Sandell: Staff compensation critical part of Jerry Kill's new contract
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Kill is heading into his fourth year in charge of the Minnesota Gophers football program, and he is doing so with a newly minted contract in hand.
Kill's restructured contract, which was officially announced Saturday, signifies a major step in the recent evolution of the 'U' football program, as well as an unmistakable vote of confidence by the University of Minnesota in the direction in which Kill appears to have readjusted the Gophers' course.
Of the multiple headline worthy stipulations in his new contract, his raise of more than $1 million per year and an additional season tacked on to his now five-year deal (under contract through 2018) understandably garnered the most buzz.
However, the compensation support being directed towards his assistant coaching staff is a crucial piece of the deal. As part of Kill's agreement, his staff's salary pool will rank among the top-six assistant coaching salary pools in the soon-to-be 14-team Big Ten.
Without that addition, Kill said his response would have been blunt.
"I wouldn't have signed the contract. It's that simple," Kill said at a press conference Monday. "I think that's the way it is ... That's more important to me because we've all worked together. I think the administration realized that. We've got good coaches, and we need to continue to keep that where it needs to be."
It's easy to write that off as typical coach speak, and Kill certainly uses his longtime support of his staff as a repeated selling point to the media, fans and recruits.
But there is a genuine level of sincerity to Kill's push to get his staff in a compensation range that would hold up in the upper half of the Big Ten and the rest of the nation's top conferences.
According to the USA Today's coaching salary database, the Gophers assistants ranked seventh in 2013 in total salary among the 10 Big Ten schools that reported contract specifics. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was the highest paid 'U' assistant at a base salary of $346,800. Claeys, who has been with Kill since 1995, earned an additional $13,000 per week last season when he served as acting head coach while Kill took a temporary leave of absence to deal with his battle with epilepsy.
Kill's loyalty has been a primary factor in having kept the majority of his staff together longer than any other coaching staff in the country. Seven of his coaches, including strength coach Eric Klein, have been with him for 13 or more seasons through previous stops at Emporia State, Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
Since taking over the program in 2011 there hadn't been a major alteration to his Gophers staff until linebackers coach Bill Miller recently decided to take a similar position with defending national champion Florida State.
Miller had been the newest member of Kill's core staff, having joined on when Kill took over at Minnesota.
If the Gophers opt to fill Miller's spot externally, it will be only the fourth new hire Kill has made among his key position coaches in the last 12 years (defensive line coach Jeff Phelps was added in 2008 at Northern Illinois. QB coach Jim Zebrowski was No. 2, hired in 2010 at Northern Illinois).
It is that level of continuity that has been at the backbone of Kill's past successes, and a cornerstone of the foundation set in place with the Gophers.
Minnesota went 3-9 in Kill's first season, but have improved their win total by at least two victories in each of the two years, including only the program's fifth eight-win campaign in 50 years last season. While their offense still leaves much to be desired, the Gophers defense has risen from nearly irrelevant in the Big Ten to among the conference's best in 2013 (fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense - 22.2 points per game).
The gradual turnaround the Gophers have undergone in the past three years has brought increasing attention to the entire staff. Yet, the group largely has stayed together.
Limegrover, Miller and Klein had each turned down outside offers in previous seasons. The dramatic strides made defensively, and the job he did briefly filling in as head coach, put Claeys' stock on the rise this offseason. Defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel had also gained notable recognition.
But apart from Miller, the coaches on the practice field next Tuesday when the Gophers open spring ball will be the same ones the players have been with for more than three years.
"We never hold anybody back. Our job is to make their lives better, and their lives have been better since we've came to the University of Minnesota," Kill said of his staff in December.
"If somebody is going to make their life better and it's a good fit, you understand that. You appreciate that. Our job is to make that difficult and give them as much reason to stay as we possibly can."
Kill has continued to live up to that declaration. He backed up those words by adamantly defending his staff's compensation in contract meetings in the last few months with University president Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague.
"It's something that is very important to him and something that is very important to me," Teague said Monday. "He has a very good staff, and we have to stay competitive with our compensation to them. They're a vital, vital part for moving this thing forward.
Kill's campaigning efforts for his staff are nothing new. When Kaler took over as president in July 2011, Kill pressed to set in motion multi-year deals for coordinators Claeys and Matt Limegrover. Three-year extensions were given to both coaches, signing them through the 2014 season, while two-year deals were acquired for his other assistants.
Some onlookers may balk at the high dollar figures being invested in Kill, but they reflect one of the necessary factors needed in order to compete in today's big money college football world.
By shelling out for a new deal, Minnesota is going all-in with Kill's program. It is a full-fledge rededication of support in the perception that the 52-year-old head coach is the man capable of digging the Gophers out of five decades filled mostly with football mediocrity.
Kill noted one of his personal goals was to "make everybody proud of Gopher football." The pressure has now been ratcheted up several notches for his staff to bring it to fruition.
"I think we've moved forward on that, but I don't think anybody in the room is satisfied with that," Kill said. "So I've got to truly move it forward ... If I don't do that then I don't' deserve to be here, and I'm OK with that."