ANN ARBOR, MICH. – Gophers football coach Jerry Kill wasn’t feeling well Friday and remained in Minnesota while the team flew to Michigan for Saturday’s game. He hoped to get there in time for kickoff but suffered another epileptic seizure Saturday morning.
Rebecca Kill, the coach’s wife, sent a text message to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, asking him to read it to the team. It said, in part, “So sorry we can’t be there. Make us proud.”
The Gophers tried. Without Kill, and with quarterback Philip Nelson benched in favor of Mitch Leidner, they tried to bring home the Little Brown Jug. But Michigan wouldn’t let it happen. After a closely contested first half, the 19th-ranked Wolverines scored four second-half touchdowns and pulled away for a 42-13 victory before an announced crowd of 111,079 at Michigan Stadium.
“Even not being here, [Kill] inspires us so much,” Gophers safety Brock Vereen said. “Unfortunately, we don’t get to bring that jug back to him, but we know he’ll be all right.”
The 52-year-old Kill, who was first diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005, has now missed parts of four games in three seasons at Minnesota after suffering a seizure. This was the first time in his career that he had to miss an entire game.
He suffered a seizure on the sideline against New Mexico State in 2011 and another one at halftime of last year’s Michigan State game. Kill found a new epileptologist and entered the season hopeful that he wouldn’t need to miss another game.
“You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game,” Kill told the Star Tribune this summer. “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.”
Kill suffered a seizure on the sideline at halftime against Western Illinois on Sept. 14, but came back the next week determined to keep fighting.
“Any time for him to miss a game, he’s going to be extremely disappointed,” said Claeys, who takes over as acting head coach when Kill is absent.
The Gophers (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) have a bye next week before playing at No. 16 Northwestern on Oct. 19. Athletic director Norwood Teague said he doesn’t expect Kill to use the time to take a leave of absence.
“You know Jerry; he’s going to go hard, and it’s more him just trying to manage it with his doctors, rather than doing anything drastic,” Teague said. “He’s been working extremely hard behind the scenes on it, so when he has this come up, it’s frustrating for him, and your heart goes out to him. He wants to be here more than anybody else.”
University President Eric Kaler made the trip to Michigan for the game.
“Dr. Kaler and I spoke, and he thinks the world of Jerry as a coach,” Teague said. “He’s concerned about it, but he also knows that it’s a moving target. [Kill’s] managing it, trying to find ways to manage it better.”
Claeys did not think Kill’s absence affected the team’s performance. The coaches told the players about Kill’s latest seizure at the hotel before leaving for the stadium.
The Gophers trailed 14-7 at halftime, despite holding the ball for almost 19 minutes of the 30-minute half.
Leidner’s fumble on the game’s opening drive led directly to a Michigan touchdown. Leidner also threw an interception that Blake Countess returned for a touchdown with 1:19 remaining. In between, Leidner and the Gophers did several good things.
“The final score got a little bit out of hand, with the interception and all that, but since we’ve been here, we competed as well as we have against Michigan,” Claeys said. “The last time we were in this stadium the game was over by the end of the first quarter.”
Michigan crushed the Gophers 58-0 two years ago, in Kill’s first season at the helm, and the Wolverines won last year’s game 35-13 at TCF Bank Stadium.
This time, the Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) claimed the Little Brown Jug for the 22nd time in 23 years. The Gophers held Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner to 17 rushing yards, but they had no answer for tight end Devin Funchess, who made seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s a heck of an athlete,” Vereen said. “We probably made him look better than he is.”
A few hundred Gophers fans were in the stands, and some hadn’t heard the news of Kill’s absence when they entered the stadium. Benny Lynde, 58, had made the drive from Byron, Minn., with his wife.
Told of Kill’s latest setback, Lynde said: “To tell you the truth, I just feel really bad about it. I think now that it’s gotten to a point like this, he needs to get it taken care of. I’m not saying he should step down. But for him, I just hope he gets it under control.
“I was OK with the last three or four, but this is just too close together right now.”
Chad Ostlund, 39, from St. Paul, flew in to watch the game with his friends.
“I feel this program’s still going in the right direction,” Ostlund said. “I don’t think it’s any major concern. I’m just concerned for [Kill]. If the seizures are getting in the way of his coaching during the week, that’s concerning, but I have yet to hear about it other than on gamedays.”