Just two games after being named Minnesota's interim head coach in the wake of Jerry Kill's sudden retirement, Tracy Claeys had that interim title removed Wednesday morning.
It was Kill's hope and expectation that Claeys would take over as the team's next head coach, and the Gophers obliged, announcing a three-year deal for the former defensive coordinator Wednesday.
"I want to thank president Eric Kaler, interim athletic director Beth Goetz, the board of regents and the university for believing in me and providing me with this opportunity," Claeys said in the announcement. "The circumstances of the past few weeks have been unpredictable. This certainly is not the way anyone wants to become a head coach. Coach Kill is one of my best friends, and I am thankful that he took a chance on me 21 years ago. I am looking forward to continuing what we have built at Minnesota but will do so in my own way. One thing that won’t change will be our relentless pursuit to field a team that will make the state of Minnesota proud. We have tremendous fans, and they deserve a highly competitive football team. Our student-athletes will play smart, tough and accountable football and will be held to the highest standards on and off the field."
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Claeys, like much of Kill's coaching staff, had been with Kill for a long, long time. Claeys joined Kill's staff at Saginaw Valley State in 1995 and joined him as defensive coordinator at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, totaling 21 years as one of Kill's assistants.
In five seasons, Kill transformed the Gophers into a contender for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. After winning just three games in his first season in 2011, he reached bowl eligibility the next and delivered back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, just the 18th and 19th seasons with at least eight wins in program history.
But Kill was forced to retire a couple weeks ago due to health concerns and his ongoing battle with epilepsy. He had been bothered by seizures during games and at other times, and the demanding profession was having too negative an effect on his health to carry on.
Claeys coached the Gophers in their past two games against Michigan and Ohio State, both losses to two of the nation's highest-ranked teams. Claeys also served as acting head coach in 2013, when Kill took a seven-game leave of absence to better handle his epilepsy. The Gophers went 4-3 during that span, part of an eight-win season.
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In the past two seasons, Minnesota has ranked 25th and 33rd nationally in scoring defense under Claeys, allowing averages of 22.2 points and 24.2 points per game, respectively.
"I’ve gotten to know and respect coach Claeys this past year and watched him work with our student-athletes each and every day. I admire his dedication to their development on the field and in the classroom," Goetz said. "Given the improvement of this program, both academically and athletically, and coach Claeys’ integral leadership role, we have great confidence that he is the right coach to lead this program and our student-athletes."
"Tracy Claeys is the right person for this important job," Kaler said. "I applaud and fully support Interim athletic director Beth Goetz’s decision to bring continuity and stability to our football program, which is clearly on an upward trajectory. I have great confidence in coach Claeys and his staff to recruit talent and excellent student-athletes while building on a strong foundation. But make no mistake, Tracy Claeys is his own man and will bring his own energy and commitment to excellence while embracing Gopher Athletics’ culture of compliance, both on and off the field."