By Joe Christensen
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill is “continuing to take time to focus on his treatment and better manage his epilepsy,” the team announced Thursday, adding that defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will serve as acting head coach in the interim.
“I’m confident we’re making the best decision,” Athletic Director Norwood Teague said at this afternoon’s press conference.
It’s unclear how much time Kill will miss. The school released this statement from the coach:
“My wife Rebecca, myself and our two daughters want to thank everyone for their prayers and concerns during the last few weeks. This was a difficult decision to make, but the right decision. Our staff has been together a long time and I have full confidence in Coach Claeys and them during my time away. Every decision that will be made will be in the best interest of the players and the program. I look forward to returning to the Minnesota sideline on a full-time basis soon.”
“I don’t know how long it will take,” Claeys said this afternoon.
“I think over period of time he decided, ‘Let’s look into this deeper and see what we can come up with,’ ” Teague said.
Teague said that he had talked to Kill and the final decision was made Thursday, adding that he hopes Kill doesn’t spend too much time worrying about how the team is doing in his absence. “It’s time for him to stay focused and really zero in on his condition, “ he said.
Claeys added: “He’s our biggest fan. He loves being around the kids, he loves being on the practice field. This is difficult for him....This is why, in the past, when he’s felt better, he’s come back as quickly as he could.”
Kill, 52, has missed parts of four games in three seasons at Minnesota because of seizures, including two this season. He suffered a seizure on the sidelines at halftime of the Western Illinois game on Sept. 14, and he missed the Michigan game on Oct. 5 after having a seizure at home in Minneapolis.
Claeys said, “He loves the University of Minnesota. He loves the state of Minnesota. After missing that [Michigan] game, I think he said, “I have to look into this.’ As a staff, we support him 100 percent, and we’ll represent him well. The kids will, the staff will.”
This is the first time in Kill’s three seasons at Minnesota that he’s taken an extended leave. The Michigan game marked the first time in his 20-year head coaching career that he missed an entire game.
The Gophers (4-2, 0-2 in the Big Ten) have a bye this week before playing at Northwestern on Oct. 19.
“We’rte taking it day by day,” Teague said. “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves... You know, luckily we have a guy like Tracy to step right in. I feel good that he’s going to attack this even deeper, and hopefully improve — a lot.”
In three seasons under Kill, the Gophers are 13-18, including 4-14 in the Big Ten. Each season has included at least two reported seizure episodes for Kill.
He had a seizure on the sideline in the last-minute of the Gophers’ loss to New Mexico State on Sept. 10, 2011. That month, he suffered another seizure on Sept. 25, one day after the team’s loss to North Dakota State, and that one knocked him from practice until the following Wednesday, while he got checked out at the Mayo Clinic.
Kill had a seizure on the flight home from the Northwestern game on Nov. 11, 2011, but he was back to work the next day.
His next reported seizure came after the team’s loss to Northwestern on Oct. 13, 2012. That next week, Kill began speaking out about his epilepsy, hoping to raise awareness, after previously referring to his condition as a seizure disorder.
Kill missed the second half of the Nov. 24, 2012 game against Michigan State and later called that one of the lowest moments of his life.
After that seizure, Kill began working with Dr. Ilo Leppik, an epileptologist from the n epileptologist from MINCEP Epilepsy Care, a level-four treatment center in Minneapolis. Leppik also is a University of Minnesota professor of pharmacy and neurology and a former president of the American Epilepsy Society.
Kill focused on getting rest and exercise last offseason and entered preseason camp saying he felt like he was in the best shape of his life.
This summer, he told the Star Tribune: “It’s not something I’m going to solve in a month. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is the Michigan State situation. You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game. I mean, I’m not stupid, I realize that.
“If I was doing those things, the university wouldn’t have to fire me. I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it. But that won’t happen because you’re talking to a guy that wasn’t supposed to be here anyway.”
Epilepsy is a disease that affects nearly 3 million Americans, according to the National Epilepsy Foundation, which reports that nearly 70 percent of the patients with the disease can become seizure free with the right medication.
Besides Kill, other famous people with epilepsy are Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, rock musician Neil Young, former Major League Baseball manager Buddy Bell and nine-time NFL Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.
Epilepsy is typically diagnosed after a person has two or more unprovoked seizures. Kill suffered his first seizure in 2000 at home in Kansas, when he was head coach at Emporia State. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005 after having a seizure on the sidelines while coaching at Southern Illinois.
That episode helped doctors discover that Kill had kidney cancer. He was at stage four, but the doctors removed the tumor, and he has been in remission ever since.
Kill had two other reported seizures before he came to Minnesota. The first came in 2006, before taping his weekly television show on the day after a game for Southern Illinois. He also suffered one in 2010, the day after coaching a game for Northern Illinois.
Gophers Athletics Director Norwood Teague and University President Eric Kaler have been vocal with their support for Kill.
Kaler said in a statement Thursday: “Athletics Director Norwood Teague and Coach Kill are managing this health situation, as it relates to our football program, in the most straightforward and caring manner possible. They are acting in the best interests of this University, its alumni and fans and, most importantly, the student-athletes who have placed their trust in us. I eagerly look forward to Coach Kill’s return and wish him all the best.”