Gophers, Kill have long, tough climb ahead

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s the most laughable of commas.

On the wall of the media room in Minnesota’s Gibson-Nagurski Complex, there’s a list of the football team’s 17 Big Ten championships. They date from 112 years ago to 45, and after that last date, 1967, a lone comma lingers.

It’s been four and a half decades since the Gophers last won a conference championship. Man walked on the moon for the first time. The Berlin Wall fell. Jerry Kill grew from a 6-year-old kid into a 50-year-old football coach, and still that comma lingers.

There’s no grammatical rule for punctuating a program’s fall, and that comma is nothing if not demoralizing. What’s worse, though, than 45 years of only limited success is the program’s recent history of flat-out losing, and after a 1-6 start in 2010 under coach Tim Brewster, something had to change. Kill was hired in December 2010, and the program has moved on, still without a tangible measure of success. It’s been a year, and to those expecting a turnaround, it must seem like a slow progress.

But this is not a turnaround.

A turnaround is nearly instant. It would see a Nick Saban-type somehow pacing the sideline at TCF Bank Stadium, bringing with him a cadre of four- and five-star recruits to the frozen north. A turnaround would have meant seven or eight wins last season, a bowl berth, some national recognition.

That’s certainly not what happened at Minnesota.

In sports, turnarounds are largely the stuff of fantasies. Sure, some pro teams have cash influxes that allow them to buy the pieces they think will ensure a championship, but in college athletics, change takes time. There’s no place for turnarounds, and radical improvement is based instead upon building.

What warrants a program to rebuild is a fluid thing. For a program like LSU or Ohio State, it might be missing a bowl berth. For Minnesota, which hasn’t seen a winning season since 2008, that 1-6 start to 2010 was enough to spur the search for a new coach to revive the program.

“This program needed to be built,” Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi said. “Nobody argues that.”

Maturi went on to say that the team’s failure to finish in the top three in the conference in the past 25 years signifies a larger problem, and as athletics director for 10 of those years, he admitted responsibility for some of that lack of success. But as one of his final major acts as AD – Maturi will step down on June 30 – he hired Jerry Kill, the man he hopes will be able to build the Minnesota program. Whether Kill can do that, where his ceiling may lie, has yet to be seen.

Hiring Kill was a gamble on Maturi’s part. In picking him over bigger-name candidates, the school banked on work ethic and stability over a flashy hire and good PR. Though that has seemed to be the right choice in the short run, long-term success is still a vague concept. Kill’s name had been in Maturi’s file of potential coaches since his Northern Illinois team barely lost to Minnesota 31-27 in 2008 and then defeated the Gophers 34-23 in 2010, but he wasn’t exactly on the national radar.

Kill was a realistic choice for a team that was never going to attract a top-level coach, but at the same time Maturi doubted his choice would be well received in the initial news conference.

Somehow, though, it was. Kill quickly won over fans and boosters, more for his charm and conversation skills than for the reasons university officials had selected him. Above all, Kill landed the job because he was a solid football coach, one who drew comparisons from former Gophers quarterback Rickie Foggie to his own coach, Lou Holtz, who rebuilt the Gophers in 1984-85. Kill had also improved programs before; he had a plan and a system in place when he arrived in Minnesota.

“I think they needed a plan that had worked elsewhere, that they’re willing to put forward and come together, and hopefully it will work here,” Maturi said. “Because we will not be able to – at least not on the front end – recruit a lot of five-star players, probably four-star players. We needed somebody who had that ability to make people better and continue to improve.”

It’s a realistic prediction, a vote of confidence in Kill that at the same time highlights the limitations of the hire. Before coming to Minnesota, Kill had never coached in a BCS conference, never seen first-hand the intricacies of competing with the nation’s best. He knew what he’d be facing in a more vague sense, from watching and reading, from reputations and hearsay.

The jovial mannerisms that have won over Foggie and longtime booster Bob Hughes are enough to convince fans with their somewhat lowered expectations. However, there will need to be more to Kill to get the wins that will ultimately persuade the greater college football scene that his program is legitimate.
A year into Kill’s tenure, the team hasn’t achieved much on paper. After finishing 2010 with a 3-9 record (Minnesota went 2-3 under interim coach Jeff Horton), it replicated that in 2011 despite a 1-9 record going into its final two games.

Even Saturday’s spring game revealed offensive shortcomings, yielding 10 punts and a field goal in 50 minutes of football. But the coach and his staff are settling in, and even the option of a spring game is a step forward after injuries depleted the squad last spring and prevented a formal contest.

For now, Kill and his staff are watching and taking notes (no doubt on how to generate some offense going forward), figuring out what the team’s goals should be and what it needs to do to get there.

“Each year you get older, you get a little bit wiser,” Kill said.” You get to know a little bit more.  I’ve been here a year or so.  I’m still trying to figure out some things.  Here, I don’t think you figure it out all today.”

Kill said he’s still dealing with the details of adjusting to a new team. He and his staff are assessing how players learn, in part from a “47 some odd question” survey – and yes, Kill somehow gets away with saying things like “47-some-odd” with a straight face – and also by observing their habits. He has met with players throughout the offseason, weighing the benefits of things like videos over walk-throughs and vice versa. He’s all about getting through to players, about not losing them mentally, and it seems to be working.

Part of that is because of nothing more than to that very act of settling in. For many players on the team, Kill is their third coach, and he knows how important it is for him to build something stable, a system with which they can identify.

