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Jerry Kill and the importance of reflection

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It’s possible (and helpful) to appreciate the past & critique it at the same time.

Minnesota v Colorado State Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I’m going to open with a little disclaimer. I often find the “debate the coach who isn’t even the direct predecessor for the current HC” conversations to be tedious. Then again, these discussions usually arise during the middle of a less than satisfying regular season where there is actual “what is happening today” stuff to talk about instead. Since this is the off-season and I’m bored, I’ve decided to break my general rule about avoiding this subject matter.

Why am I entering the territory of a debate I try to avoid as much as possible? Because I think you need to be able to critique the sports figures you like. Doing that is something that keeps your fandom “healthy” in my opinion. The importance of this was made more relevant to me again because all the recent Streveler news. It also got me thinking about the fact that the things you critique about a coach/player/team can come into better focus with the benefit of hindsight. To keep it topical to recent news, I’d like to explore these ideas via the quarterback play of Jerry Kill’s tenure.

Fans sometimes struggle to keep a full perspective in real time

When you like a sports entity (player/coach/team/school) as a fan, it’s easier to overlook their shortcomings. In many ways, this is pretty much the essence of being a fan. It’s true of all of us, even those of us who write about a team for fun and who try not to let this happen (/waves). Frankly, I’m fine with that because so long as you’re making an honest attempt to see the whole picture and you’re willing to listen to and to try and understand people who see things differently you’ll usually be fine. The alternative to me is to not be a fan (i.e. not give a team, player, or coach any emotional investment at all). But understandable or not, this can be a pretty big limitation to seeing the big picture in real time.

I’m willing to admit that I gave Kill and Co. a pass for the lack of QB development for longer than was warranted. Early on, I considered struggles with the position (the dreaded “QB carousel” where they wouldn’t stick with a starter) part of the transition inherent in Kill rebuilding a broken program. I thought that once they found “their guy” (a la Chandler Harnish) the carousel would stop.

Once Mitch Leidner occupied that role, I let my hopes that he would reach his potential cloud the concerning fact that the progress towards his potential was pretty slow. I also think a fear of the staff continuing the QB carousel meant I missed the troubling implications raised by the lack of a backup who could offer an alternative to the run heavy Mitch offense. Lastly, I think defending Mitch from hyperbole also meant I ended up giving Kill and his staff a bigger pass on QB development as by-product of defending their starting quarterback.

Obviously I’m not the only one who felt this way which is really my point. No matter the sport, no matter the context, this is something that fans do to varying degrees while they are cheering for and supporting a team/player/coach. Even when you’re trying to see the bigger picture.

Time and changing context makes some flaws easier to see

Once we as fans have a chance to be removed from the moment, it can be easier to see or fully contextualize flaws we might have discounted. This is especially true if you’re a fan who prefers more of a “wait and see” approach before making up your mind (/waves again). That’s why I think reflection after a little “break” from the moment can be valuable.

For me this plays out clearly when it comes to Kill and his quarterbacks. Unlike while he was coaching here, I am now comfortable saying without equivocation that Jerry Kill and his staff were not good at developing, recruiting, or managing quarterbacks at Minnesota. That’s because time gave me the chance to look at the following information without any of my initial biases, hopes, or strong opinions to hold me back.

  • Mitch Leidner was the most accomplished QB they were able to put on the field. Mitch Leidner never completed more than 60% of his passes. Mitch Leidner’s career TD/INT ratio was 36/32. He did get better between his freshman and junior years (before regressing in his senior season after Kill was gone) but not enough to convince me that Kill or his staff deserve significant praise for that development. I continue to believe Mitch was always more maligned then he deserved, but that’s a separate issue from the fact that if your best QB after 5 years at a school is playing at Mitch’s level you’re doing a lot of things wrong with your QB process.
  • Kill changed QB’s often early in his tenure for reasons not related to injury. The staff’s management of the position drove three different QB’s who had played minutes as a starter to transfer. The result of this upheaval was a consistent depth issue at the position when it came to experience and talent.
  • Their focus on positional flexibility as a recruiting requirement was a complete bust. Why do I say this? Because the point of recruiting for flexibility was to A) give you an out if the guy you recruited failed at QB since he could contribute at a different position and B) land players who were “dual threat” and who offensive flexibility if they did become your QB. Did the staff ever accomplish either? No. Kill never landed a quarterback capable of switching positions and his teams struggled at passing (negating the “dual” part of the threat).

I don’t always find arguing about the past to be a great joy, but I do find that reflecting on the past can be interesting and valuable (especially if you’re obsessive enough to write and opine about sports for fun). I certainly know that how I approach* the development of quarterbacks under Fleck will be influenced by how I responded to quarterbacks under Kill. Will that help me spot a trend sooner? Maybe. Ultimately as a fan I’m really just hoping that Tanner Morgan is a stud and my analysis of the QB position for the next few years can consist of “TANNER GOOD. TANNER BEING GOOD IS GOOD FOR MINNESOTA. YAY TANNER.”**

It’s possible to really like a sports figure and be critical at the same time

As I noted at the top, one thing that I’ve been reminded of this week is the importance of being able to both support and like a coach, player, or team and yet be critical of them. I think this is something that’s possible both while they are “your guy” and after they’ve moved on and it’s important to remember that criticizing a coach/player/team doesn’t automatically mean you hate them.

For me, Jerry Kill was coach of some of my favorite Gopher Football memories. I’ll never forget those or his role in them and I’m thankful for them. I was extremely saddened that he had to retire when he did because of his health. I’m proud of the work he did to expand knowledge about epilepsy while he was at Minnesota and I’ll never stop being angry about the utterly ridiculous treatment he received in the media when it came to his ongoing issues living with it. My willingness to say “hey, he really wasn’t so good at anything related to quarterbacks while he was here” doesn’t change any of that. Rather I think it helps me be mindful of the sort of context that will help me enjoy more favorite Gopher Football memories in the years to come.***

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*BTW, my approach is now voodoo: “QB play, it is sick. We cannot pass ball. Running ball, we have done very much. Passing game, arms are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, bring passing success. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come.

**This has to happen to a Minnesota QB at some point, just on dumb luck alone if nothing else right? (sigh)

***Unless we go full Illinois somehow, at which point my favorite memories may revolve around my bleach bottle collection. Sorry, I got a little dark at the end here.