MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill frequently preaches his mantra of “next man up,” meaning when one player falters or gets injured, the next in line must answer the call.
Sometimes, that saying applies to the coaches, too.
In this case, the next man up is Tracy Claeys, Kill’s longtime assistant and Minnesota’s defensive coordinator. With Kill spending time away from the team as he continues to deal with his epilepsy, the head coaching duties have fallen on Claeys’ shoulders. He’ll again serve as the head coach as Minnesota travels to take on Northwestern this Saturday. Kill isn’t expected to return to the team by then, so Claeys will serve as the man in charge for the second straight game.
“I’d rather not be here. With Coach, the thing that we can’t replace is he’s a good friend and he’s a great fan of the kids,” Claeys said. “That’s where we miss him, having him around on the practice field. We’ve had to do it before as a staff, and I feel very comfortable and very confident we’ll be fine.”
Claeys, 44, has been a member of Kill’s staff since 1995 when he was hired as the defensive line coach at Saginaw Valley State. Like many of Kill’s assistants, Claeys has followed the head coach from school to school. That included a promotion to defensive coordinator at Emporia State from 1999-2000. He later held that same title under Kill at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and now at Minnesota.
Claeys has never been a head coach at any level. His first job after graduating from Kansas State in 1994 was as a co-defensive coordinator at Santa Fe Trail High School in Carbondale, Kan. He made the jump to Kill’s staff one year later and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kill, who suffers from epilepsy, has a history seizures, and Claeys has been there for all of them. That includes five game day seizures during Kill’s three seasons at Minnesota, two of which occurred this year. The last one forced Kill to miss the Gophers’ game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Claeys took over as the head coach. Claeys also served as the head coach in the second half of Minnesota’s win over Western Illinois earlier this year after Kill suffered a seizure on the sideline at halftime.
This Saturday, however, will be the first time Claeys will coach from the sideline. Two weekends ago in Michigan, he remained perched in his usual spot in the press box, high above all the action, which gives the defensive coordinator a bird’s eye view at the formations and plays behind run by his defense and by the opponents’ offense.
Calling plays from the sideline will be a bit different, especially against a no-huddle offense like Northwestern.
“I just have to change my charts around a little bit so I can have the information in front of me that I usually have,” Claeys said. “The other thing, the hardest part of that when you’re on the boundary and you’re a D-coordinator is you try to correct mistakes in between plays. In a no-huddle situation, you don’t have time to do that. I’m going to have to stay pretty disciplined and let the other guys coach so we can get the play call in. That’s the most difficult thing for me.”
Anyone who has watched a Gophers game in the last three years has likely seen an animated Kill on the sideline, barking at refs or yelling at players. It’s a practice not uncommon among college head coaches.
That’s not Claeys’ style, though.
The mild-mannered Kansas native rarely shows his emotions in practice or on Saturdays, and admits he’s not big on rah-rah speeches. He doesn’t get too high or too low, perhaps the biggest difference between he his longtime friend and colleague.
“They’re different, and then they aren’t in some regards,” said kicker Chris Hawthorne. “Coach Claeys came in and talked to us last week and said he’s not as much of a big screamer. But on the same token, the expectations and the standards don’t drop at all. It’s important for us to expect as much out of ourselves as we did with coach Kill as we do with coach Claeys.”
Senior safety Brock Vereen has worked closely with Claeys since Kill’s staff came aboard in 2011. Vereen had a hard time recalling an example of a time when Claeys lost his cool in practice.
“I’ve seen him mad before, but he doesn’t show his emotions a lot, which is good. That’s what you want as a leader,” Vereen said. “He’s easy to play for.”
Minnesota’s players insist that not much has changed in the day-to-day operations without Kill, whose return still remains a question mark. Given the continuity of the coaching staff, the Gophers have things down to a science during the week. It’s more of the same on Saturdays, with each coach and each player knowing his role.
For at least one more game, Claeys’ role is head coach. It’s not a title he hopes to keep for too long.
“I really don’t look at it as the head coach,” Claeys said. “It’s Jerry Kill’s program. It’ll always be his program.”