Foggie, who’s also a member of the team’s booster club, the Goal Line Club, said he can already see players are buying in to Kill’s program and becoming more accountable. Though the wins are still to come, that commitment is the first step to getting there.

“There’s always hope that you can come out and be a great team that year,” senior-to-be linebacker Mike Rallis said. “I think this year, the way that the offseason’s gone so far, we’re competing every day. It felt like another season, almost.”

Kill’s players are talking the talk, energized by hopes that this might be their year. It would make sense if it were, to some extent – chalk last year’s record up to another coach’s players and his residual system, to adjustment and discomfort. But even if Rallis is wrong, if this year isn’t the Gophers’ coming-out party, what Kill has done off the field has bought him a longer leash.

Kill has exceled at the aspects of coaching in which Maturi didn’t know how he’d perform. Kill attends many of the booster club’s monthly meetings, and he’s encouraged former players to come out and spend time with the team. He meets about five times a year with the We Are… Minnesota Spirit Initiative’s three student interns, who have been working to increase attendance at athletic events.

For many alumni and former athletes, getting involved with the school seems natural, but often a coach’s welcome is what encourages that commitment.

“I think the majority of my teammates from ’84 to ’87… stuck around the Twin Cities,” Foggie said. “And I think now more than ever, coach Kill is giving us the opportunity to be a part of this program. That hadn’t been the case in the past.”

Though the fan support still hasn’t materialized – look no further than the nearly empty student section during the team’s 27-7 win over Illinois last season – these groups have capitalized on Kill’s openness to try to drum up more support for the team. That’s going to take a lot, to create a fan based dedicated enough to withstand the growing pains of a transitioning program in the late-fall Minnesota cold, but in order for the program to be legitimate, the fans must buy in.

Kill has obviously exceeded expectations off the field, and the goodwill he’s built will no doubt give him more leeway in terms of wins and losses and how fast he can get this team past the three-win plateau. But what’s dangerous is allowing the coach’s reputation to obscure struggles on the field — Kill should have some space to grow, but good relationships shouldn’t discount the damage another 3-9 season could do to the program.

There needs to be a sense of urgency, that no matter what improvement means — whether it’s one more win than last season or six more — something needs to happen this year, and no one is more on board with that commitment than the incoming senior class.

“I think it’s a sense of urgency that I’ve really felt, where it’s an exciting time around this program,” Rallis said. “I’m really starting to see changes from the top down. It’s heading in the right direction, and we just want to be a part of it. We don’t want to be left behind. We wish we could be here for another four or five years so we could see the full extent of it. We don’t want to just be the forgotten class.”

Rallis knows that the only way to do that is to win, plain and simple. That’s the best way to get fans into the stands, and no amount of pep rallies or posters can outweigh the power of a few victories. The program has the financial commitments in place, a new stadium, a coach it believes in. Now, it has decades of a faltering college football culture to overcome.

“Unfortunately, we’ve gone through a whole generation… of kids who haven’t had a chance to see outdoor football on a college campus,” Hughes said. “I mean… just think if you’re a college student and you had to be bussed over to the Metrodome to watch a game inside. That wasn’t a college experience.”

Couple that with the losing seasons of recent years, and it’s a lot to take on. Winning in Minnesota has become something almost foreign. If Kill can do it, he’ll make a name for himself and perhaps even secure a long-time position.

But Kill remains a gamble, and even if he wins this season, he’ll likely still be. Maturi said he believes the 2012 squad has a chance to earn a bowl berth, and that might be a reasonable guess. Or it might be completely off base. With so little evidence to work with, it’s hard to know.

Unquestionably, though, that bowl berth is one of the team’s shorter-term goals, and Hughes guessed that realistically, the team will take five or six years to build itself up to a program like Iowa, one that’s consistently in the middle of the Big Ten pack. From there, things get a bit murkier.

Watching Kill, looking at his past records and what he’s done at places like Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, it would seem that Hughes’ prediction isn’t too far off. But no team with a new coach and the promise of improvement looks to stop at the middle of the pack, and that’s where Kill’s true test will begin. He’s still a coach in just his second year at school in a BCS conference. He’s yet to even face Big Ten powerhouses like Ohio State and Penn State, and he’s still dealing with a culture unaccustomed to winning.

Kill spends a good deal of time talking about his “young men,” how he wants them to be upstanding people and do well academically. Of course, any coach wants that, but the reality of college football is that academics can come second, especially in top-tier programs. It’s not right, but simply the way the system works.

Take Hughes, a man who dedicates hours of his week to the Gophers; even he touts “athletes who play four quarters of football, get a degree and don’t do stupid things.” That’s all well and good, especially the last point, but the reality of successful college football is that winning teams boast players who go beyond just trying their hardest, who often opt out of getting degrees in order to play at the next level.

If Minnesota wants to join those ranks, it needs to recruit some superstars, Foggie said. To do that, the team might have to re-examine some of those priorities and push itself to be a bit more cutthroat.

For now, that’s a long way off. Kill might not be the guy to lead Minnesota back to another Big Ten championship, and his time on national television might be limited to his post-seizure drama of 2011. That doesn’t mean he won’t be successful in the short term or even that he won’t prove critics wrong and take Minnesota to a level at which it hasn’t played since 1967.

For now, though, Kill seems equipped to make this team better.

There are still questions about the coach and what he can do for this program, but they’ve shifted. A year ago, it was a matter of “Can he do it?” Now, people should be asking only to what extent.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.