MINNEAPOLIS — Jerry Kill, meticulous micromanager, is no stranger around here.
Jerry Kill, inspiring epilepsy champion, resounds nationally.
Jerry Kill, program builder, is a title well-recognized in the college football world. But with that task comes yet another hat for Minnesota’s multifaceted head coach.
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Minneapolis, meet Jerry Kill, public outreach coordinator.
In its current state, the Gophers football program doesn’t sell itself. It surely won’t Thursday, when they open their season amid a flurry of local foot traffic spurred by an afternoon Twins game, an evening Vikings preseason exhibition and another day of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Nationally, their Big Ten Network clash shares a time slot with No. 6 South Carolina, which hosts North Carolina in a season-commencing border battle on ESPN.
But the inaugural opening night at TCF Bank Stadium, while special, isn’t unique. As long as there are palaces named after Target and families with the names Wilf and Taylor around, popularizing college football in the Twin Cities will always require some niche-carving.
Kill spent fall camp sharpening his knives.
“The students here have been great to me and my wife, and the support has really been tremendous since I’ve been here,” Kill said Tuesday during his weekly radio show. “You always want to bring in more and so forth, but at the same time, you have to continue to do more. What all have we done? We want to let them be a part of it and go out and get to know you and so forth.
“Those things don’t happen overnight.”
College football prominence has passed the Gophers by since that 1960 Associated Press national championship, which came before most current Minnesota undergraduates’ parents were born. It’s tough to compete for fandom — and revenue — with four major professional clubs, especially with a track record of only 17 winning seasons in the past five decades.
An improved Kill-directed team last year drew an average of 46,637 in seven home games, which ranked a respectable 41st nationally in attendance relative to stadium capacity (TCF seats 50,805). But by comparison, rival Iowa — which went 4-8 overall, 2-6 in conference play and missed a bowl for the first time since 2000 — ranked 22nd.
Kill’s hoping to achieve more volume — both in terms of occupied seats and decibel levels.
Rowdy student sections in Ann Arbor, Lincoln, Columbus and Madison are ingrained in those town’s Saturday traditions. They also can make life heck for opposing quarterbacks attempting to communicate with their coaches and teammates.
That’s the goal for Minnesota’s newer, nicer digs — even if it’s the second-smallest venue in the Big Ten — starting Thursday when the Runnin’ Rebels come to town.
“I think not only students but our fans are crucial,” Kill said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “We’re playing here at home Thursday night on the opening of college football when there’s a tremendous amount of things to do around here — that’s why this is a great city. But we hope to get a ton of support out at TCF Bank Stadium. We’ve got a bunch of new students on campus right now and old ones trickling in. There’s no question we want as much support as we can get.”
So Kill has done his best to go out get it.
Classes don’t start until next Tuesday, but freshmen orientation is in full swing. Kill will address all of them in an assembly Wednesday night. He also spoke with the school’s marching band between practices last week.
The message, apparently, has spread. Scores of freshmen lined up outside Mariucci Arena on Tuesday morning to receive their season tickets. The school expects somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 students Thursday.
So what’s being sold, exactly?
“I think when you look at football and look at our state, you want a hard-nosed, tough, physical football team that’s not gonna beat theirselves,” said Kill, who took three years to turn both Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois into 10-win teams. “We had those type of teams where we’ve been before — that’s why we’ve had the opportunities in our coaching careers that we’ve had — and we haven’t quite put that together here. It takes time to develop that mentality.”
It’s a simple enough success formula at places like Ohio State and Wisconsin: a devoted student fan base makes for generous alumni, both in terms of populating TCF Bank Stadium and cutting checks to the athletic department.
First impressions like the one Kill plans to make Thursday can go a long way, especially when they haven’t been commonplace. Minnesota will open at home for the first time since 2008.
Kill remembers that night in the Metrodome. The Gophers beat his Huskies in his first game at Northern Illinois.
An attractive, more intimate stadium than the demise-destined dome helps in constructing a more effervescent game day atmosphere and local followership. So does playing home games, something Kill would’ve liked to see more of on future schedules.
That doesn’t appear likely any time soon.
Since college football transitioned to a 12-game regular season in 2006, Minnesota has played at least one nonconference game on the road, equating to seven home games from 2007-2013 (in 2006, the Gophers played two out-of-conference away contests).
They won’t play more than seven times in TCF Bank Stadium through 2017 and probably beyond; trips are scheduled to New Mexico State this year, TCU next season and Colorado State in 2015. After that, the Big Ten switches to a nine-game slate.
Kill said he has little say against whom and where his team plays.
“The administration handles all of that,” Kill said. “I do what I’m told and play who they put in front of me.”
Thursday, that’s UNLV, a 2-11 team Minnesota needed three overtimes to outlast in the desert a year ago. It will be the first chance for Kill to test the product he’s spent the fall soliciting.
And while the challenges in building it are many, its purpose — and effectiveness — comes down simply to victories.
In order to deliver that, Kill expects support. He also wants a little time.
“Some of the strongest programs in the country had to start somewhere,” Kill said. “I’m a new head coach. We’ve been here for two years, so we’ll continue to take shots, but that’s part of turning things around.”
So is getting rumps in those dark maroon seats on University Avenue.