If Minnesota football built anything under coach Jerry Kill, it was continuity.
Kill started last season with eight assistants who had coached with him at various stops for an average of 15 years each. Only once in five seasons with the Gophers did he change coaches, replacing a linebackers aide who left for Florida State.
A formula that featured familiarity and steadiness proved promising as Minnesota went from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 and 8-5 in Kill’s first four years.
Health reasons forced Kill to resign last October. But continuity appeared assured when defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys — a 20-year disciple of Kill — was named head coach.
Claeys and Kill, now an associate athletic director at Kansas State, are such good friends that they still talk every two to three days.
But it was shortly after the 2015 regular-season finale that Claeys gave everyone something to talk about.
He fired offensive coordinator and line coach Matt Limegrover, a 16-year Kill assistant, and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, a six-year veteran. For context, Nebraska fans, that would have been akin to Frank Solich canning Milt Tenopir and Turner Gill after he was hired in the late 1990s.
Unknown to most, Claeys held a philosophical difference with Kill on staff alignment that didn’t come into play until he was promoted.
“I’m a believer that on both sides of the ball, one guy has to be in charge,’’ Claeys said. “I think the kids have got to see that also.’’
That’s how it was defensively at Minnesota when Claeys was the coordinator. But the setup was different on offense.
“Coach Kill had it structured to where Coach Z and Matt and him were working together on game day on offense,’’ Claeys said. “I knew as soon as I took over the only way for me to be comfortable was to have one person in charge.’’
Claeys calmly explained all this to me at Big Ten Media Days without a hint of bravado or defensiveness. His matter-of-factness gives you a peaceful, easy feeling.
Some of it comes from Claeys’ background, as a native of Clay Center, Kansas (pop. 4,300). His Midwestern twang and plain-spoken style will hit familiar notes around the Big Ten.
Just don’t mistake Claeys’ folksy manner for any softness.
At age 47, this is the first head coaching job ever for a guy who has never had it easy. Out of high school, he first attended Kansas, dropped out when he ran out of money and eventually scratched together enough cash to enroll at Kansas State and graduate.
With only a three-year contract at Minnesota and a new athletic director onboard since his hiring, Claeys won’t rest a minute in getting done what he wants organizationally.
Rearranging the staff made sense for Claeys in one other regard.
“I think it’s awfully hard for an offensive line coach to be a play-caller,’’ he said. “They need to be in the trenches with their guys, helping them with all the crap people are doing on defense like slanting and blitzing.’’
Claeys isn’t alone in that opinion.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer tried a three-headed play-calling system last year involving him on the sideline and O-line coach Ed Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck in the press box.
After the Buckeyes sputtered repeatedly to score in 2015, Meyer hired a new offensive line coach to work from the sidelines. He then made Warinner the tight ends coach and primary play-caller, while Beck was relabeled a play-calling “adviser.’’
At Minnesota, things are different on defense, too, as Claeys gave up coordinator duties, giving those to defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel.
“I want to be a game manager and a resource for the guys,” Claeys said. “If there is a question, I can give my opinion. And then I can do time management with the clock. I don’t want to be a micromanager.’’
Even after that much change of Kill’s blueprint, Claeys is eager for his longtime friend to visit.
“I was hoping he would take a year off so he could come up to practice every now and then,’’ Claeys said. “He’ll be in the Twin Cities for book signing this fall.’’
Though not available in person, Kill has helped Claeys get ready for the job ahead.
“He went around this spring and watched a lot of teams practice,’’ Claeys said. “He’d call with ideas he liked.
“The most difficult thing on the job was he was my best friend. You were used to 20 years going in the office and seeing him every day. You just don’t have that any more.”
Though the Minnesota staff has changed, the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach hasn’t.
“The whole world is in a damn hurry, but we took our time here,” Claeys said. “We did it right with pretty good kids who love football. And they want to be in Minnesota.”
So when is the payoff?
“We’re at the point where at the end of November, those last two or three games, we’ll be in the talk to get to Indy and play for the Big Ten championship,” Claeys said. “Hell, nobody wins it every year.
“We need to jump in and get there and take advantage of that opportunity.”