Building a Program with Fundamentals - Jerry Kill - University of Minnesota [ARTICLE]

Building a Program with Fundamentals

Jerry Kill - University of Minnesota
excerpt from 2011 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic Notes by Earl Browning available at


I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today. I am a very blessed individual. I was talking to Brady Hoke, the new head coach at the University of Michigan, when I came in today. We were talking about the fact that most of you probably feel you have a good chance of becoming a Division I coach, when you see Brady and myself on the itinerary.

I am one of the few guys at this level that started out exactly as you are. I started coaching high school football in the state of Oklahoma 28 years ago. From there, I went on to be the head coach at Webb City High School in Missouri. I was fortunate enough to be around some very good coaches and players. We won a state championship in 1989. I decided I wanted to get into coaching college football and finally got an opportunity. To give you an idea of how you have to sacrifice when you are young, I worked for three years at a school called Pittsburg State University in Kansas. I made $250 a month and lived in a trailer house.

It has been a whirlwind ever since. I was also a head coach at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. It has been one of those things where you have no idea where you are going to be in the next job.

I am a cancer survivor. Six years ago, I was given a fifty-fifty shot to live or die. I will tell you guys something that is important. When you get a second chance, there are no bad days. I have been through a lot and I have been lucky as could be. I love to coach the game of football. I have been fortunate enough to turn some things around in my lifetime. What I would like to do today is to give you some ideas to help you turn a down football program into a winning program.

I have been very fortunate to have a lot of loyal people around me. It does not matter if you are in high school or college football, you need to have a great staff. If you think you can coach football by yourself, you are in trouble. This is probably why I got the job at the University of Minnesota. My defensive coordinator has been with me for 17 years. My strength coach has been with me for 17 years. They both worked with me at Saginaw Valley State. Rob Reeves, our tight ends and H-backs coach has been with me for 17 years and he played for me. We have all been through this together. That continuity is very important. I do not have to worry when I am on the road talking to people. My program is still going to run well without me.

When I walk into a new program, I do not change a great deal. I may change some things up offensively or defensively, but I have not changed coachingwise.

We build our program on these things. We want to play smart. We do not want to beat ourselves. If you think about any sport, whether it is football, basketball, or any sport, teams do not win. They find a way to lose. They turn over the football. Fundamentally, they are not sound. If it is basketball, they may not shoot free throws worth a darn. I will tell you that we have forgotten the fundamentals of the game. We have all gotten into these wild schemes and we try to trick people. The bottom line is you win with fundamentals and you have to play smart. In addition, you have to have smart kids.

You have to play tough. One of the first things I found out when I walked into Minnesota was the fact that we are not very tough. We do not know how to work. We are now doing some things in our workouts that will help define toughness for them.

When I talk about toughness to our kids, I talk about these points. Number one, you have to be able to run the ball. If you cannot run the ball, you are not going to win.

You better be able to stop the run. That is part of being tough. If you come to watch us in our spring practice, and you are certainly welcome, you are going to see us run the ball. We are going to get in the middle drill with nine up in the box and two safeties, and we are going to run the ball. That will never change. We are going to learn how to run the ball and our defense is going to learn how to stop the run. That is part of being tough. You cannot say you are a tough football team if you throw it 50 times a game. This is my opinion.

We are going to do a lot of different things in spring ball, in our two-a-day camp, and in our goal line situations. You may see me have players run gassers. Then, we may run our two-minute offense. You want to make them understand, mentally, that when they get tired, they need to concentrate. You have to practice those situations in practice.

We talk about toughness. We talk about giveaways and takeaways. We define to our kids that this is who we want to be. We want to be the best-conditioned team and we want to play fast. I am not talking about the no-huddle offense. I believe in repetition. I believe they need to hustle in practice. If I call the team together and they jog up, I make them turn around and we do it again. I want them to sprint up, get right on the line, and I want them to pay attention.

I want them to move fast all of the time. I think it is important because it sets the tempo. I tell our kids we want to practice fast. I currently will run two offensive huddles in our pass shell. When I get some depth, we will run three huddles at a time. It will go fast. We are going to bang it out as fast as we can. We want them to be able to process things very quickly. If you go back and look at your film, notice if you play as fast in the last game as you did in the first game. That is how I evaluate our kids.

In my past, I have pushed and worked my kids too hard. We ran out of gas at the end of the year. Kids are not what they used to be. You have to adjust a little more today. Conditioning is very important. How you practice is important because you want to play the last game with the same speed that you played the first game of the year. If you looked at the team I coached last year at Northern Illinois University, they played as fast in the bowl game as they played at the beginning of the year. The assistant coaches did a good job with that. You develop that mentality and you have to talk about it.

