An open letter to University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill:
I’ve been a Gopher fan since the days when Gopher football was the biggest athletic attraction in the state, when basketball had trouble drawing 5,000 people even with the Minneapolis Lakers winning world championships, and the baseball Saints and Millers were both minor league.
I went to my first Gopher football game as a child in 1954, when the Gophers upset Southern Cal in a driving blizzard. The Trojans blamed the loss on the weather because many of their players had never seen snow before. It was so bad, that those of us sitting in the bowl end of Memorial Stadium couldn’t see the scoreboard atop Cooke Hall, so maybe they had a point.
Six years later, Minnesota cruised past 12th-ranked Nebraska, 26-14. A year later, I saw them beat No. 1-ranked Michigan State, 13-0, on their way to a second consecutive Rose Bowl.
Sixteen years after that, I watched them shutout No. 1-ranked Michigan, 16-0, behind Marion Barber and one tough defense.
It was after that when I became a true fan. A true fan is one who follows a team through thick and thin, and after 1977, there was plenty of thin about Gopher football.
I liked you right off when you came to Minneapolis. I think it was that Kansas-Oklahoma drawl that drew me in. Lou Holtz grew up in Ohio, but he had a bit of that too when he came up here from Arkansas. Either we are all Okie from Muskogee wannabes, or maybe we Minnesotans just figure that you know more about football than us slow-footed, slow-talking Scandinavians.
And I loved it when I read about your first practices and how you screamed at players to get off the ground, and how you said if we make practice hard, the games will seem easy. We Minnesotans live in a tough, unforgiving climate. We know that life can be difficult and sometimes cruel. Football can be that way too. We can relate to the lessons you began teaching to your players.
It’s been obvious from your first season, just in the way the Gophers carry themselves, that you have had a big effect on them. They stopped moping around after a bad play and kept turning the page to make the next play better.
I’m old enough now that I don’t care all that much anymore whether the team I’m cheering for wins the game. Athletics are human endeavors and nobody — not Alabama, not the Yankees, not the Miami Heat — wins all the time. I mostly watch now in hope that my team plays the game the right way. I’ve figured out that, if they do, they will most likely win. Maybe not today, but most of the time.
I like a couple of things about teams you coach that I haven’t seen in almost a half century. First, your defensive secondary doesn’t make many mistakes. Even when the other team completes a pass, there is always a defender or two a step away. Now it’s the opponent that occasionally leaves Gopher receivers wide open. Second, and even more important, the preventable things that make good teams mediocre and mediocre teams bad have been sharply reduced. I’m talking about the offside and illegal procedure penalties that bailed out too many opponents over the years, giving up yards by lining up wrong and, of course, the fumbles. I told a friend the other day that the Gophers have stopped beating themselves, and neither of us could remember the last time that was true.
So it was that when you beat Nebraska the other day, it did my old heart good. It wasn’t just that you beat them, but the way you did it. It was no fluke; you flat-out outplayed the Huskers. I’ve been waiting for that day since the infamous 83-14 shellacking 30 years ago.
Ra’Shede Hageman finally lived up to all the hype. If you want to give him something to aspire to, you should dig out a clip from 1960, when Outland Trophy winner Tom Brown got a quarterback sack against No. 1-ranked Iowa by bullrushing the center, knocking him backward into the quarterback’s legs.
I’m sorry to hear about your health problems, but hope you know that the vast majority of Minnesota sports fans are pulling for you and your family. You have a demanding job, so you need to follow the doctor’s orders and delegate. We’d like to keep you around for a while.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or e-mail [email protected].