By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 5:32 PM
MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Kill has been on the job at Minnesota for just under four months and, on the eve of his first spring football practice as Gophers coach, he laid out a blunt and honest assessment of the program he inherited.
Right now, his players have a long way to go academically and physically to get up to his demanding standards.
The Golden Gophers season ended officially on Nov. 20, but coach Tim Brewster was fired on Oct. 17, tossing the players into a long period of uncertainty and malaise until Kill arrived in the Twin Cities on Dec. 6.
It caused some players to fall behind in the classroom and the weight room, meaning Kill and the new coaching staff have their work cut out for them when spring practice begins on Thursday.
"I can't go home at six o'clock, kick my feet up and watch TV," Kill said Wednesday. "I've got to have my tail end up here making sure guys are going to study hall, going to class and put a thumb on them. That's the hardest thing I've got going for me right now is teaching the 'Minnesota Way.'
"They've got to learn to do it the right way. We get going the right direction, and then we take two steps back. But that's part of turning around a program."
Kill likened this rebuilding project to the one he had at Southern Illinois, an FCS school that he said was rife with problems on and off the field when he first arrived. He went 1-10 in his first season and 4-8 in his second year coaching the Salukis, but went 50-14 over his final five years before leaving for Northern Illinois.
Kill wouldn't discuss specific players struggling with grades at Minnesota, but did say that some may miss portions of spring practice to make sure they remain eligible.
While many coaches across the country use spring practices to get players up to speed on playbooks and schemes, Kill is going to use the period to evaluate who has what it takes to do it the "Minnesota Way," which he refers to as having dedication on the field and in class, mental toughness and a refusal to quit.
He said he is reluctant to give many players too much time off this spring to deal with academics, "because that's what they may want."
"We need them all eligible to play. That's important," Kill said. "But at the same time, if I tell them they can't go through spring ball, how am I going to be able to find out if they're going to be able to make it through next year? I'm going to find out in the spring who is going to be in that wheelbarrow as much as I can."
To hear Kill describe it, the "Minnesota Way" is really the "Kill Way." He has been vocal on campus since he took over, and he reiterated that there will be no compromises.
"That's how you build a program. You know what, we may take a step back before we take a step forward," Kill said. "I told (athletic director Joel Maturi) that. But we're not going to take ... short cuts. And I may get fired doing it that way, but I'll go down my way and that's the great thing about it."
Players will earn playing time based not on reputation, but on performance in practices. And he won't hesitate to cut a player who doesn't put forth their best efforts in school as well.
"It's the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of them are starting to get it. Twenty percent are going to fight you," he said. "Like I told them, 'It ain't going to do any good because I ain't going anywhere and it ain't changing. Nothing.'"
He said he was taken aback at first by the doughy physiques he saw while introducing himself to his new players, even asking defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys "what the heck have we got ourselves into?"
"When you don't know what you're going to do, most of them didn't do anything but eat and kick back and play video games," Kill said.
Claeys pointed out that the Gophers did not qualify for a bowl game and therefore missed out on the valuable extra practices that come in November and December. They also didn't have a leader to set the workout agenda for them, and it showed.
Kill said he's seen improvement in that area since the coaching staff has arrived and he's ready to get to work on the field.
"It's a grind. You're trying to change a culture," he said. "You've got to capture everybody. You've got to get everybody believing. Losing's a habit and winning's a habit. There's a lot of things you've got to shift and it's not easy. That's why they pay you. I enjoy it. I enjoy the journey."