We talk about playing hard. It takes no talent to play hard. You need to understand that. You need to sell that to your team. I have been a high school coach where you could not find 22 players that were what you wanted. You might say I cannot win with this group. In the end, they are all that you have. If you can get them to play hard for you, then you have a chance to win. You can watch NFL films and see teams that do not play very hard. All coaches will talk about playing hard, whether it is NFL, college, or high school. Look at your films and see if you have players taking plays off.

Watch an NBA game and look at how many of those guys take plays off. It is all about playing hard. If you can get your kids to play hard, you have a chance to win.

You start that in the off-season. At the University of Minnesota, right now we are wearing their tails out. I am trying to break them. We do not go for very long, but we go hard and fast. We preach to them, "We are trying to help you, but you have to learn to play hard."

Consistency is important. I will meet with each kid before spring ball. I will tell them that we are going to have 15 practices. I will tell them they are going get graded for consistency over those 15 practices. Can they be consistent and compete every play?

I met with Matt Spaeth, who played at the University of Minnesota. He is currently playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I asked him what makes the Steelers so good. He said, "Coach, we just have a group of players that play hard." Matt talked about Dick LeBeau, one of the greatest defensive minds in all of football and the current defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dick will ask his players to play hard for just six seconds. He is always talking about playing hard for just six seconds. Men, if you can get your players to play hard for six seconds of every play, you are going to have a very good football team. There are a lot of players out there that cannot play hard for six seconds. When you do things in your spring practice or in your off-season, make it for six seconds. Make it a big deal. If you really get down to it, it is a six-second game.

The other thing is that we make no excuses. It is what it is. I can come in and take over a program or Coach Hoke can come in and take over a program and you never have things as good as you would like. We can say that we need more talent or we need to go recruit this and that. What you've got is what you've got. You cannot make excuses. If they hear you make an excuse, that is how they will play. You have to build confidence in them, and do not take any excuses. I tell our kids, "It does not matter what happens, there are no excuses here."

We talk about being a team. In this world today, it is hard to get players to play as a team. We live in an "I" society. The team concept is something that is hard to sell. At the end of our workout today, I told our team to go over and shake each other's hands. I told them that if they will care about their teammates more than they care about themselves, we will win. You have to talk about that. We also talk to them about being role models. We want them to be unselfish team players.

We try to lay down the ground rules right off the bat. I do not really have a lot of rules. Have you ever been to some of these schools that have 14,000 different slogans? I had a 2.5 grade point average and a 17 on the SAT test. Shoot, I cannot remember all those things. I asked Matt Spaeth about the Steelers and what slogans they have posted around their building. Matt said they have the following three C's posted:

    • Common sense
    • Courtesy
    • Compete

He said those are the only things you will see in the entire building. For us, our slogan is act right. That covers an awful lot of areas. I guess that falls under the common sense rule. Everyone knows how to act right, and we tell our kids, "You know what that means."

We want our athletes to be on time. It is important to be on time. I learned when I was going through the fight with cancer that if I did not do things on time, I was in deep trouble. You only have so much time in your life. I am not worried about going to bed tonight, because someday I will get to sleep a lot. Do not waste time. It is disrespectful when people have to wait on you. These are the lessons kids are going to have to learn in life.

Our kids have to go to class. I was a walk-on player. I do not understand how or why, when you are given $25,000 a year to get a good education, you do not go to class. I do not understand it, and I do not accept it.

Play hard on game day. From the day I walked in, that was the first thing I said when we walked into the University of Minnesota. You have to teach your kids what you want.

I do not know if this is good or bad. If you get a kid that needs to be disciplined and you have a coach that gets up at 5:30 in the morning to run the kid, you are punishing the coach. I decided to do something different on this situation and it has been very effective. What we do if a kid misses an appointment, misses a class, or screws up he automatically goes into a brown shirt for practice. The brown shirt, at the University of Minnesota, says "Minnesota Loafers" on the front in bright fluorescent pink lettering. On the back it says, "I let my teammates down."

I know I am not the only coach that does this, but I think I may have been the coach that started it. They have to wear that in our football facility. The first time they get it, they wear it for a week. The second time they get it, they wear it for two weeks and they donate $20 to the children's hospital. We have athletes at the college level, and if you make them run, they can run. If you hit them in their pocketbooks, or in their playing time, or you embarrass them, they will stop that crap. The first week I was at Minnesota, we had 13 brown shirts. When I went in today, we only had two. We are getting better.

