When the University of Minnesota hired Jerry Kill, the initial reaction was met with downright anger among a good portion of the Gopher fanbase. Then GM Joel Maturi promised a 'Tubby Smith like' hire, in reference to the stunning hire of Tubby Smith as the men's basketball coach.
Names and rumors flew, like Boise State's Chris Peterson, Georgia's Mark Richt, and there was even a movement to keep interim coach Tim Horton after a strong end to a disastrous 2010 season.
But Maturi picked the unassuming Jerry Kill, a guy that had a history of turning around moribund programs, like Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. Kill immediately started winning over fans with his 'aw shucks' demeanor, and his self deprecating humor.
And he was also very matter-of-fact about the state of Gopher football. Namely, it was a wreck, and it was going to take a lot of hard work to get above water again. Tim Brewster had left the program in shambles, with very little talent and a coaching staff where turnover was the rule, not the exception.
There have been some painful losses, and also a sideline seizure against New Mexico State that threatened to end the Jerry Kill era before it began. But after some fits and starts, and a humbling 58-0 drubbing by Michigan last year, the Gophers started to slowly get better. They beat Iowa, and then ended the season by beating Illinois.
In 2012, the Gophers have clawed back to respectability. They've beaten the teams they should beat, which is something they haven't done in recent seasons, and almost pulled off an upset of Northwestern. They only have two games left, and although they won't be favored against either Nebraska or Michigan State, I wouldn't be surprised if they upset Sparty. I'm not saying they will, but I am saying it wouldn't surprise me if they did.
Kill made a big move about halfway through the season that has paid dividends now and for the long term. When senior QB Marqueis Gray went down with an ankle injury, he replaced him with sophomore Max Shortell. Shortell struggled, and so he replaced him with freshman Philip Nelson. Nelson has played well, and to Kill's credit, he hasn't gone back and forth--Nelson has played, he hasn't had to worry about looking over his shoulder, and it's paid off.
On the recruiting trail, Kill is making inroads and doing a good job of keeping the few top Minnesota prospects in Minnesota. Philip Nelson, for example, is a guy that two years ago probably wouldn't have gone to Minnesota. Same for OL JOnah Pirsig, and 2013 3 star DE recruit Owen Salzwedel from, of all places, the state of Wisconsin.
I'm not here to proclaim that the Gophers are one recruiting class away from competing for the Legends division. That's somewhat silly for a team that will more than likely finish 6-6. But things are on the way up in Dinkytown. They've beaten Iowa 2 of the last three years, they played Wisconsin tough for about three quarters, and they hung with Michigan longer than most people thought. You can make an argument that the trajectory for Wisconsin and Iowa is heading down, while the Gophers is heading up.
Will they meet, and can the Gophers take the axe and the pig, both in the same year?
Maybe, maybe not. But two years ago, it was ludicrous to even bring up that idea. Now, it's not out of the realm of possibility.