Minnesota coach Jerry Kill's plan for strengthening his long-lagging program is to keep the nonconference schedules as nonthreatening as possible.
The university confirmed Tuesday the cancellation of two games against North Carolina, on the road in 2013 and at home in 2014. The Gophers will instead pay an $800,000 buyout fee to not play the Tar Heels.
"We're going to make some decisions that don't really look good on paper at times because of where we are," athletic director Norwood Teague said, adding: "I can understand why it can look kind of goofy, but when you get down below it and ... you start talking to coach Kill and you start thinking of our future and our vision of where we want to go you've got to make these. And I know it doesn't always sit all right with our fans, but it's what's got to happen now."
Kill's first game with Minnesota was at USC last year, and he expressed his unhappiness about having to take a young team to open the season on the road in a big-time stadium.
The Gophers played well, losing 19-17 after a legitimate chance to win at the end. They also beat Syracuse last month, the only non-Big Ten foe from one of the five other Bowl Championship Series conferences they faced this season.
But Kill has told Teague his belief is that playing lower-level nonconference opponents is the best way to build confidence in the players and success for the team. He's been pushing for a while to get out of the North Carolina games, even though the Tar Heels have usually been a middle-of-the-pack team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They're 4-2 this year. They're also on probation until 2015, down 15 scholarships.
"As an athletic director you tell coaches no all the time. ... But I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He's won everywhere he's been, and he's won in situations that weren't easy so I trust where he was coming from and after a while I saw the light of what he was talking about," Teague said.
Kill hasn't coached in a BCS league before, though, and there's a question about whether playing teams from the Mid-American Conference or the Football Championship Subdivision can properly prepare the Gophers for the grind of the Big Ten. They didn't look ready this year, getting beat up at the line of scrimmage by run-first Iowa after facing a bunch of smaller offenses in September that ran no-huddle, spread systems. Then they lost last week at home to Northwestern.
Teague said he spoke to Kill about that issue but reiterated his trust in the coach's philosophy. Teague also said the buyout money won't take from other sports, can be paid over time and potentially recouped with budget creativity.
For now, at least, a home-and-road series with Oregon State in 2017 and 2018 remains on tap.
"Certainly we're going to look for quality and see how the program grows and evolves and make decisions there," Teague said.
Minnesota has also finalized home games with Kent State in 2015 and South Dakota State in 2019. The next nonconference road game the Gophers have scheduled is in 2015, at Colorado State, which plays in the Mountain West Conference. Next year, Minnesota will host UNLV, Western Illinois, San Jose State and a to-be-determined team to fill North Carolina's spot.
"Right now we've got to concentrate on Wisconsin," Kill said at his regular news conference Tuesday. "I haven't spent much time on that."
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the school was "disappointed" to lose the game against Minnesota. As a result, the Tar Heels moved their 2013 game against East Carolina to Chapel Hill and agreed to play in Greenville in 2014 and 2016 or 2018. North Carolina also added a game against Old Dominion for 2013 but still has one nonconference opening.
East Carolina then announced it was restarting its series with Virginia Tech and will play the Hokies every year from 2013-20, with meetings in even-numbered years being played in Greenville and odd-numbered years in Blacksburg, Va.
College football scheduling can be quite the balancing act. But despite the interest by fans in seeing the best teams play, that doesn't always mean the coaches and players themselves see this the same way.
"We just come ready to play. To me, I'm excited for Saturdays regardless of who you're facing. So you just do your best," Gophers wide receiver A.J. Barker said.
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