MINNEAPOLIS — University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler can engage the state’s highest rollers with a little more swagger these days. There’s a certain air of confidence that comes with sporting a competitive football program.
Especially in Gopher country, where special seasons like 2013 have been a rarity.
“When I have a 7-2 football team,” Kaler said Saturday morning before Minnesota’s tussle with Penn State, “I’m a lot better president than when they’re 2-7.”
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The team’s three-game Big Ten win streak and 7-2 mark have turned heads around the entire college football landscape. It makes meetings with legislators, donors and high-ranking academic officials just a little more pleasant when conversation turns toward Philip Nelson, Ra’Shede Hageman and a Jerry Kill-led staff that’s performed well under public fire this season.
It also helps vindicate Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague for sticking by Kill as he battles epileptic seizures.
“I don’t think we really had any other choice,” Kaler said of Kill, who Saturday watched his fourth straight game from the press box. “I had a lot of people in my ear saying we should fire him, he can’t do his job, etc. That’s nonsense. We’re gonna be compassionate. We’re gonna be smart about how to let Jerry get back to full strength, and we’re really blessed to have a coaching staff.
“When we hired Jerry, we didn’t just hire Jerry Kill and (Kill’s wife) Rebecca, who’s fabulous. We hired a team of coaches that is absolutely delivering for us.”
Kaler chatted with reporters for about seven minutes Saturday and touched on a variety of topics. Additional highlights:
— Minnesota’s $190 million, privately-funded athletic facilities project remains in the “early stages” but is advancing smoothly, according to Kaler. University administrators are focused primarily on procuring funds for football and basketball practice facility upgrades at the moment.
The football team’s success has helped the cause considerably.
“People want to be with winners,” Kaler said. “They want us to be successful, so it certainly helps to win as we have those conversations. But also in the facilities space, people do understand the need and they understand that some of this is a chicken-and-egg story. We can’t have the kind of competitive teams that we want to have and deserve to have if we don’t have the appropriate facilities.”
Newly hired basketball coach Richard Pitino has tapped his vast networking pool to try to raise money on the hoops front, Kaler said.
“The great thing about Richard is he is a glass-half-full guy, and he’s used some of his resources and some of the athletic department resources to create a good practice facility in the current footprint,” Kaler said.
— The school and the Minnesota Vikings are close to finalizing their agreement that allows the NFL team to call TCF Bank Stadium home for the next two seasons while it erects a new indoor venue to replace the Metrodome. A contract has been drafted, and the sides are working a few minor details, Kaler said.
The 50,000-seat outdoor stadium is expected to receive 3,000 additional temporary end zone seats and underground heating coils that make the field more playable once winter hits.
— The college has received an outpouring of gratitude from national epilepsy awareness leaders, Kaler said. Working closely with the Epilepsy Foundation of Minneosta, Kill and his wife have spurred an effort to bring attention to the disease, including hosting an “epilepsy awareness day” two weeks ago against Nebraska.
Kill himself continues to oversee the program while delegating some of his duties to his assistants so he can more closely monitor his health. He’s suffered two documented seizures this season and five since taking over the program in 2011.
“There are millions of people with epilepsy, and they live great, productive lives,” Kaler said. “I think Jerry Kill’s gonna be a poster child for that when he gets himself squared away.”
— Kaler praised Kill for the football program’s rapidly-inclining Academic Progress Rate scores. Hitting the books was a big focus for Kill when he entered the fold, and Minnesota is in much better position than it was under the Tim Brewster regime.
The Gophers’ 2011-12 APR score of 994 — released this summer — was the program’s best ever.
“What it really reflects is Jerry’s ability to bring discipline to our football program,” Kaler said. “When you have young men who know what they need to do academically, a support structure to do it, know how to get stronger with their strength coach and then know that they’re gonna have continuity with the coaching staff, all of these elements of your program get better.”