They do not like wearing the brown shirts. One of my players came up to me and said that he was not going to wear one of the brown shirts. I told him to call his parents and tell them that you are not going to wear a brown shirt because you did not go to class and you are giving up a $25,000 scholarship. I told him I did not care if that is what he wanted to do. He put a brown shirt on, by the way.

The third time they get it, they wear the shirt for three weeks and donate $30 to the children's hospital. If it happens a fourth time, we have a problem and we have to get things straightened out. If they do something wrong, I do not have to scold them and browbeat them. I also let them know that I have made mistakes before. Take a brown shirt, put it on, and take it like a man. They know up front what the deal is. If you do not tell them up front, they do not know what to expect. It is important to understand that. You want them to understand what your standards are for your program.

I give our kids a player policy manual when I walk into a new program, so they know exactly what to expect and what it is going to take to win. I tell them if they will do these things, then we are going to be in good shape. You have to tell them what you want.

In this day and age, you cannot tell a player to do a drill without telling them why they are doing the drill. In the old days, you would just tell them to do the drill. They are not going to do it until they know it is going to benefit them. We try to do that.

The other thing we have learned that we need to do is to get control of our kids and their use on the websites. We have forgotten how to communicate. When our kids enter the academic or athletic facility, they have to turn their cell phones off. I am old school; I want to be able to look you in the face and communicate with you. We tell our kids we want to be able to communicate with them one-on-one and not through a text message.

I talk to them about Facebook and websites. Our players do not understand that our alums will look at that stuff. They do not understand that they may put something on there that will cost them their college careers. I have told our kids that if any football information goes out from their website or their text messages, they are putting themselves in a situation where they may not be on the team. We want our football information in-house only.

I have somebody on my staff that goes through all of our players' information every day. That is all they do. This new technology can affect your job and is important that you get a grasp on it as soon as possible.

We put together a video of inspiration and motivation to show our kids. You have to show today's kids, through video, what you want. I started this when I was at Northern Illinois. We went 11-3 this past year. About every three weeks,we add to this video something that would show them what we expected or what it would take to win.

I am the most fortunate guy in the world in that I coach at the university where Tony Dungy played. I probably would not have gotten the opportunity to go to the University of Minnesota if Tony Dungy had not said, "This is the guy you need to hire at Minnesota." Before I even knew who Coach Dungy was, I read his book entitled Uncommon. It was the best thing I ever did. Two years ago at Northern Illinois during two-a-day camp, we read a chapter out of his book each day. I had the players stand up and report on the chapter that they had just read. We read the whole book through two-a-day camp.

It is the best thing I did in my life. There is no better book to read about character and what kids need to stand for in this day and age than his book. It is worth every penny your booster club can get you to get your players a copy. You can do it in the summer or you can do it during the year. The book, and what he stands for, and what he put in that book, I believe, helped us turn the program around at Northern Illinois. What the book is saying is that you have to be different to be good. You cannot be like everyone else.

I told our kids this year, "You have to give up something in order to be successful." To be a good team, you have to give up what some of those other kids are doing. It is hard to be different in this day and age. It is easier to go out and do the wrong things than it is to do the right things. That book will certainly help you.

We are going to do the same thing at the University of Minnesota. The thing that I have going for me now is the fact that Coach Dungy will come back to his alma mater and tell them why he wrote that book and what it stands for.

I firmly believe you turn programs around and you win with fundamentals. We have forgotten that in all sports. Some 20 years ago, you never missed a free throw. I could go out there right now and shoot free throws and hit 9 out of 10. I would go out with my dad and we would practice free throws all day long. It is all fundamentals. You get guys making millions of dollars who can run and dunk, but they cannot shoot a free throw.

If you just look at tackling in the game of football, it is terrible. You can look at your films, look at our films, or look at NFL films. We are all terrible at tackling. We have great athletes, but we forget to teach the fundamentals of the game. When I go back and look at tackling, I see what we need to do better. Here are some of the things I look at.

We start out every day on defense with a tackling circuit. You do not have to beat the heck out of each other to teach tackling, but we do it. The only way we really get better is to work on the fundamentals. We use about four base drills when we work on our tackling.

We run what we call a "shimmy drill." They come up with their body under control, they have their hips down, and they have their shoulders square. We want to get our head on the side of the bag and move the bag. We really focus on getting our kids to understand that you cannot tackle what you cannot see. We have all these concussions today because kids are ducking their heads. It is a safety factor. Play with your eyes up. Our offensive and defensive coaches are talking all the time about getting the head and eyes up. You have to coach the eyes. They learn by repetition, so we do it every day.

