When Jerry Kill was named the Gopher football coach back in December, a lot of Gopher fans were angry. Not at Jerry Kill, but at AD Joel Maturi for ‘botching’ the hiring process. I think it took all of two or three minutes into his introductory press conference to see that although Kill wasn’t the big name that everyone thought they were going to get, he is the perfect guy for the Gophers job. He’s well aware of where the Gopher football program is, but he’s also aware of what it will take to get the program turned around. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I had giving it.
Q: So, first things first, since signing day is in the rear view mirror. What are your impressions of the 2011 Gopher recruiting class, and how tough a sell in general is it for a new coach to come in and keep a guy that was recruited by a guy that just got fired?
Coach Jerry Kill: Well, first of all I don’t think you ever know how good your recruiting class is until they’re here for a couple of years. You can give an educated guess, but I’ve never heard a coach say he didn’t get a great, great, recruiting class, but truly you never know. We certainly think we got some good kids, and that they’re going to fit in to what we’re trying to do, but we truly won’t know that for a year or two.
Q: What are some recruiting advantages Minnesota has over other schools, and what are some challenges?
JK: The biggest thing is that we have more to offer than even I knew before I came here. When you have all the opportunities past your college experience, you could actually be staying here the rest of your life, because it’s such a great city. You have two great cities, actually. We have 21 Fortune 500 companies, 5 tremendous hospitals, (the Minneapolis metro area) has hung in pretty good through tough economic times, we have a great university where you get a great education, all the things (Minneapolis) has to offer in being a pro sports town, and the cultural events and (the Cities’) diversity. I just think there’s so much to offer if you come here. Everyone wants to use the cold weather and the tough winters as a knock on us, but the way I look at it is to embrace it. We want hardnosed, tough people to come to the University of Minnesota because that’s what it’s going to take to turn the program around. If they want to play here, they need to be a part of us and the state of Minnesota.
Q: What did you learn in your time at Northern Illinois or stops prior that you are going to bring with you to the University of Minnesota, a coaching philosophy if you will?
JK: Well, I started out as a high school coach 28 years ago, and I really haven’t changed coaching-wise since I started. Now as you move up the ladder, you get bigger, faster, and stronger athletes, but as far as your philosophy and what you believe in, your approach to the game, and the way you teach the game, it doesn’t change that much. As the years go by, I always say listen to your elders, because the older you get the wiser you get, I don’t care what anybody says. So I’m certainly going to listen to the people that have been in this game a long time, and continue to improve. I think the basic fundamentals of what we’ve done for the last 28 years aren’t going to change, it’s just that we’re coaching a different athlete.
Q: You said ‘we’, so I’d like to talk about your assistant coaches for a minute. Your key assistant coaches have been with you for a long time, and a lot of them came to Minnesota with you. What’s the key to your staff’s longevity, and how difficult a decision was it for you guys to leave Northern Illinois and come to Minnesota? What there a deciding factor for you to come here?
JK: I’ve been fortunate that those guys have stayed with me, and I think it’s because we all came up the same way. When I started coaching college football, I was only making $250 a month just trying to break in, and most of those guys that I have with with me are that kind of guy. I gave them their chance, but they’ve been loyal. They’ve had opportunities, though. To this point it’s been good, it’s been fun, we enjoy coming to work, we work well together, and we’re a good team. It’s been a blessing for me, and that’s why we’ve been successful is because of the stability of the coaches. As far as coming to the University of Minnesota, we’ve coached at every level, and if you want to be the best this a great opportunity to coach at the highest level, in the Big Ten, in the BCS. You know, you only live once, and I’ve already dodged one close call already, and you want to do everything in life you can. I grew up in the Midwest, I’m a Midwest guy, and this is a great opportunity. The toughest thing I had to do is leave a great group of players. They played their guts out for us, and it was evident in how they played in their bowl game. I hope we can get our team to play that hard, because if we do we’ll have a great chance to be successful.
