Let's talk about Jerry Kill.
The reason this hurts so much is because Jerry Kill and Minnesota were a near perfect match. Kill was a blue collar head coach who started at the bottom and climbed up the college coaching ranks, one step at a time. His name was never mentioned for open head coaching positions at helmet schools -- I have to believe his health problems played a role in that -- but he was successful no matter where he coached. There is nothing glamorous about Jerry Kill. But his coaching record speaks for itself.
Let's be honest: The University of Minnesota is not a premier college football program. It can't reel in the kind of blue chip talent that Ohio State and Michigan bring in each season. It needed a head coach that could do more with less. Jerry Kill was that coach. His reputation for building programs was what made him an appealing option for Minnesota. His "Brick By Brick" approach has become a mantra for a football team that prides itself on outworking the other team.
In the wake of a predecessor who was more comfortable standing on a podium than on the sideline, Jerry Kill represented a head coach who did his talking on the field. And he is respected by his peers and the media (with few exceptions). He has endeared himself to the students at the University of Minnesota and high school coaches across the state, building genuine relationships that have paid dividends on Saturdays at TCF Bank Stadium and on the recruiting trail.
But now Jerry Kill is gone. What now?
What This Means
This is a setback for the football program at the University of Minnesota, but a positive step for Jerry Kill -- hence the conflicted feelings you've no doubt been dealing with since the announcement. You should harbor no ill will towards Kill. Based on his comments at the press conference regarding his health the past few weeks, this was the right decision. Back when he was first hired, Kill said he'd be the head coach at Minnesota until he was no longer fit to coach, and he kept that promise.
But with that said, losing your head coach midseason is never good.
The good news: Tracy Claeys, the new interim head coach, and the coaching staff have been through this before -- sort of. Back in 2013 when Kill stepped aside midseason to deal with his health, Claeys took over as interim head coach and led the Gophers to four straight Big Ten wins. This situation is a bit different, as Claeys is no longer keeping the ship afloat until Kill returns -- Kill is not coming back. So the good news is that I don't expect Claeys to be in over his head. This staff has been together too long to fall apart now, and they're well versed in how to handle adversity.
The bad news: This final stretch of games is brutal. Injuries have ravaged the depth chart. You've got a roster of players who've now lost their head coach. The future of the coaching staff is uncertain. The cloud of a Title IX investigation and the search for an athletic director hang over the university. In what has been a disappointing season, this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. It is possible that the Gophers will play inspired football the rest of the season to honor their former head coach and pull off enough wins to become bowl eligible. But it is also possible that the Gophers' misfortunes continue with a streak of five more losses to end the season.
I have no idea what to expect from this team the rest of the season. And my instinct as a fan of the Minnesota Golden Gophers is to assume worst.
What Comes Next
President Eric Kaler spoke at the press conference this morning alongside interim athletic director Beth Goetz. When asked for a timeline regarding the search for a new head football coach, Kaler said that the first priority would be hiring a new athletic director. Then the search for a new head football coach can begin.
I don't know the first thing about hiring an athletic director or who would be considered qualified candidates, so I'm going to skip ahead and keep the conversation to football. From my point of view, I see two options that the athletic department have to choose from when it comes to the future of the football program.
Option A: Promote Tracy Claeys to head coach. I've heard it suggested that Jay Sawvel then be promoted to defensive coordinator. This move would ensure that the foundation Kill has laid remains intact and also avoid the typical roster attrition that takes place after the departure of a head coach. It would also help preserve the current recruiting class, which currently ranks as the best of the Kill era, though it did suffer a decommitment this morning from local defensive tackle JoJo Garcia. But can this staff succeed long-term without Kill at the helm? Is Claeys ready to be a head coach in the Big Ten? He knows how to game plan for opposing offenses, but being a head coach is more than Xs and Os. This would be the most convenient option, but is it the best one?
Option B: Bring in a new head coach to build from the strong foundation. This program is on much stronger ground than it was when Kill was first hired, so I don't see the athletic department having as much trouble finding potential suitors. And with the new facilities breaking ground on Friday, that eliminates one of the biggest knocks opposing coaches have been able to use against this football program. This is a program trending upward. But there is also a lot of risk in bringing in a new coaching staff. Will we lose a lot of the current players? Will the program take a step back under new leadership? We have seen what the wrong hire can do to a program.
I certainly don't envy the task of the people who must make these decisions. How do you feel about it? All we can do at this point is speculate and spout our own opinions.