Gophers PJ Fleck on Jerry Kill’s return: ‘In 10 years, I’ve never not shaken a coach’s hand’

The University of Minnesota football opens the 2022 regular season Thursday night against New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.

It marks the sixth season for PJ Fleck with the Gophers, and it’s also the return of former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill with the Aggies. Kill spent five seasons at Minnesota after replacing Tim Brewster, and had to step down seven games into the 2015 season due to health issues stemming from complications with epilepsy.

Kill has had more than his fair share of controversial things to say about Minnesota, and Fleck for that matter, since his departure. In his last session with media before the first game last Friday, Fleck was asked if he’ll talk with Kill before Thursday’s game. It’s tradition for head coaches to meet at midfield, shake hands and engage in conversation in the hours leading up to kickoff.

Fleck said he’ll be out there. Kill said he’s not sure what will happen.

"Listen, I’ve been a head coach 10 years. I’ve never not shaken a hand of a head football coach. There’s a tradition of 100 years ago of coaches meeting at midfield. But I’ve been a head coach 10 years guys, and haven’t not shaken one head coach’s hand in my entire career. I might’ve had to go find a guy," Fleck said.

Kill has not been shy about voicing his displeasure after Mark Coyle parted ways with Tracy Claeys, his defensive coordinator at the time and one of his best friends, following the 2016 season. That Gophers team finished 9-4 and won the Holiday Bowl. But players vowed to boycott that game weeks before after several players were suspended following an incident after their Week 1 victory over Oregon State.

In the years since, Kill has commented publicly that Fleck is "all about himself and not the players." After Claeys’ dismissal, Kill said he would never step foot on the Minnesota campus again. That will change this week.

Kill also isn’t thrilled that his team has to travel to Minnesota just three days after New Mexico State lost its season opener to Nevada, 23-12, Saturday night. The Gophers enter Thursday night 36.5-point favorites.

What could be just as intriguing is if Fleck and Kill will engage on the field after Thursday’s game ends.