kill, Maturi braced for a fresh onslaught.
“I became very nervous during the hiring process,” Maturi said, “partly because [of] some of the criticism and concern. But in the end I knew that we needed a good football coach … To be honest with you, I told President [Bob] Bruininks, ‘I don’t think we’re going to win [Kill’s first] press conference and I think there’s going to be some challenges.’ That has absolutely not happened.”
“Coach Kill not only won the press conference, he won it big time.”
Winning press conferences is a start.
In his capacity to ensure the Gophers win football games as well, Kill so far has conducted 15 spring practices, which wrapped up in April.
Per NCAA rules, Kill and his staff — with the exception of strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein — cannot have any football-related contact with players until August practices begin.
Kill said that while he noticed significant improvements from the team in spring practice, particularly from the defense and quarterback MarQueis Gray, his players have their work cut out over the summer.
“It’s going to be the self-discipline now,” Kill said of his hopes for his players this summer. “If they don’t train and do what they’re supposed to do and work at it like they should, then we’ll be in trouble.”
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
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