By Jon Krawczynski
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In his first full press conference as acting head coach at Minnesota, Tracy Claeys was quick to point out that he doesn’t see himself as the head coach at all.
The defensive coordinator is filling in while Jerry Kill undergoes further treatment for epileptic seizures that caused him to miss the second half of a game against Western Illinois in September and the entire game at Michigan on Oct. 5. Kill took a leave of absence last week to meet with doctors to try and get a better handle on his condition.
“I really don’t look at it as (being the) head coach,” Claeys said on Tuesday. “It’s Jerry Kill’s program. It will always be his program.”
There is no timetable for Kill’s return to the sideline, but Claeys did say that he does not expect him to be there when the Gophers (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) play at Northwestern (4-2, 0-2) on Saturday.
Claeys said he spoke to Kill on the phone on Monday night for the first time since he left the team to seek more in-depth help on dealing with his seizures. Kill told Claeys that he was “feeling good” and the two friends talked about the team’s performance two weeks ago at Michigan and some things to focus on going forward as the team looks for its first Big Ten victory.
Claeys has coached with Kill for nearly two decades, but he brings a more even-keeled demeanor to the sideline than the fiery Kill. Those differences aside, Claeys said he feels comfortable in the role, which he has filled each time Kill has not been there because of a seizure.
“I really am. I’d rather not be here,” Claeys said. “With coach, the thing that we can’t replace is he’s a good friend and great fan of the kids. That’s where we miss him, having him around on the practice field. But we’ve had to do it before as a staff and I feel very comfortable and very confident.”
Kill and his main assistants, including Claeys as defensive coordinator and Matt Limegrover as offensive coordinator, have been together longer than any staff in the nation. Claeys has filled in for Kill when seizures have caused him to miss game action a handful of times, including four times in three seasons at Minnesota.
But they’ve never been in this position before. Each time Kill went down with a seizure in the past, he returned to work the next week without missing a beat. This time around, no one is sure when Kill will be able to return to the team. When the university announced Kill’s leave last Thursday, Claeys said he wouldn’t be stunned if he saw Kill show up on the sideline in Evanston, Ill., ready to take over against Northwestern.
It doesn’t look like that will happen, and when he does come back is anyone’s guess. The players, meanwhile, can only refer back to the experiences they’ve had with Kill being out in the last three years as they try to move forward without him.
“We’re thinking about coach. He’s obviously in our thoughts and our prayers,” Hawthorne said. “That’s a strength of this staff, having been together for as long as they’ve been. Everything’s kind of just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re just trying to keep going.”
Claeys did say that Mitch Leidner will start at quarterback on Saturday against the Wildcats. Leidner and Philip Nelson have been sharing the starting duties, a flip-flopping system that started when Nelson injured his hamstring earlier in the season.
Nelson could see some action for a series early in the first half, but Claeys made it clear that Leidner is the man for now.
After getting beaten 42-13 at Michigan without Kill two weeks ago, the Gophers were off last week and go into Evanston a little more prepared for life without their head coach.
“He’s an awesome guy and he’s in our thoughts and prayers,” center Jon Christianson said. “But it’s one of those things that, he’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met in my life. To see him have to take a little time off, it just drives us to get better and keep going.”