Minnesota nice might have to be replaced with Minnesota confidence.
Make no mistake, the Gophers’ representatives were quite pleasant and all smiles Monday at Big Ten Media Day. So it’s apparent Minnesota nice isn’t going anywhere. But their confidence was even more apparent than their friendliness. This group achieved unprecedented success last season, and they are certain they’ll do better in 2014.
“We are capable of doing it, and we will do it,” running back David Cobb said. “We won eight games last year, we should’ve won nine at the bowl game. That had a bad taste in our mouth. But this year we will win eight-plus games, and we will nine or 10. And we definitely want to win at home. That’s our biggest thing: win at home and steal some on the road.”
Minnesota hasn’t seen many eight-win seasons over the 122 years its played football. Last season was the first time it happened in a decade. It was the seventh time it happened since 1960. It was the 18th time it happened ever. Ever.
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But that’s not scaring this group of Gophers from thinking last season was some sort of anomaly. And that comes from one place in particular: head coach Jerry Kill.
“When we came back from our bowl game and we had a team meeting, I shared with our kids: ‘Right now you should be starving.’ We made some great strides last year. We did some good things. We've done some things that hadn't been done for a while,” Kill said. “I think we kind of set the tone where in our third year where we've been before we start the turnaround process, and now we have to take it another step.”
And why shouldn’t Kill give his players confidence? His track record is exceptional. He’s turned around programs everywhere he’s gone, from Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois and now at Minnesota. The win totals in his first three seasons in the Twin Cities: three, six, eight.
Add to that Kill’s impressive battle with epilepsy, which has resulted in multiple game day seizures. It was enough to temporarily remove him from his job last season, when he took an indefinite leave to try and get it under control. It rallied his team as he watched from the press box.
The Gophers rattled off four consecutive Big Ten wins.
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“Our team’s very close, so when adversity hits, we’re going to be ready for it,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “But at the same time, coach Kill looks great now. He’s ready to go this season. We’re super-excited to have him as a coach. He’s a player’s coach, and he loves us and we love him. So it’s going to be very exciting.”
Minnesota players talking about how much they love their coach is not a rarity. Ask any of them. They’ll be happy to discuss the special relationship Kill has with his players.
“You definitely see the family atmosphere,” Cobb said. “He’s not afraid to dance in front of us, he jokes around. Just last week he did up-downs with us when we got in trouble at six o’clock in the morning. So that guy, he cares about us, he genuinely cares about us. You can tell that he cares about us, and he’ll give anything in his world for us.”
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That togetherness has to breed some of this confidence. When asked if the “next step” he spoke of was a Big Ten title, Kill posited, why not?
“I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year. And we won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?” Kill said. “And I think our kids, they're like anybody else. It's a new season and that's our mission statement, and the same way last year, but we have to build on what we did a year ago and continue to make progress.”
The players inspire the coach. The coach inspires the players. And whether it’s what they do off the field or on it, the confidence never ceases. And if history tells us anything, there’s no reason it should.
“It shows that he’s going to go to war for us, and we’re going to go to war for him,” Cobb said of Kill. “He has a plan, and he has a scheme that we believe in. The proof is in the pudding. He’s won everywhere he went. We won three our first year here, then we won six, last year we won eight. We can only win 10 or 11 next year.”