Mike Sherels noticed the seat next to newly hired Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was empty.
He took the seat — which, at the time, was at a men’s basketball game at Williams Arena — and introduced himself.
“One of the first things out of my mouth was, ‘I’d like to come work for you,’” said Sherels, now a special assistant to Kill and head of alumni relations for Gophers football.
He didn’t get hired immediately, but just a couple weeks later in spring 2011, the Rochester, Minn., native received a call from Kill that entailed a long-awaited offer: a chance to work in the Gophers football program.
Sherels, 27, graduated from the University of Minnesota in December 2007 and had offers to coach at the Division-I level elsewhere. But his five seasons as a linebacker in the Gophers’ system didn’t satisfy his expectations for his hometown team.
“I worked tirelessly, during the season, off-season, to bring this school back to where I thought it belonged,” Sherels said, “which is in the national spotlight, back to prominence. But I still feel a strong sense of ‘I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do.’”
Sherels’ duties as an intern have ranged from leading check-in for players to serving as the liaison for alumni relations. But because he’s technically not a coach, he hasn’t been allowed to work with student-athletes on the field since his arrival last spring.
“That’s been the most difficult part,” he said.
That’ll change in August, as new NCAA legislation allows for programs to have four graduate assistants instead of two. Sherels will move up to a graduate assistant coach and will help the Gophers on the field next season while also attending classes.
“I think it’s a right thing for the NCAA to allow more young people to break into the profession,” Minnesota’s defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “We’re looking forward to having [Sherels] on the field.”
A home-run player
As a senior out of John Marshall High School in Rochester, Sherels wasn’t offered a scholarship to play for the Gophers. He decided to turn down some Division I-AA offers and try to “walk on,” or try out, for Minnesota, a Division I-A program.
“I’d always wonder, ‘what if,’” Sherels said. “I never wanted to wonder that. I figured if it didn’t work out, I could always go down a level.
“But the first day we put on the pads [at Minnesota], I knew I’d be fine.”
Former Gophers head coach Glen Mason, who coached Sherels from 2003-06, said Sherels proved himself rapidly, earning a scholarship by 2005 — his second season on the field.
“We hit a home run on all accounts with Mike,” Mason said. “He earned himself not only a scholarship but a starting position and ultimately a captain of our program.”
After his redshirt freshman season, Sherels started 30 games for the Gophers in four seasons played, eventually recording 219 tackles and becoming the only walk-on to be a two-time player-voted captain.
Mason said Sherels’ personality, coupled with his performance on the field, made him a natural leader.
“Mike is a delightful guy to be around,” Mason said. “Besides being a good football player, he’s a very personable guy, not only with players but with coaches. I think that will translate well [to his coaching career.]”
Sherels said although he progressed as a Gophers player, his team’s lack of success left him feeling like something was missing.
“I felt the need to come back and finish what we had started,” Sherels said.
‘A family deal’
Gophers football hasn’t won a bowl game since Minnesota defeated Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl in Sherels’ first season on the field. But the program’s recent struggles were only part of the pull for Sherels to return to his alma mater.
His blood runs deep in Gophers athletics.
“I believe he bleeds maroon and gold and will do whatever it takes to make this program better,” his wife Emily Sherels said.
Emily Sherels, a former track and field student-athlete at Minnesota, now works under men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith. Sherels’ brother, Marcus Sherels — now a cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings — played football for the Gophers from 2005-09.
“It’s a family deal,” Mike Sherels said. “I owe a lot to this University. I met my wife here.”
Mike Sherels’ path didn’t come full circle instantly, though. He chose to stay in state and coach high school football in Prior Lake, Minn., despite having opportunities to coach at the collegiate level.
Sherels said he received offers from previous coaches of his to work at their current school. “But I didn’t want to do that. My life is here; my family is here,” he said.
To no avail, Sherels tried to get a job on former Gophers coach Tim Brewster’s staff. That kept Sherels at the high school level for three years until he received a call from Kill.
“I was thankful enough to still have that high school job to go back to,” Sherels said. “All things have worked out for a reason.”
An expanded role
Since his arrival a year ago, Sherels said he has been continuously expanding his responsibilities. An internship that started with checking and monitoring training tables ended with leading on-campus recruiting tours and handling alumni relations.
Sherels’ job monitoring a Gophers football alumni website has allowed him to bring former and current Gophers players together — a method Sherels said serves as a support system more than anything. “That’s what successful programs do,” he said.
But Sherels said his biggest niche has been helping with recruiting. “That was really one of the first things I tried to push the boundaries of my job.”
Sherels said he volunteered to lead or come along on the school’s recruiting tours because, as a former student-athlete, he could offer points of emphasis and add personal stories to help a coaching staff that was new to campus.
Claeys said Sherels’ help with on-campus recruiting was his biggest asset during his first year. It also served as preparation for the fall season.
“You don’t have a lot of time to get up to speed when you start on Aug. 1,” Claeys said. “All through spring ball, even though he couldn’t meet with players, he has been doing on-the-job training for the fall.”
Sherels said he has sat in on all the defensive and linebacker meetings, studied and prepared with coaches and done everything he could to get ready for his late entry into the Gophers’ next season.
Senior Gophers linebacker Mike Rallis said Sherels’ time playing in the Big Ten and specifically in the Gophers’ system is essential to mentoring the young and veteran players on the team.
“He knows exactly what we’re going through, exactly what we’re facing,” Rallis said.
Sherels said his experience with a vast array of head coaches (two as a player) and defensive coordinators (four as a player) has given him a variety of teaching methods he looks forward to using next fall.
Although he hasn’t yet been able to coach, Rallis said Sherels has been a great off-the-field resource during the past year and will be invaluable for the Gophers as a coach.
“He’s a smart football mind,” Rallis said. “To have another guy like him out there will be a great addition.”
While the transition from intern to graduate assistant coach has taken only a year, he’s dedicated much more time to the Gophers.
“I’ve spent over a third of my life trying to get this University’s [football program] back to where I feel it should be,” he said. “This is my passion right now, and this is what I want to do. I’ll be here until I feel like it’s done.”