With Gophers surging, Jerry Kill isn't about to change anything
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The possibility of a distinct turnaround, the moment that true progress starts turning into tangible results (wins) that Jerry Kill has worked to get his Minnesota Gophers football team to buy into finally appears to have reached the forefront.
In the midst of a three-game Big Ten win streak and sitting at 7-2 for only the second time in 10 years, the Gophers are experiencing a sudden resurgence within their program.
What could be seen in solid victories against Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana was the payoff from the Kill-led overhaul of a downtrodden team into one that is beginning to take a more defined shape.
It has happened amid the uncertainty and struggles of Kill's battle with epilepsy. Even so, Kill has remained a central figure within the program.
After missing two weeks as he dealt with expansive medical treatment, Kill has gradually folded back into the team's day-to-day operations, but has remained positioned above the field in the coaches' box for the last three games.
And with the Gophers currently thriving, Kill isn't about to change anything.
"I'm the CEO right now," Kill said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "Me in the box right now is best for our football team, best for the head coach. You need somebody operate down on the field and (defensive coordinator) Tracy (Claeys) is the best to do that."
Even with Claeys taking on many of the head coaching duties in the last two weeks, Kill maintained his presence at practices and team meetings, largely as an overseer. Although not always the final voice in play calling in wins against Northwestern and Nebraska, his influence was there.
Slowly, he has expanded his role again but has stuck to the adjustments needed in wake of continuing his redirected focus on better controlling the effects of his epilepsy.
Kill has routinely downplayed the changes and the differences of coaching from the press box as opposed to the sideline, crediting a coaching staff that has largely been with him for more than a decade.
In recent weeks, Kill, who is defined by a determined and stubborn mindset, has undergone a period of self-realization, which in part led him to take steps midseason to find a way to control the disorder that has been a constant force in his life for more than 10 years.
"Sometimes you have to be smart enough as a person to know when you need help and you need to change some things," Kill said in his office on Sunday. "I'm trying real hard to do what I'm told for the first time in 30 years. But that doesn't mean I can't coach, and it doesn't mean I'm not coaching."
The events of the last month, both personal and the progress seen from his team, have only further strengthened Kill's determination to succeed in keeping his fight with epilepsy from stopping him from accomplishing what he sees possible at Minnesota.
"I'm going to win," Kill said. "It is what it is. I've got a lot of people out there telling me I ain't going to win that battle. I'm going to win."
That belief seems to have rooted itself throughout the Gophers football program. For the last three weeks, Minnesota has overcome what it may lack in developed talent to find ways to win games that in past years have eluded the team.
A critical last-minute Indiana fumble and subsequent recovery by senior linebacker Aaron Hill preserved the Gophers' wild 42-39 victory over the Hoosiers on Saturday. While the game carried obvious flaws, Minnesota displayed a resiliency that until recently had rarely been seen. An offense that has finally found an established identity, averaging 32 points and 434 yards in three games, has also aided in supporting the Gophers' upswing.
"There's just a different vibe around here. I don't know what it is," junior center Tommy Olson said. "Everybody is really happy at practice. Nobody is hang-dogging it. Everybody is excited about going to practice and getting better. Our practices are a lot more upbeat, having fun."
With a program that has experienced years of struggles, a surge of success routinely brings about the chance at reaching long untapped milestones. The Gophers are currently finding that out firsthand.
A win on Saturday in a home showdown with Penn State would give the Gophers' their fourth straight conference victory, something they haven't done since 1973. Minnesota has also not had a four-win Big Ten campaign in eight years. They have three more chances at doing so this season.
"It seems like yesterday we had just two wins and were fighting for the third as far as my first two seasons," senior cornerback Brock Vereen said. "It's a testament to Coach Kill. We've believed in his system. We're reaping the benefits from it, but we still have a ways to go."
Vereen's words reflect the current state of the Gophers. Winning solves a lot problems, and they have felt that lately. But there is the realization that the "work in progress" label that been attached to the program since Kill's arrival hasn't gone away just because of three consecutive wins.
Their current win streak has unlocked possibilities for this year's squad few outside the program saw possible, but a daunting closing stretch to the season will present plenty of problems. But the Gophers, with Kill keeping watch, have begun to show they may be able to weather those ups and downs in the long-term.