Q: The Gophers offense has talent, but struggled with consistency and an identity, and will be learning yet another playbook. Defensively, the Gophers have struggled in a lot of areas in recent years. How do you approach a team that had has so much turmoil and get them to buy what you’re selling?
JK: Well, let’s start on the defensive side of the ball, because that’s the biggest problem, to be honest with you. If you’re going to win football games you’ve gotta be great on defense, and we’ve struggled here, and we have got to get better. What’s the answer to that? We’re working on it, but the biggest thing is we have to recruit speed, we have to recruit length, and we have to recruit people that are going to buy in to what you do. How do you get them to buy in? You’ve got to have success, and our defensive coaches have been successful. They need to buy in, because (what we’ve done elsewhere) has worked so far. Now how quick they’ll buy in, I don’t know. We’re going to recruit people to this system to make sure they understand it. The players have to buy in, but we have to sell them on what we’re doing. And (the players) have to get better, to be honest with you.
Offensively, anytime you change coordinators—I think out quarterback had three different coordinators—it’s difficult. Now they’re going to learn a new system, and it takes a year or two to really understand a system, and there’s really no quick fix. So the ability of our coaches is important, and as we start to have success, they’ll start to feel good about it. The good thing is that we played the U of M when I was at UNI, and I think those kids understand that we were a mid-major team and came in and played pretty well. So I think they understand that (our system) must work, and that gives us a little bit of an edge, because we did play here and we played well. Any kid wants to win and be successful, and I think that’s important.
The other big part that not a lot of people talk about is the kicking game. The biggest play on offense is the punt (ED note—Yes, Jerry Kill will fit right in to the Big Ten) and we have got to get better at punting and kicking the football. We’re going to work real hard to get better at that, because the kicking game is worth a game or two, because you can steal a game or two in the kicking game.
Q: Speaking of that game last year, you came into Minneapolis and defeated the Gophers while you were still at NIU. Did the preparation for that game help in evaluating the potential head coaching position when you were approached about the job at the University of Minnesota?
JK: When you’re coaching, and you’re in that zone you’re really not thinking about anything else. I had no idea that this would happen, and we prepared hard, we worked hard, and then we got ready for the next week. It’s hard to go back and remember, but as we’re going through film and evaluating the players we have here, some of the memory comes back on who we were game planning for and who we attacked and so forth, but was it a huge assist? No, it really wasn’t. I don’t think that’s fair to the players here because we have to evaluate them from what we see now and from here on out.
Q: You had a great quote during your introductory press conference when you said "if it’s 3rd down and 3 and they're going to put 9 men down in the box, let’s run play action and try and stroke the post." What exactly did you mean by that, and is it that situational aggression I think you were getting at a consistent theme we can expect on both sides of the ball?
JK: Well, I think you take what people give you in life, and it’s no different in football. Now you gotta have a quarterback that’s gonna be smart enough to get you in the right play, now that’s important. There’s a time to run and a time to throw, but if they got 9 guys in the box, and there’s more in there than you can block there’s no use trying to run into an unblocked man. And if you can take advantage of that with a quick post or a quick slant, they won’t put that many in the box. You have to take advantage of the opportunities that the defense will give you. Football comes down to about 8 or 10 plays that are the difference between winning and losing, you just don’t know what they’re going to be.
Q: A lot of teams have a rallying cry or mantra. For example, last year was ‘all in for Michigan’ Is there a motto or philosophy you want the Gophers to have or be known for?
JK: I’m not a mantra or motto guy, but I can tell you this. All I’ve talked about since I got into this profession and since I’ve come here is you’ve got to come to work every day. I talk to our kids all the time about playing hard. It takes no talent to play hard, and I think the state of Minnesota would embrace a team that lined up and played their butt off for four quarters, and not that many teams can do that. I hope that we can build a team here the state will be proud of every time they run through that tunnel. The only way that they’ll play hard is if they work hard, and we’re trying to instill that here at the University of Minnesota as we speak.