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Friday, March 14, 2014
Claeys comfortable back as Gophers DC

By Brian Bennett

Tracy Claeys served as acting head coach when Minnesota went on its historic four-game winning streak last season. That brought Claeys plenty of national acclaim and recognition, including some calls for him to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.

Mostly, though, it made him squirm.

"I felt very uncomfortable about all that," he told ESPN.com.

Tracy Claeys
Tracy Claeys led the Gophers to a 4-3 record last season in Jerry Kill's absence.
That's because Claeys views himself as simply a piece of a larger team effort. When Jerry Kill needed to take some time away from the Gophers to deal with his epilepsy, Claeys did his part by filling in. He didn't think he deserved any more credit than the rest of the staff or the players when the team put together its first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years.

So now Claeys is perfectly happy sliding back into his familiar role as defensive coordinator this spring.

"I'm looking forward to kind of hiding again," he said. "Getting back to working with the kids and just coaching ball."

Claeys could have parlayed his tenure as interim leader -- he was officially 4-3 in place of Kill, who remained very active during much of that time -- into a head-coaching gig elsewhere. A few schools contacted him this offseason to gauge his interest, but Claeys said he declined to even interview for another job.

Instead, he's content to remain with Kill. This will be their 20th season together, beginning in 1995 when Claeys was Kill's defensive line coach at Saginaw State and continuing as he served as defensive coordinator at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.

Claeys is one of several assistants who have worked for Kill for at least a decade. Kill made sure they were rewarded when he signed his recent contract extension, and Minnesota guaranteed that its staff salary pool would rank among the top six in the Big Ten. Claeys made just under $350,000 last year in base pay, plus an extra $13,000 per week while he was interim coach. He could soon be earning more than he would have made as a head coach at a MAC-level school.

Money, however, isn't the main consideration for the 45-year-old Kansan. He likes working for Kill and said his goal has never been to become a head coach. A few years ago, Claeys had a conversation about career arcs with Virginia Tech's Bud Foster, who has worked as an assistant under Frank Beamer since 1987.

"When you can go to work every day and like the people you work with and you know what's expected of you, the grass isn't always greener," Claeys said. "There's nothing wrong with staying where you're at and being successful, and Bud reaffirmed some of those things in our conversation."

Any small group of people -- whether it’s a rock band or a married couple -- will have its disagreements and difficulties while working and/or living in close quarters over a long period of time, especially in a high-stress environment like sports. Claeys said that's no different with the tight-knit Gophers staff.

"We have meetings, and some of them get a little heated," he said. "But everybody knows that when the meeting is over, the decision has to be what's best for the football team.

"The bottom line is, coach is a very caring person. We feel like a reason we've been able to build programs and have success is the consistency of our staff."

Claeys said Kill had often consulted with him on the headset about what to do in situations like fourth-down plays. So once he had full play-calling responsibilities last season in Kill's absence, he felt prepared and was confident the entire staff was on the same page.

Claeys is glad that Kill is now back handling media obligations and boosters. He can focus on working with the defense this spring and figuring out ways to replace starters like Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. Maybe the right head coaching opportunity will come along someday, but Claeys won't be angling for it.

"As long as I'm having fun and am wanted, I'll stick around," he said. "I've told the Kill-er, whenever you want to make a change, come in and tell me, and when that time comes, I'll go back and home and tend bar."

It might be another 20 years before that happens.