Kill aims to continue third-year magic

At other schools, coach Jerry Kill’s third season showed dramatic improvement.

University football coach Jerry Kill addresses the press at the Big Ten media days in Chicago on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

Dane Mizutani

University football coach Jerry Kill addresses the press at the Big Ten media days in Chicago on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

Charlie Armitz

CHICAGO — Third-year Gophers head coach Jerry Kill loves to preach optimism.

This season, he has a history of winning to show for it.

Kill’s 19-year head coaching career has been a series of success stories, highlighted by dramatic improvements in his third seasons at different schools.

His previous two teams — Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois — improved by six and three wins, respectively, in his third year. In both cases, his team won 10 games and its respective conference.

That track record has raised expectations this season for a Gophers program that has finished 2-6 in the Big Ten in back-to-back seasons. The Gophers improved their overall record last season from 3-9 to 6-7 and made their first bowl game since 2009.

A bowl game might not be enough this time.

“Our expectation is a Big Ten championship,” said senior safety Brock Vereen. “I think anything less than that and you’re selling yourself short.”

Kill’s approach to improve teams over a three-year period is simple: recruit players who fit his style and teach them discipline on and off the field.

He said it usually takes three recruiting classes for a program to reach its potential, “and we’ve only had two, so it’s a little bit different.” Those two classes mean Kill’s recruits make up about half the team.

Much of Kill’s challenge at Minnesota has been changing the mentality of some of former head coach Tim Brewster’s recruits.

When the Gophers hired Kill in December 2010, he inherited 25 players on academic warning. In the NCAA’s latest Academic Progress Rate report, the Gophers posted a score of 994 for the 2011-12 school year — one of the highest scores ever for an NCAA football program.

“We’ve had to recruit [Brewster’s players] also and get them on the same page with what we want,” Kill said. “I think the kids understand where we’re going probably better now than they ever have.”

Junior running back Donnell Kirkwood, a 2010 Brewster recruit, said Kill has taught players to be mentally and physically tougher.

Vereen, another 2010 recruit, said the team’s academic improvements have helped it play better.

“When there’s less stuff to worry about off the field,” Vereen said, “all your attention can be focused on performance on the field.”

Signature win

Kill drew the attention of some Minnesota fans in September 2010 when his NIU team upset the Gophers 34-23 at TCF Bank Stadium.

At Big Ten Media Days, he called the feat a “signature win” for NIU and said the Gophers will need one of their own in 2013.

“Sometimes when you get a win like that, everywhere I’ve been, it carries on,” Kill said. “You gain confidence, and it starts a snowball effect.”

Kill’s signature win at SIU came in his second season in 2002, when the Salukis beat Western Illinois for the first time in 19 years.

“We were only 4-8 [that year], but kids started to believe after that game a little bit,” Kill said. “I don’t think we’ve had that signature moment, signature win, yet.”

Kill said the Gophers came close to earning that win in their bowl game last December against Texas Tech, which they lost 34-31 after leading late in the fourth quarter.

“I think we needed to have a season like last year to learn the lessons that we learned,” Vereen said. “We learned that just because you deserve to win a game doesn’t mean you will win a game.”

The Gophers have yet to defeat a ranked team under Kill. They will likely play several in the Big Ten this year, so they’ll have ample opportunity to earn a momentum-building victory.

And they’ll have Kill’s history on their side as well. Kill went a combined 14-1 in conference games during his third years at SIU and NIU.

But repeating his 10-win seasons from the two mid-major schools at Minnesota would be a major surprise. The Gophers have won 10 or more games just once since 1905, and they haven’t won more than seven games since 2003.

Much to prove

While the Gophers have high expectations for 2013, few people outside of Minnesota are projecting that Kill’s third-year success will continue.

The Gophers were picked to finish last in the six-team Legends division in a poll of 26 Big Ten writers. They tied for last place with Iowa last year and had sole possession of last place in 2011.

And Kill, while respected in the coaching community, has rarely been recognized for his successes at smaller schools. Athlon Sports ranked him ninth out of 12 Big Ten coaches earlier this year.

Minnesota’s 2013 recruiting class also ranked last in the conference for the second year in a row.

Kill dismissed concerns of a weak class in February by saying his recruits were a good fit for the program. He said at Big Ten Media Days that this team is better than it was last season.

Gophers players have backed their coach throughout the offseason, and their confidence in Kill appears to be stronger than ever.

“Coach Kill is a guy who has delivered,” Vereen said. “He delivers on everything. Everywhere he’s been, the third year is that biggest jump.”

 

-Jace Frederick contributed to this report.