If you follow Big Ten Football, then you know Jerry Kill and the stories of how he’s made just about every program he’s coached at a winner.
Until about a month ago, however, very few people knew the name Tracy Claeys.
For 18 years, Claeys has lived in the shadow of Kill’s success, serving as his defensive coordinator for 14 of them at every stop Kill has made. Every so often, due to Jerry Kill’s medical condition, Claeys is called upon to serve as the interim head coach.
Never has his service been needed for this long.
During the second week of October, Jerry Kill announced that he would be taking an open-ended leave of absence from coaching the Minnesota Golden Gophers in order to deal with his epilepsy. Once again, it would be Claeys to step in and fill Kill’s shoes — this time on a team that had just failed its first true test of the season via a 23-7 home loss to Iowa.
Claeys’ first game at the helm in 2013 didn’t go well, as the Gophers suffered a 42-13 drubbing at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines at the fabled “Big House” in Ann Arbor. With four non-conference wins under their belt, few expected Minnesota to log many more after the Michigan loss.
Then something happened. The Gophers travelled to Evansville, Illinois and knocked off a wounded Northwestern squad in a gritty battle. It was said that the team rallied around and played for Kill. That makes a great storyline and maybe one day a great Disney movie, but those of us who have played football know that we really only play for the head man on the sideline that day. On that day, the head man on the sideline was Claeys.
A week later, Claeys led the Gophers to the biggest win of Jerry Kill’s tenure — another gritty battle, this time a 34-23 win over one of the giants historically of college football, Nebraska. Something was brewing.
A week after that, Minnesota won a shootout with the Big Ten’s most potent offense, Indiana. They followed that up with a win over Penn State where Claeys out-coached Bill O’Brien, the 2012 Big Ten Coach of the Year.
And now, here we are. The Minnesota Golden Gophers sit at 8-2 with games against Michigan State and Wisconsin left on the schedule. Like most years, the Gophers will be underdogs in both contests. No matter. They are what Kill and Claeys always intended them to become — a winning football team. They’ll fight to the last whistle and it honestly won’t surprise me to see them at least split those final two games, earning a decent bowl berth in the process.
After that, we’ll have questions about Claeys’ future. The 44 year old former high school math teacher has been with Kill for the better part of two decades, soaking up every last drop of knowledge and in-game strategy possible from his mentor. You could argue that he has been just as important to the success Kill has had over the years as Kill himself. Claeys’ defenses are always disciplined — putting the offense in position to score points and win games.
In 2013, Claeys has brought that same discipline to the entire Golden Gopher squad — offense, defense and special teams. It may not have been his intention, but he has used Jerry Kill’s unfortunate circumstances to flourish and shine in the role of head coach and raise his own stock in the process. In an era where millions of dollars are being tossed around by storied programs on head coaches in an effort to regain the glory of years past, I submit Tracy Claeys’ name into the fray.
Claeys is nearly eight years younger than Kill, still a youngster by head coaching standards. He’s the kind of guy a school could hire and be content with for a decade or more so long as he met and exceeded the expectations (reasonable of course) of his employer. Like Kill, he is a winner and has been since his days as an unpaid assistant at Kansas right up through his journey through the dust bowl, rust belt and on to the land of 10,000 lakes.
I see no reason that would change if he were to fly out from under Kill’s wing and “go solo.” Maybe (hopefully not) Jerry Kill is done coaching and the Golden Gophers are Claeys’ destiny. If not, like every year, there will be a coaching carousel with some relatively high profile jobs opening up.
After what I’ve seen from Claeys, not only over the past couple of weeks but from the last decade-plus, any athletic director in the country who is conducting a head coaching search and does not at least give Tracy Claeys a phone call ought to rethink his or her profession. The guy is a proven winner time and time again in places where winning proves to be extremely difficult.
It’s time for Tracy Claeys to step out of the shadow of Jerry Kill permanently.
BY J.P. SCOTT ON OCTOBER 14, 2013
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