We teach roll tackling. When you are a mid- major, and you are playing teams like the University of Tennessee, who had a 240-pound running back, it is tough. We had a 190-pound safety that was going to be run support. If we hit him straight on, we are not going to win that war. We teach them, on the perimeter, to roll tackle. We do not want defensive backs to duck their heads and have the offensive players jump over them. We teach them roll tackling every day. What we are trying to do is to emphasize the run, the rap, and the roll. If you do that, you will not miss tackles. It also will keep your kids from getting concussions.

We do the same thing on offense for blocking. We will take five minutes for each of our circuits. Blocking is a lost art. If I am fired, I want to go coach as a high school offensive line coach. I will do it free. You can use your hands as lethal weapons. You can use your hands. Everything that we do in the off-season in our weight room and in our drill work is to teach them to shoot their hands out in front of them. When they come off the ball and take a short step, their hands come up and they can control the defensive linemen with their hands.

When you are on a down block, if you stick your hand up in his rib cage, you have him and you can control him. It is legal holding. You can control everything with your hands. I used to think it was always the feet. The feet are important. You do not want to take big steps. It is all about the eyes and the hands. If you can get your hands in the right place, you can be smaller and control a bigger guy. You have to work on that in practice. We want to work on technique and shooting the hands out.

We work on the cut block. There is going to be a time when a 320-pound lineman is going to have to do a cut block. You do not want his head down on the cut block. He has to keep his head up, extend his arm, and cut through. We teach them to get up and go get another defender. Those good offensive linemen will always block two men. You teach it and you get things done through repetition. We do this with our linemen and our backs and receivers.

We coach ball security. I have been very fortunate in that my teams have not turned the ball over very often. It is a fact that if you look at teams that are winning in the NFL or college, you will see that they do not turn the ball over. You have to teach it. If you do not turn over the ball often, you have a chance to win. We talk about ball security equals job security. I will not play a running back, no matter how good he is, if he turns the ball over. We go over it every day and we teach the techniques of holding on to the football.

On defense, you have to teach your players about taking the ball away. We teach it two different ways in our takeaway circuit. We try to come up underneath and punch it out, or we come over the top and try to chop it out. The important thing is that you teach them how to do these techniques. They will not do it unless you teach it. We spend about 40 minutes per practice in individual time and fundamentals. It might be group work, but we are going to spend time on the fundamentals. Certainly, we get it done in the spring and in our Tuesday and Wednesday workouts. We take a direct angle and chop it out.

Football is a game played with leverage and angles. That is the bottom line. You have to practice it. We are creatures of habit. My dad was a chain- smoker. He was good at it. He did it all of the time. It was a habit. It was not a good habit, but it was a habit. Let me make one thing clear. You get what you emphasize. Coaches have to make poor plays unacceptable. If you are in practice and your quarterback throws a ball and the corner breaks on it and has a chance to intercept the ball but drops the ball, that is not acceptable. You cannot have that. When you pick it off in practice, you need to make a big deal out of it. If you tell them you want to get interceptions, they will get interceptions. The minute you forget about it, they will too. You have to figure out what the most important thing is that you do and how you are going to emphasize it.

Let me tell you how to win a few games. You are talking to a guy that went into a new program and won one game in that first year. The next year, we won four, and then we won 10 from there on out. I will tell you how we did it. I will tell you how we stole a couple of games. Special teams!

Nobody wants to work on special teams. I assign every coach to a portion of our kicking game. You win in the kicking game. We have blocked 26 punts over the last 10 years. We do not call our team "the punt return team." We call them the punt block team." I like aggression. We want to be aggressive on offense and defense, and darn aggressive in the kicking game. Do not tell me you emphasize the kicking game or that it is important to you if you are the head coach and you are not involved in it. I am in every single special teams meeting. If your players know that you are sitting in on them, it will be important to them.

We watch your film and find the weakest guy on your punt protection team. We take the weakest guy, and we are going to go after him in some way, shape, or form. We are going to get our good punt block players in that spot.

We spend time working on our running form and 40-yard starts. All of our guys want to go pro. They watch the NFL Scouting Combine on TV. They all want to work on their 40-yard starts. I will tell you the reason why we spend time on this. It is to block punts. Every one of our kids on the punt block team will be able to get out of a stance and get after the ball.

We catch the ball every day. We do fundamental ball skills every day. Again, we are going to emphasize what we want to do. You have to take some shots if you want to be successful in football today. Find somebody out there that can run fast. You can find somebody at the opponent's cornerback position that is weak. You want to get your best athlete on him. If the head of the school board's kid is out there playing football, you are likely to find him at defensive corner. The coach will put him out there at cornerback and tell him to start backpedaling and get the heck out of there.

