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Coaches rarely rip their successors like Kill just ripped Fleck

SB Nation logo SB Nation 2/20/2019 Alex Kirshner
a man wearing a hat and sunglasses © Getty Images

Minnesota’s old coach used a radio interview to put the current coach on blast. That almost never happens.

College football coaching is a high-turnover business, and the churn naturally leads to icy relations between some coaches. When a new coach takes over a program, he’ll almost always talk about building a culture and, broadly, changing the team to make it better. Implicit when that happens is a statement that the last coach didn’t do a good job. Making that more clear, the new coach usually fires all the previous coach’s assistants.

FILE - In this Dec. 28, 2015, file photo, then-Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill watches from the sidelines during the first half of the team's Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game against Central Michigan, in Detroit. Jerry Kill has been seizure-free for almost a year and a half. The former Minnesota coach still needs medication to treat his epilepsy and control the seizures that forced him to leave coaching during the 2015 season, but lifestyle changes have been an important part of facing down his condition. Kill has returned to coaching as offensive coordinator with Rutgers. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File) © ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - In this Dec. 28, 2015, file photo, then-Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill watches from the sidelines during the first half of the team's Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game against Central Michigan, in Detroit. Jerry Kill has been seizure-free for almost a year and a half. The former Minnesota coach still needs medication to treat his epilepsy and control the seizures that forced him to leave coaching during the 2015 season, but lifestyle changes have been an important part of facing down his condition. Kill has returned to coaching as offensive coordinator with Rutgers. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

For the most part, this tension stays quiet. When a team’s former coach does interviews, it’s not uncommon for him to simply not talk at all about the guy who came after him.

That context makes these comments, from former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill about current Gophers head man P.J. Fleck, downright jarring:

The transcript of Kill talking about Fleck:

He coached with me, but after that, he changed a lot. I’ll just be honest with you guys. People that have known him before — When he got with [Greg] Schiano, his personality changed a lot. And I knew his first wife, and he just changed a bunch. And then once he became a head coach, I mean, I helped him get the job at Western Michigan, and I just think sometimes, ego gets carried away.

And when he went into Minnesota and treated the people the way he treated my guys and telling ‘em he had to go in and completely change the culture, and it was a bad culture and bad people, you know, he made it sound like we didn’t know what we were doing, and I took it personal. You just don’t treat people that have been with you and helped you career and you don’t even talk to him, you know, once you get the job.

Did they talk or air it out after he got the job?

Oh, yeah. It wasn’t good.

When’s the last time you talked to him?

That’s the last time.

So a few years, then?

And it will be the last time.

Do I still root for the Gophers? I do. Do I enjoy him running up and down the sideline? No. Do I think that he’s about the players? No. He’s about himself. You can’t tell me. You’ve watched him. You listen to his interview, you think he thinks about the players?

I just lost a lot of respect. It’s kind of like when Jimbo Fisher left Florida State and went to A&M, and [Rick] Trickett, who’d been with him for years and years and years, he never even gave him a call. He just takes off and goes to A&M, doesn’t call. Those kinds of things disappoint me in people. So I guess maybe disappointment is a better way to put P.J. Disappointed on how he handled some things.

Yikes. (Let’s just set aside the late shot at Fisher.)

Kill, who just became the athletic director at FCS Southern Illinois, put together the staff Fleck replaced when he was hired in 2017.

Kill was the head coach at Northern Illinois from 2008 to 2010. During his first two years there, Fleck, an NIU alum, was his receivers coach. Fleck left to join Rutgers in 2010 under Greg Schiano, which Kill seems to think set the younger Fleck down a bad path.

Fleck was the head coach at WMU by 2013. Kill had since moved to Minneapolis, where he led the Gophers until he retired for medical reasons in 2015. The Gophers made Tracy Claeys — a longtime Kill assistant and the team’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach — Kill’s interim replacement. UM gave him the full-time job in 2016, and Claeys continued along with the staff Kill had already put in place.

Minnesota fired Claeys shortly after the 2016 season, following his support of a player boycott movement while teammates were suspended in a sexual assault investigation. The firing infuriated Kill, who said at the time, “I won’t be stepping foot back in the stadium. And I won’t be stepping back into the university.”

Kill was Rutgers’ offensive coordinator in 2017 before again retiring for health reasons.

When Fleck arrived, he took the Energetic New Coach Changing Things Up thing to a unique level.

I interviewed him for a half-hour or so at his first Big Ten Media Days in 2017 and regarded him afterward as a can of Red Bull dressed in maroon. He’d brought his “Row the Boat” mantra with him from WMU and talked often about building an elite culture.

Fleck wasn’t blind, and still isn’t, to how his approach can come across. It’s not something he spends a lot of time worrying about.

“I’m just gonna be me,” he told me then. “I’m not here to ruffle any feathers. I’m just here to run a program and do it in a first-class fashion that promotes the University of Minnesota and gets us the most exposure we possibly can.”

Fleck didn’t retain any of Kill and Claeys’ assistants. The staff Fleck didn’t keep around was loaded with coaches who’d been on staff with him under Kill at NIU, including defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel and receivers coach Brian Anderson.

Kill does not seem at all down with how that transition happened.

Thoughts from The Daily Gopher, our Minnesota blog:

I don’t know about you, but I have fond memories from Jerry Kill’s tenure as head football coach at Minnesota. Re-claiming the Little Brown Jug at the Big House in 2014 comes to mind. The 51-14 thrashing of the Hawkeyes’ that same season is another I’ll cherish. I was even in the stands for the Gophers’ first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.

In fact, I even penned a heartfelt, “Thank You, Coach Kill,” post right here on this blog when he was forced into retirement due to the decline of his health from epilepsy.

Yet no one seems more invested in tarnishing those memories than Jerry Kill himself.

What do Kill’s comments change for Minnesota? Probably nothing.

Minnesota’s done decently in Fleck’s first two years and recruited well above its historical standard, suggesting it could rise a bit in the future.

If that happens, it seems like Kill will be conflicted about it.

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