College Football: Gophers’ defensive coordinator Claeys going back upstairs
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS — Teresa Claeys had never seen her brother, Tracy, as emotional as he was while coaching from the sideline during a memorable Gophers victory over Nebraska last season at TCF Bank Stadium.
It made the Claeys family proud to see the University of Minnesota’s defensive coordinator thrive in a tough situation, taking over as acting head coach while Jerry Kill took time to manage his epilepsy.
The new role brought out a different side of Claeys, one that even his sister hadn’t seen before.
“He’s a very private person,” Teresa said. “He’s kind of laid back and easygoing. That’s the most emotion that I’ve seen from him — I can honestly say in all my life — was watching him on the sideline.”
For seven games last year, Claeys got out of his comfort zone, leaving the coaches booth for the sideline to fill in for Kill. He felt the team needed a leadership presence on the field. Since his days as a rookie assistant at Saginaw Valley State (Mich.) under Kill in 1995, Claeys had prepared himself for the opportunity to run his own team.
“You get confidence from it that you can do this,” he said. “But I felt confident all along from the situations Coach has put me in over all the years. He’s let me be involved in a lot of the decisions. That’s the toughest thing when you’re an assistant: You make all of the suggestions. But when you’re in charge, you make the final decision. It is different. The thing I learned is that the decision doesn’t just affect you but everyone on the staff. It’s quite a responsibility. We were fortunate that things went well. Then Coach was able to help us out some more.”
Now that Kill is returning to the field full time — he spent the second half of the Gophers’ bowl game loss to Syracuse on the sideline — Claeys will be back in his old role in Thursday’s opener against Eastern Illinois.
“If you’re there awhile, you get comfortable and you don’t worry about it,” Kill said of Claeys. “Me going up in the box, that was different for a little bit.”
Claeys joked this summer that the Gophers should start a marketing campaign each week called “Where is Coach Claeys?” But now that he has made the decision to coach in the box, he says he probably will not go back and forth.
“The energy of the game is all fun,” he said, “but I’ve been up in the box a long time. You get in your comfort zone.”
During Minnesota’s four-game Big-Ten win streak last fall, though, Kill’s longtime assistant earned national praise, and later was nominated for the Broyles Award given to the top assistant in college football. That attention led to head-coaching interest from smaller schools.
Claeys decided not to interview. He remains loyal to Kill.
But it was still a special moment for his family to see Claeys do something they always knew he could do.
“When he was in that role, that was a proud moment for us all,” Teresa Claeys. “We’ve always seen him up in the box. But I don’t think any of us ever doubted that he could run his own program. However, we are all so thankful for his journey with Coach Kill.”
Claeys remembered Kill getting a raise when Southern Illinois went from 4-8 to 10-2 in Kill’s third season in 2003. The following year, the Salukis won 10 games again, and Kill interviewed for a job in the Mid-American Conference.
When SIU wanted to offer him more money, Kill wanted his assistants, including Claeys, to get rewarded, too.
Not only did they get big pay increases; they got multi-year contracts. And that “was unheard of” for programs at that level, Claeys said. That’s an example of why seven of Kill’s assistants are still with him more than a decade later.
Claeys went from making $4,000 a year as a defensive line coach at Saginaw Valley State to Kill’s highest-paid assistant with a $600,000 salary after a $250,000 raise in April.
“I don’t think any coach would tell you that they thought the salaries would get to where they’re at,” Claeys said. “At the same time, I’m not going to apologize for it — just because, market-wise, it’s fair. It would be hard to say, ‘No, don’t pay me that much.’ I’m very grateful and very thankful. At the same time, it does kick up the pressure a little bit more. If possible, you put more effort into it because there are a lot of people who would like to have your job.”
Led by Claeys, Minnesota’s defense held opponents to 289 points in 2013, the first time the program allowed less than 300 since 2004. The Gophers ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 25th nationally in scoring defense (22.2 points a game).
If Claeys took a MAC head-coaching job, he probably would be getting paid about what he’s making now. It was Kill’s goal to make sure Gophers athletics director Norwood Teague and University President Eric Kaler got his assistants’ salaries to rank in the top half of the conference.
“Everywhere we’ve been, we just wanted to get paid fairly,” Claeys said. “That shows a commitment that you’re willing to compete. We’ve never asked to be paid the best, wherever we’ve been. The school has to decide whether to make that investment. President Kaler, the board and Norwood did do that for us. It’s hard to believe. I’d never imagine you could make six figures coaching football, especially after starting off making $4,000. I’m very grateful.”
And he has spent that new money well.
He surprised his stepfather, Bob, with a new truck for Father’s Day this year, which brought his dad to tears. Bob worked two jobs to help Claeys’ mother, Ione, raise her three kids in Clay Center, Kan.
Last fall, Claeys, 44, wanted to give back to his community, too. So he bought a former Dairy Queen in downtown Clay Center, remodeled it and opened a restaurant called Coach’s Pub and Grill last December.
His sister quit her full-time job after moving from Arizona to run the business, which is decorated with all of Claeys’ coaching stops from Saginaw Valley State to Emporia State (Kan.) to Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
The entryway is full of Gophers paraphernalia and has autographed pictures of Claeys and Kill hanging on the wall.
“He has a lot of support from here,” Teresa said. “A lot of people follow what goes on with him, of course. There’s been nothing available like this around here. He’s a very humble and generous man.”
Back to the booth
Claeys took charge of the Gophers for the Oct. 5 loss at Michigan after Kill missed the game because of a seizure. But his first game on the field last season was a 20-17 victory two weeks later over Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.
Before that, Claeys hadn’t been in charge for a game since his days at Southern Illinois, in 2005. And he did that once. Before that, it was when he started coaching with Kill at Saginaw Valley State.
There were advantages, Claeys said, to being on the sidelines and in charge. He was able to communicate with his players, and get more involved with the energy of the game on the field.
But he was no longer ready for the cold. It was in the 40s and 50s for most of late October and November, but the Border Battle game against Wisconsin on Nov. 23 had a game-time temperature of 18 degrees — the coldest since TCF Bank Stadium was built in 2009.
“I hadn’t had to do that, being down there in the cold, call plays and stuff. It bothered me,” he said. “I was concerned about that. All of a sudden, you’re worried if you’re not doing as good a job as you could because your toes are so cold.”
Having Claeys up in the booth this season means new linebackers coach Mike Sherels can stay where he’s comfortable — on the field.
Sherels took over for veteran linebackers coach Billy Miller, who left in the spring to take the same position at Florida State. Miller coached from the booth during his three seasons with the Gophers. Kill said Sherels could move up there if Claeys wanted to come down.
“I was up there my first year (as defensive graduate assistant), and it was not my cup of tea,” Sherels said. “I like getting on the sidelines. I like being able to look a kid in the eye. Up in the box is a lot closer to chess than it is football. That’s not me at this point in my career. I like to get down in the emotion of the game. That’s why I coach. It’s fun.”
Claeys is fine with that.
“Coach Miller coached for a long time, and he felt more comfortable in the box,” he said. “But I’m a big believer that the (position) guys who coach them in practice every day should be on the boundary with them during game day. Since I don’t coach a position, I’m going to go in the box.”
Kill joked that he wouldn’t mind staying in the booth because “I feel damn good up there.”
“If the weather gets bad, I’m going up,” he said with a smile.
But with things going back to normal, Kill needs someone he can really trust upstairs — like Claeys.
“The guy up in the box better be damn good,” he said. “It’s just a trust factor.”
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