Minnesota coach Jerry Kill defended a forceful rebuke of leading receiver A.J. Barker that led to the player’s abrupt departure from the program, saying he had to discipline the player for a confrontation with the team’s training staff.
Barker quit the Golden Gophers on Sunday and went public with a scathing email that accused Kill of manipulative and borderline abusive behavior.
”I feel bad for A.J. I feel bad that that’s the way he feels about the situation,” Kill said Monday. ”I’ll do anything I can to help him in the future, whatever he decides to do. I’m all in it for the kids. I want to see kids be successful and do well.”
That’s not the picture Barker painted in the email, which he posted on a personal blog.
Barker, a walk-on who leads the team with 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing the past three games with an ankle injury, said Kill blew up at him Thursday in front of the team, claiming he wasn’t listening to the trainers or working hard enough on his rehabilitation and yelling that he’d never play for the Gophers again or get a scholarship.
”You demeaned me to a point of no return. You took the one thing you had a say in (my football playing career and my future) and you held it against me in an attempt to break me,” Barker wrote.
Barker accused Kill of questioning his family background in the Thursday confrontation, and an assistant coach of using a gay slur against him last spring. Kill on Monday rejected both accusations.
”Nobody’s ever done that, not to my knowledge,” Kill said of the slur. ”I’m not around every single minute, but as far as I’ve been around, there’s nobody ever done that.”
And as for questioning Barker’s upbringing, Kill said, ”I didn’t say anything about that. … I’ve never said anything about his family.”
The conflict appears to stem from two points: Barker’s recovery from and treatment of an ankle injury that occurred Oct. 27 against Purdue and Kill’s decision not to offer Barker a scholarship for this season.
”The reality of the situation is college football is a dictatorship,” Barker said Sunday. ”Coaches are making a subjective evaluation about who is good enough to get a scholarship and who gets to play.”
Barker emerged as the team’s top receiving threat in fall camp and had a big season opener against UNLV with three catches for 101 yards. But Kill said he had to decide on a scholarship for this season by the first day of school, which was too soon to make a determination on a player who had just one catch the previous season.
Barker continued to excel on the field, catching five passes for 101 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Western Michigan and another five for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over Purdue. But he injured his ankle in that game, aggravated it again before a loss to Michigan on Nov. 3 and was unable to get back on the field.
Barker said he was forced to practice by Kill last Tuesday — another allegation that Kill denies — but he was unable to get through warm-ups. An MRI test the next day revealed ligament tears and a bone bruise above his heel, he said.
Kill said Barker’s actions toward the training staff disrupted practice. That’s when Kill admitted to dressing Barker down.
”Nobody wants to see a kid not play or get his dreams or those kinds of things,” Kill said. ”But at the same time, I can’t let him do something different than everybody else. You can’t be having a confrontation with an adult trainer and it’s OK. That’s not what we ask of everybody else.”
It’s the latest moment of difficulty for Kill in an up-and-down second season at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) started the season 4-0 and have qualified for a bowl game, a noticeable sign of improvement after Tim Brewster’s disastrous tenure as coach.
But the Gophers have also been blown out by Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska, and Kill drew criticism when the university spent $800,000 to buy its way out of future games against North Carolina.
Kill said butting heads with players early in his tenure is nothing new. The same thing happened at Northern Illinois and at other stops while players acclimated to his hard-nosed coaching style.
”I’m not here to win any popularity contests,” Kill said, adding he ”doesn’t treat our players any differently than I treat my two daughters.”
But it was clear that Barker was pushed too far for his liking, so now the Gophers head into the season finale against Michigan State without their only proven playmaker on the outside.
Barker, a St. Paul native who starred at De La Salle High School in Minneapolis, said he would transfer and believed he could play without sitting out a season because he was a walk-on.
”It’s hard when you have a roster of 120 people to keep all 120 people happy,” Kill said. ”There’s no way. Can’t start them all, can’t play them all, can’t scholarship them all. There’s rules. So I do the best I can with what we have to work with.”