Interim coach Tracy Claeys can help ease transition at Minnesota

Health concerns force Jerry Kill to retire at Minnesota (1:32)

Chris Low explains why Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill has decided to retire immediately and the impact it will have on the team. (1:32)

The unexpected retirement of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill caught most of the college football world by surprise Wednesday morning, but the Gophers won’t be scrambling for a solution as they head into the most daunting stretch of their 2015 schedule.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will step in as the interim head coach, a role he has played before. Claeys ran the program for seven games during the 2013 season, when Kill took a leave of absence to deal with epilepsy and seizures. The Golden Gophers won four of those seven games under Claeys.

The transition, while a shock, should be made easier by a staff that has worked together for a long time. Kill said he’s confident they will keep the program rolling in a positive direction during the final five games of the season.

“They will because Tracy stepped into a very difficult situation, and I think everybody knows how good of a coach he is and how smart he is,” Kill said Wednesday morning during an emotional news conference. “It’s not like we just hired coaches. We’ve got a family over there. … They’ll do all right, just wait and see. They’ll do all right.”

Six of the nine assistants Kill leaves behind at Minnesota have been on his staff since 2001, when he took over as head coach at Southern Illinois. He has added only one new assistant, former Gophers linebacker Mike Sherels, since taking the Minnesota job in 2010.

Claeys first started working with Kill 21 years ago as a defensive line coach at Saginaw Valley State. The Kansas native followed Kill from one stop to the next as they developed a reputation as program-builders working from Division II to the Big Ten.

Kill promoted Claeys to defensive coordinator when they moved to Emporia State in 1999, the position he stayed at when they moved to Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and eventually Minnesota. Claeys helped turned the Gophers into one of the better units in the conference. He was a nominee for the Frank Broyles Award (given to the top assistant in college football) in each of the past two seasons.

At Northern Illinois, the Huskies’ defense finished 14th nationally and first in the Mid-American Conference on their way to an 11-3 record in Claeys’ final season there before heading to Minnesota with Kill.

Claeys’ first game as the interim coach in 2013 was against a ranked Michigan team, and he’ll start with the Wolverines visiting Minneapolis on Saturday night.

“Coach [Jim Harbaugh has] done a great job there,” Claeys said while filling in for Kill on a teleconference earlier this week. “It'll be a good challenge for us, and we're looking forward to a great atmosphere and having fun on Halloween.”

Fun is a word that only a football coach could use to describe the first three games Claeys must navigate. After facing No. 15 Michigan this week, the Gophers have back-to-back road games against undefeated teams: first at No. 1 Ohio State and then at No. 10 Iowa. The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes are front-runners to meet in the Big Ten championship game at the moment. Minnesota (4-3) closes the season against Illinois and Wisconsin. The Gophers must win two of those five games to reach a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.

Claeys will speak to reporters after Minnesota’s practice Wednesday afternoon. Interim athletic director Beth Goetz said the department hasn’t yet considered who might replace Kill on a permanent basis or whether Claeys will be a candidate for that job. She did say she, like Kill, was confident in Claeys’ ability to finish the season on a strong note.

“It can be an overused term in athletics when we talk about a family, but I think that’s exactly what that group is,” Goetz said. “It’s a seamless group.”