I think you need to take four or five shots a game. However, you have to work on it. It is not easy to catch a deep ball. You have to train them, and you have to develop it. You cannot throw it just occasionally. When we practice our pass shell, we treat everything like it is a game situation. Every play that we have in practice has to be as if it is in a game. You have to coach it that way.

There is no substitute for playing hard. You have to teach that. The game is not as hard as we make it. If you can get them to play hard, you have a chance to win. To do that, you have to coach them hard in practice. You have to teach them to play hard. You cannot emphasize those things enough. Get them to play hard for six seconds. Make them compete and make them work. You need to find it out in the off-season if they are willing to work hard. You have to do things in the off-season to make them compete. Make up drills that will test their competitive level. Do not let them hide. You cannot win with a guy that is going to hide.

We spend a ton of time doing change-of-direction drills. You have to get from point A to point B and change direction. We start them running, make them plant that foot and get around the cone, and make them finish strong. Make everybody finish. Do not accept anyone not finishing. Make them finish every single drill. Make them do everything right.

Now, we have to change the culture at Minnesota. I have been fortunate to where I can bring in my guys and change a culture. There is no magical answer to changing the culture other than this. You have to roll up your sleeves and you have to go to work. You have to outwork people. You outwork people by taking your work ethic, and your staff's work ethic, and the kids have to see you put in the hours. What you get out of life, the game of football, and your team is what you invest in it. This is how we try to change the culture. We try to do it through fundamentals, the kicking game, and bringing people in that understand things. If you have an ex-player that has been successful, have them come back and talk to your kids. You have to reach out and do that. You cannot have an ego to where you think you have to do it all yourself.

The Twin Cities is a great place. We have a brand new stadium, and there may not be a nicer one in the country. It is an unbelievable facility. You are welcome to visit us during spring practice. We will try to help you any way we can.

In closing, I will tell you this. It is a great privilege for me to be here tonight. I love the game of football. I am glad just to be in the profession. To be honest with you, football saved my life. Six years ago, if it was not for the game of football, I would not be here. The doctors told me I had kidney cancer. I missed four days of work, and that was it.

The reason I was able to do what I did, was mentality. I felt sorry for myself. I sat in a La-Z-Boy® chair with tears running down my cheeks and I told my wife, "I do not know if I can do it anymore. I do not know if I can battle this disease and coach the great game of football." My wife said, "Jerry, that is not who you are. You have taught your kids how to battle through adversity and all that, and you are just going to sit in that La-Z-Boy chair. This is not like you." That was my wife talking to me like that.

I felt sorry for myself for that one day. After that day, I got up and I went to work. I fed off our athletes. If it were not for those kids at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I would not be here today. I firmly believe that they helped me get through it. You have to understand, we coach the greatest game ever invented. Do not get away from your values and get into the bull crap. Make those kids accountable. Make them do the right things. You are their parents. A lot of the players I deal with do not have parents. I am old school and I am proud of it, and I am not changing. Coaches are the last hope a lot of those kids have.

Thank you very much. I appreciate your attention.

About the Author...

Jerry Kill was named head coach of the University of Minnesota football program on December 7, 2010.

Kill came to Minnesota after spending three seasons on the sidelines at Northern Illinois University. Kill led the Huskies to three consecutive bowl games during his tenure. He also coached NIU to a berth the Mid-American Conference Championship game in 2010. Kill put together a 23-16 record in his three seasons with the Huskies.

In three seasons, Kill coached two winners of the Mid-American Conference Vern Smith Leadership Award, given annually to the conference's top football player. Defensive end Larry English won the award in 2008, Kill's first season with the Huskies. Running back Chad Spann was honored as the conference's top player in 2010. English went on to be the No. 16 overall choice in the 2009 NFL Draft and currently plays for the San Diego Chargers.

During the 2010 season, Kill mentored six first-team All-MAC selections. In his three seasons, the Huskies earned 10 first-team all-MAC honors. His 2010 squad ranked No. 7 in the nation in rushing offense, No. 12 in scoring offense, No. 19 in total offense, No. 14 in scoring defense, No. 26 in total defense, No. 24 in rushing defense and No. 44 in passing defense.

Following the 2010 season, Kill was named the National Coach of the Year by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In 2009, Kill was presented with the National Football Foundation Courage Award by the Chicago Metro Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame.

Be the first to review this item!

Bookmark this

17 Aug 2016

By Coaches Choice
Share & Bookmarking