Despite the fact that it is just a few miles away from the University of Minnesota’s main campus, North Minneapolis was too often seen by former Gopher football coaches as a remote wasteland. It took a tornado on a Sunday afternoon in May to finally bring the head gridiron coach of the state’s largest university to the area, or at the least to recognizing it as a possible recruiting ground.
Jerry Kill, the new Gopher coach, reached out to nearly 140 North Minneapolis kids almost a month after the May storm and invited them to attend his on-campus football camp. Since his hiring earlier this year, Kill also spoke at the North Community YMCA.
This was among the topics we discussed during a one-on-one interview with Kill recently in his Bierman Building office on campus. We first gave him a brief history lesson: Many Black Northsiders don’t support Gopher football because of its historical ignorance. “We’ve got to think about what we can do better,” Kill responded.
Kill said he was deeply moved after visiting the North Side and Joplin, Missouri — two areas hit by tornados on the same day. “It was no different [in Joplin] than it was in North Minneapolis,” he said. “They didn’t have a lot to begin with. You feel terrible for those people. It’s devastating.”
We also called attention to the fact that former Gopher coaches often treated Twin Cities urban high school football players as unavailable and didn’t recruit them. Sophomore defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman (Washburn) is the only Minneapolis City Conference alum on the Gopher football roster.
“He [Kill] reached out to all of us, with all the [high school] coaches in the state,” says Hageman’s high school coach Giovanni Jenkins, adding that he never got a phone call from former U coaches since becoming the Millers’ coach a few years ago. “If I want to call him, he answers the phone or he calls me back right away.”
Asked if he thinks this means that Kill will now look more seriously at city players, Jenkins says, “They’ll get a look and be evaluated fairly,” noting that he has up to six kids with Division I potential in both football and baseball.
Readers of this column know that diversity is discussed more than wins and losses. Asked to define what diversity means, Kill responded, “We have people from all different backgrounds and all different races, religious backgrounds, etc. When I talk about diversity, I talk about the differences in people.”
Then we discussed his program’s poor graduation rates, especially with its Black players. “It has nothing to do with the color of the skin,” Kill said. “We have a problem with academics right now. We’ve got to get it straightened out. The academic people have to do a great job. The coaching staff have to hold the players accountable. I think it is a combination of both.”
He also hired Shea’na Grigsby as an academic counselor, the first Black in this role since two Black females were part of former coach Glen Mason’s staff for a couple of seasons in the early 2000s.
Since his arrival, Coach Kill has often stressed his belief in holding players accountable, whether on the field or off it. As the fifth Gopher coach in my three-decade span of covering the program, Kill’s four predecessors said similar things as well. What’s different now?
“They’re kids,” stated the first-year Minnesota coach. “If I tell them to go to class, they are OK with that. [As an adult] you can’t be their best friend. We got to get back to basics — it’s old school. It’s what you should do.”
Stability also is very important to the new Gopher coach. “I think the biggest thing we have to do is to build continuity here,” said Kill. “We have to keep our coaches, have to keep our people who are in charge of academics, our strength people and our trainers — they need to be the same for a while.”
Kill surmised, “You got the chance to visit with me — this is who I am. I’m no different than you. I enjoy life, and I got a second chance in life — I’m a cancer survivor. I’m not a flashy guy, and I know I am not a big-name guy. I’m a hard working kid trying to do the best I can with what life has given me.”
The Kill era began in earnest last week as the 2011 Minnesota Gophers prepare for their first season in the 12-team, two-division Big Ten, which kicks off in September.
“I want them to turn the program around,” says Jenkins on Kill and his staff.
“I hope people will be patient,” said the first-year Minnesota coach. “I think it is going to take a while.”
(Photo by Onika Nicole Craven)