Nine coaches ready to build on Jerry Kill’s momentum at Minnesota

It was heart-breaking watching Jerry Kill discuss his need to retire due to health reasons Wednesday morning. The 54-year-old Kill, one of the most respected men in coaching, leaves behind a Minnesota program much better than he found it. He was coming off consecutive eight-win seasons at a place that had been 15-30 the previous four years.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys takes over as the interim and will have a legit chance to make his case for the full-time job. The Gophers went 4-3 in 2013 when the 46-year-old Claeys was appointed as the acting head coach while Kill took a leave of absence for his epilepsy. 

The Minnesota vacancy is one of what could be as many as six openings in the Big Ten alone this winter. Illinois and Maryland are also already open, and the hunch here is that Rutgers and Purdue also will make coaching changes. Indiana could as well—although I’m told the Hoosiers, 4-4, would like to retain Kevin Wilson if possible. Getting to 6-6 would likely do that — the Hoosiers still have games against Purdue and Maryland remaining — but losing seven of their last eight to miss out on a bowl might be too tough for IU brass to stomach.

Minnesota is a pretty good job and just about as good as any of whatever else is likely to come open in the Big Ten. Maryland has a significantly better recruiting base but the Terps are in the wrong division of the Big Ten and the fifth-best job in the East, especially since Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh are among the six or seven best coaches in the country and are working at more branded football programs. Same with Penn State. The Big Ten West makes the Minnesota job more attractive. The facilities are decent, but realistically near the bottom half of Power 5 programs, although the new stadium is a big plus.

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Here are some of the options I think the Gophers may consider:

Claeys: As respected as Jerry Kill is, especially inside Minnesota, being a Kill disciple is a very good thing. If the Gophers play hard for Claeys, he’ll have a good shot. Problem is, their last five games are rough, starting with three games against Top 15 teams (vs. Michigan, at Ohio State and then at Iowa).Illinois, 4-3, is the easiest of the five with Wisconsin being the season finale. If Claeys can get Minnesota to 3-2 through this stretch, I’d say he’ll have done a very impressive job.

Rod Carey: The NIU-to-Minnesota pipeline worked well in Kill’s case. The 44-year-old Carey is a former Gophers grad assistant. The Wisconsin native who played O-line at Indiana, seems a logical fit for one of these Big Ten vacancies. He’s 28-9 at NIU and a robust 18-2 in MAC games. 

Troy Calhoun: The Air Force head coach is known as one of the more innovative offensive minds in football. He’s 49 and spent a few seasons in the NFL before returning to his alma mater, where he’s 63-47 in almost a decade there. Last season, Calhoun won 10 games, beating Boise State, Colorado State and Western Michigan.

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Dave Aranda: The Wisconsin DC is as good as there is at what he does. This year, the Badgers rank No. 8 in the nation in total defense and have surrendered less than eight points per game in UW’s past seven games. Aranda’s D is No. 2 nationally in scoring defense at 11 PPG. In 2014, the Badgers were No. 4 in the nation in total defense despite only having three starters returning from the previous season. Aranda, a California native whose first break into FBS football was as a GA on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech, has consistently had Wisconsin among the nation’s top ranked defenses since he brought his 3-4 defense to Madison in 2013. 

Brady Hoke: Things fizzled out for him at Michigan, but remember this is also the guy that won Coach of the Year honors in every league he’s been a head coach in—the MAC, the Mountain West and the Big Ten. 

Ed Warinner:  One of the best O-line coaches in college football, Warinner has taken over from Tom Herman as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. The Buckeyes are No. 15 in the nation in scoring and lead the Big Ten in rushing yards by a huge margin at 247 per. They’re also second in fewest sacks allowed. Now that J.T. Barrett has settled in as OSU’s starting QB, don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes really take off and make a big run at a second national title. If that happens, expect Warinner’s stock to really rise. He also had done a very good job at KU under Mark Mangino and the track record of Urban Meyer protégés also is a big plus for him.

P.J. Fleck: His career record isn’t going to wow folks at 13-19, but the ultra high-energy 34-year-old has generated plenty of buzz after leading a dormant Western Michigan program to eight wins in his second season. Fleck’s team only has three sophomores on what is a very dynamic offense and he might be better off being patient with his next move. He does have ties to Rutgers, which also could open.

Tony Levine: A former starting WR for the Gophers and Academic All-Big Ten pick, Levine is from St. Paul and still pretty tied into the local high school scene there. He spent three seasons as the head coach at Houston and was 21-17 before being let go in what was a surprising move last winter. The nucleus of the Houston team that is now 7-0 is Levine recruits. His pedigree having worked with and under some of the more successful guys in coaching (Kevin Sumlin, John Fox, Tommy Tuberville, Dana Holgorsen, Bobby Petrino and Kliff Kingsbury) also bodes well.

Brock Spack: Perhaps Minnesota goes back for an FCS guy. The 53-year-old former Purdue linebacker has won big at FCS Illinois State, going 52-27. In 2014, his team lost 29-27 to North Dakota State in the FCS title game after beating No. 1 New Hampshire and No. 3 EWU. Spack, a one-time Wyoming DC, is 19-3 in his past 22 games and has the No. 3 team in the country in FCS. His Redbirds team has already beaten three Top 20 FCS teams this season.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.