IOWA CITY, Iowa — The last thing Jerry Kill expected was to hear from Kelton Copeland.
Kill told Copeland — and the rest of the Saginaw Valley State players — it was best for them to stay put when he left the Michigan school for Emporia State in 1999.
But after seeing that he might not fit in at quarterback under the new Saginaw staff, Copeland knew his best move was to work with his old coach.
It also turned out to eventually be a good move for Iowa. By reaching out to Kill, Copeland did more than find a new college football home. He discovered a coaching mentor, setting him on a path that would see him become the Hawkeyes wide receivers coach on Feb. 14.
“It worked out OK,” Kill said.
The ‘perfect’ fit at quarterback
Kill understates it all — the conversations, Copeland’s playing days and how Kill helped him become a coach. From Kill’s perspective, hard work, effort and paying dues resulted in Copeland rising from the junior college ranks to the Big Ten.
It all started with Copeland, a Florida native, following Kill to Emporia State in Kansas. Copeland played there from 1999-2002. The Emporia playbook was based on the Nebraska option, but Copeland would also be asked to throw out of the shotgun. He was the dual-threat option Kill needed to guide his offense.
“His skill set was perfect for what we did,” Kill said.
Copeland was a three-time captain and set single-season and career program rushing records for a quarterback. Kill groomed him to become a standout quarterback, but he was doing much more.
“They knew from my third year of playing that I wanted to be a coach,” Copeland said. “So they started grooming me towards that goal even when I was playing.”
Kill watched Copeland spend hours watching film. He noticed the way he interacted with teammates. Kill knew Copeland possessed the personality to be a coach. He was more than willing to help his quarterback along.
Copeland always looked up to Kill. They still talk on a regular basis. In college, Copeland saw Kill as an extension of the beliefs preached by his parents. Loyalty was important. So was trust and honesty. He wanted to learn how to translate what mattered to him to coaching.
“The marriage between my parents, being raised to go with Coach Kill and him taking me from being that boy to being a man, and now in my career, those values have not changed,” Copeland said. “They have not changed one bit. I still believe in them and coach my guys to believe in those same values.”
Breaking in as a coach
Kill started Copeland out as a defensive graduate assistant. Copeland worked with the linebackers, because the more he knew about both sides of the ball the better.
“That was a totally different world for me,” Copeland said. “Playing quarterback and being on offense my whole college career, that was a totally different mindset. But I took it in stride, learned a lot.”
It was in that first season he showed Kill he could make it in the coaching profession.
“That is probably the hardest transition when you are young and you are coaching the guys that you played with,” Kill said. “That is very difficult. There is no question about that, but he handled it well.”
Copeland would spent 2003-05 coaching at Emporia State. He would slowly work his way up the coaching ladder.
There would be one season in Division II at Northwood University. That was followed by four seasons at Coffeyville Community College, teaching physical education and coaching wide receivers and defensive backs.
He would do a two-year stint as a wide receivers coach at South Dakota before joining Northern Illinois, where he coached running backs, wide receivers and special teams the past four seasons.
“He has pretty much come up a lot of the same ways I did, and I think you appreciate it more and he’s more appreciative of the opportunities he has been given at Iowa,” Kill said.
Landing at Iowa
Before Copeland could coach Iowa’s wide receivers he needed to land an interview. Copeland called Kill for advice when the opening popped up in January. Two members of Kill’s coaching tree ended up vying for the job. Former Minnesota wide receivers coach Brian Anderson, also interviewed.
Kill told both men the same thing: He’d put in a good word and they would be crazy not to work with the Hawkeyes. He also told Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz the same thing. Either coach would make a great hire.
“It was a unique situation,” Kill said.
Copeland landed the job. He is tasked with coaxing more production from a position that struggled in 2016. He’ll do it by relying on what he learned after following Kill to Emporia State.
“He’s a guy that I respect, and quite honestly I love quite a bit,” Copeland said.