Entering this season, Minnesota was on the brink of taking the next step and asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten West.
November hasn't even arrived, and Minnesota has lost its athletics director and its head coach, throwing the program's future into uncertainty.
The two leading figures departed under totally different circumstances. Former athletics director Norwood Teague earned everyone's scorn when he stepped down following accusations of sexual harassment, accusations that grew in number — and in the amount of disgust — as time went on. Former head coach Jerry Kill earned everyone's sympathy when he was forced to retire Wednesday due to medical concerns.
But while they went out in completely different fashions, they left behind them interim replacements and uncertainty.
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Uncertainty is a strange thing to associate with Kill and his staff. After all, the main word previously used to describe a group of coaches that had been together for decades was "stability." Assistants followed Kill from job to job, doing great work in turning around programs at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and then Minnesota.
“I walked in to see the coaches this morning," Kill said during his emotional retirement press conference Wednesday morning. "I didn’t say anything (prior to Wednesday) to anybody because I didn’t want things to leak out. I owed it to them. I’ve been with many of them over 20 years. I will tell you that they are the finest coaches in the country. This isn’t an easy job. It’s come a long, long way, a long way, probably more so than I know in a lot of ways. They’ve been a big, big part of it. We’ve got a great recruiting class going on, and they know we have great stability here. So I think we’ll be OK there.
"But to look guys in the eyes that you’ve been with 20 years … not a lot of fun."
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys takes over as the interim head coach — the third man this season to hold that title with a Big Ten program — and he's served in the role, kind of, before. Kill was forced to take a "leave of absence" two seasons ago, when he worked to better get his epilepsy under control following multiple seizures that year. But Kill admitted Wednesday that during that time he was still working 10 to 12 hour days even though he wasn't on the sideline on Saturdays.
The stability and the experience under Kill should serve Claeys, the rest of the coaching staff and the team well. Though Kill's exit will take its emotional toll, the football, the Xs and Os, remain the same.
But though Claeys will surely do good work the rest of this season, what lies beyond is anyone's guess.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Gophers gear right here]
Kill had this program skyrocketing from a three-win season his first year to a bowl the next, then back-to-back eight-win campaigns, just the 18th and 19th in school history. There were those who believed the Gophers would land a spot in the Big Ten title game this season. Minnesota's on-field play has been anything but championship-level so far this season, with the Gophers sitting at 4-3. But that shouldn't take away from where Kill took this program.
Kill's success, however, doesn't guarantee that his assistants will be given the chance to keep doing what he started. There's a strong case to be made, for sure, that they should be given that opportunity. The years of experience as Kill's right-hand men qualifies them to keep the Gophers on the track Kill set them on. But when a new athletics director is hired, will he or she see things the same way? Or will it be a classic case of a new AD wanting to bring in "their guy"?
Hence the uncertainty.
Someone like Bill Cubit, the interim coach at Illinois, has had an entire season to audition for the job in Champaign. Claeys won't get nearly as long, and he has a brutal schedule to finish the season, with games against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa next plus the annual season-finale against Wisconsin. All four teams boast some of the best defenses in college football. But Claeys also has a different challenge than Cubit or Maryland's interim head coach Mike Locksley. Claeys is helming a winning program, and there are recruiting successes both with the program and coming into the program that could keep momentum going.
It will be a while until we find out what the direction is in which Minnesota is heading. Kill said Wednesday, "I’ve had a bomb dropped on me," in reference to the suddenness of the change in his life. The same can be said for the Minnesota football program.