Time again for my weekly column where I tell you how to think and you can then tell me what an idiot I am. Ready? OK...
New coaches always have an extended period of grace when they take over a program. The talent level is never very good, the kids need time to build strength, the team isn't disciplined, they have to learn a new playbook, etc. The first season's win/loss record is largely irrelevant as fans and media patiently give the new coach time to set his program in place. But this perceived patience will vanish at some point, a "jump-the-shark" moment for college football coaches and I believe fairly or not, Jerry Kill reached that point this week.
The combination of losing his third straight game to start 0-3 in the Big Ten plus paying $800,000 to get out of playing a BCS level opponent next year plus pulling the redshirt off the quarterback of his program's future, all of these have culminated in a bad PR week for Coach Kill. So I am officially declaring the honeymoon to be officially over. No longer does Kill get the benefit of the doubt on every decision made. No longer are bad losses going to glossed over with blame being put at the feet of previous coaching staffs. Jerry Kill is going to have to make his way on his own now. He will be facing the negativity and scorn of the local media along with a jaded and cynical fan base.
Personally I think he will be (is being) judged too critically, too soon. While I the honeymoon is over and decisions will be more critically judged, I firmly believe that patience is still in order.
The problem, as we sit today, is more with the fan base and our expectations/entitlement than it is with the coaching staff. After a nice 4-0 start to the season got carried away with expectations. The hot start raised expectations and what had previously been "best-case-scenario" was now the baseline! Comment after comment started to believe that Iowa and Wisconsin were terrible (along with the rest of the Big Ten), we were much better and the Gophers were poised to jump from a 3-9 season to seven or eight wins. You think I'm exaggerating? Go back and read the comment sections from September.
Here is where I plead with everyone to maintain some perspective. I don't believe that anybody is calling for Kill's head (yet) but so many people are now convinced that he is in over his head, a determination that is way too early to be making. The question you need to be asking yourself right now is, are we better than we were a year ago? Don't start applying qualifiers to that question like how bad the Big Ten is perceived to be or what a joke it is that we were so desperate to get out of the North Carolina game or why on earth would you sacrifice Nelson's redshirt. Those are peripheral issues and ones that we can certainly discuss, but are we better right now than we were a year ago? I think the obvious answer to that question is "yes".
We beat the teams we were supposed to beat, an improvement over last year. We are 0-3 in the Big Ten having lost two of them on the road and we are much more competitive. Am I happy about losing just because we are more competitive? No. Should we be throwing a parade for Jerry Kill that ends at the feet of his statue? No. But since when did we as fans start to feel so entitled to an immediate turnaround? Rebuilding a program takes baby steps. You don't go from a 3-9 team to winning at Wisconsin (with at least four offensive starters missing) just because you started 4-0 in the preseason against lesser team and the Badgers were not living up to their top-10 projections.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. We were never as good as some of us thought we were a few weeks ago and we are NOT nearly as bad as many are making us out to be right now.
Yes we lost to Wisconsin (for the 9th time in a row) giving up what felt like thousands of yards on the ground. We lost to the same Wisconsin team that rushed for over 450 yards at Purdue last week. It is not like we made terrible running backs look All-Big Ten, we made All-Big Ten backs look like All-Big Ten backs. Yes we missed tackles, we took bad angles and we gave up big plays. But at what point did you think this defense had gone from at-best mediocre to one of the best in the Big Ten capable of shutting down this Badger rushing attack? I would love for us to be able to STOP a team like Wisconsin, but we are just not that good yet. And really, not very many teams are. Especially when your offense does next to nothing to help you out.
Here is the deal. We are going to lose a lot more games this year, maybe even all of them. It is possible that we upset a team along the way and win at Illinois to make a bowl game. But it is unlikely so don't book your flights just yet. We are starting at true freshman for what appears to be the rest of this season. We are playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores all over on both sides of the ball. And every team we play will likely be favored to beat us. If we win another game, it will be an upset and we should be happy.
When it comes to some of the decisions being made about the future of the program, well that is certainly great water-cooler debate. Should we have dropped North Carolina in favor of New Mexico State? I don't like it, most of us don't like it but ultimately I don't really think it hurts the program. It sends a bad message but we are trading a quality opponent for a win at a time when we don't need quality opponents. A few years from now if this program is performing at a higher level then we need to see Kill follow through on his promise to boost the schedule.
Burning Nelson's redshirt is another surprising decision. In fact looking at all of the burned redshirts this season is rather surprising. Maybe this was a colossal mistake or maybe it gives him valuable experience for next season when we return basically everyone else on the offense. Another decision we can argue now and next year.
The success and failure of the Gophers along with Jerry Kill are still unknown. It is way too early to tell whether or not he'll be capable of getting this program back to bowl games. Just like it is too early to tell if nixing North Carolina was a wise move. Just like it is too early to tell if playing Philip Nelson now was a good idea or not. But these decisions are Kill's to make and eventually we will find out how good they were or were not. He is running his program the way he wants to run it. We don't have to like every decision he makes, but we can be patient to see if it is going to work out or not.