Chip Scoggins
See more of the story

Carter Coughlin is one of seven Minnesota football recruits committed to play for Gophers coach Jerry Kill's program.

Coughlin had met a couple of the recruits casually but really only knew one of them, Armstrong linebacker Thomas Barber.

That bothered him.

Eden Prairie's star linebacker told his dad he needed to use the family's cabin in Pequot Lakes for a weekend in June. Coughlin wanted to invite a bunch of strangers with a common connection to the lake for a getaway.

"I thought that having the guys up to the cabin would just be killer," he said.

Per NCAA rules, Kill is not allowed to comment publicly about recruits until they officially sign their letters of intent. If the Gophers coach witnessed what took place on the lake that weekend, he probably would break into that silly dance he does in the locker room after big victories.

Eight of his recruits in the Class of 2016 — seven Minnesotans plus Chicago-area offensive lineman Sean Foster — had a blast getting to know each other.

They did lots of fishing. They rode personal watercraft and went tubing. They gave wakeboarding a valiant effort.

"That was hilarious," Coughlin said.

The group exchanged wisecracks and devoured a mountain of food that Coughlin's parents kept on the kitchen counter.

And there was horseplay, of course, highlighted by defensive lineman JoJo Garcia challenging Foster to a series of 1-on-1 speed rush matchups in the backyard.

"It was pretty even," Coughlin noted.

Bonfires lasted past midnight as they talked about how much fun it will be to play college football together. They set goals for the Gophers program, vowing to continue to help build it.

They wore specially made T-shirts with "Empire" written on the front. As in, they hope to turn the Gophers into an empire.

They became fast friends that didn't want the weekend to end.

"It was pretty cool to click that quickly," Foster said. "We were all having a ton of fun."

Their retreat represented something unique in recruiting. A half-dozen former Gophers players said they have never heard of anything like it. All of them expressed surprise, and then admiration.

"Love that," Eric Decker, now a receiver with the New York Jets, wrote in a text.

The building of a college football program includes many steps, some obviously more necessary than others. A cabin weekend doesn't guarantee the Gophers will win a Big Ten title with that group, but the building blocks — cohesion, trust, loyalty — give Kill's next recruiting class a head start.

"Honestly, I think that's what a championship team looks like," Coughlin said. "It's a team that has each other's backs. We've got a pretty sweet bond going."

Coughlin is the linchpin. He's a natural leader. He will become a Gophers team captain at some point in his career.

He has won two state championships and has not lost a varsity game at Eden Prairie. He turned down scholarship offers from Oregon and Ohio State to stay home.

Coughlin's parents were Gophers athletes and his grandfather, Tom Moe, served as athletic director.

Though he holds a deep connection to the school, Coughlin's early commitment gave Kill an important vote of confidence.

For years, Gophers in-state recruiting has been a touchy subject. The best players always seemed to look elsewhere. And that's OK, too. Every kid should feel comfortable choosing his own path.

Coughlin, the state's No. 1 recruit, hopes others follow his lead. Five of the state's top recruits already have committed to the Gophers. A couple others are considering the Gophers but haven't made a decision.

The perception of Kill's program is changing.

"The Gophers program now is a lot different than what it was even two years ago," Coughlin said. "I think with us staying home, it's going to start a trend for kids around the state to want to stay home and be a part of the program."

Coughlin has become an unofficial recruiter. He contacts players who receive scholarship offers from the Gophers to give his own sales pitch.

"I've DM'd so many kids [on Twitter] I can't even give you a number," he said.

Mostly, he sends messages to his cabin buddies through their ongoing group chat. They stay in contact almost daily now.

"I think we're going to have an unusually tight-knit group," Coughlin said, "just from the bonding that we've been able to have and will continue to have."

Chip Scoggins •