Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill defended himself Monday in response to former wide receiver A.J. Barker ’s allegations of mistreatment.
Barker announced Sunday on Twitter that he was quitting the Gophers football team. He subsequently posted a more than 4,000-word open letter to his Tumblr account, accusing Kill and members of his staff of mishandling Barker’s ankle injury. He highlighted several instances of alleged mistreatment and accused Kill of using manipulative tactics.
Kill said at a press conference Monday that he treated Barker no differently than other people.
“I don’t treat our players any differently than I treat my two daughters,” Kill said.
Kill said Brandon Kirksey, a defensive tackle who graduated from the program last year and butted heads with Kill early in the coach’s tenure, called him Monday to talk.
“[Kirksey] said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, man, but you changed my life,’” Kill said.
Kill said he “got all over [Kirksey’s] tail end” when Kirksey was with the team, but he said the tackle responded well.
“I’ve been a lot tougher [with other players] than I have with A.J.,” Kill said.
In his letter, Barker highlighted several instances of alleged maltreatment and accused Kill of using manipulative tactics throughout this season.
Barker injured his ankle Oct. 27 and has not played since. Kill confirmed Barker’s account in the letter that Barker and one of the athletic trainers engaged in a confrontation at practice last Thursday.
“It got loud, so I called A.J. over and let him know that I wasn’t very happy with him,” Kill said.
Barker’s letter said Kill “exploded on me in front of the entire team in our indoor facility” and “attacked everything about me, from an athlete to my character as a person.”
Both Barker and Kill said they spoke after Thursday’s practice. Kill said that’s the last time the two have spoken.
In the letter, Barker wrote that Kill attacked his upbringing and wrote that assistant coach Rob Reeves called him a gay slur because of his religious beliefs.
Kill denied both assertions Monday.
Players defend Kill
Joel Sambursky, who played quarterback under Kill at Southern Illinois from 2002-05, said Monday that Kill’s coaching made him a better person.
“I’m a better father, I’m a better husband, I’m better in my job because I had someone like coach Kill that loved me enough to be hard on me,” Sambursky said.
Sambursky said Kill’s strict, hard-nosed coaching style is the reason Kill has been successful. He said NFL players Brandon Jacobs and Bart Scott would agree.
Sambursky recalled the first time he threw an interception in a game. He said Kill had “some hard words” for him, and he said Kill was the first person to come up and give him a hug after the incident.
“[Kill] said, ‘I just wanted to see if you could take it. I need guys that are mentally tough to play this game,’” Sambursky said. “That’s what he does, and that’s what successful coaches do.”
Scott Wedige played center for Kill at Northern Illinois from 2008-10 and had similar accounts. He said Kill used tough love but “always had our backs in the end.”
“He called me every name in the book and rode me hard,” Wedige said. “It made me a lot better. He believed in me and helped me get along in my career.”
Wedige said he’s spoken with a few of his former teammates at NIU about the situation.
“Every one of them defended Kill,” he said.
Wedige, who currently plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, said Kill is the reason he made it to the NFL.
“I really don’t think I would have that opportunity if he didn’t see something in me and push me harder than I thought I could push,” Wedige said.
Eric Carter, a senior wide receiver from Lakeland, Fla., verbally committed to the Gophers last month and said he has no plans to back out amid Barker’s allegations against Kill.
Carter said Monday that he read Barker’s letter and thought it was a “little crazy.” He said he thought it was exaggerated and parts of it were “a little harsh.”
Carter said he talked to a couple of current Gophers players about the letter.
“They said it was kind of blown of proportion,” Carter said, “but they really can’t talk about it.”
Sambursky said Kill “does things his way, and he doesn’t negotiate that.”
“There might be one guy, [Barker], who doesn’t like his style,” Sambursky said, “but there are thousands of players that love and respect coach Kill because of the way he treated them.”