Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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As he prepares for his any-day-now debut as Gophers coach, Jerry Kill turned 50 years old on Wednesday, which strikes me as a weird coincidence. Tim Brewster also celebrated his 50th birthday just before a Minnesota game -- his last one. Brewster, whose game-planning meeting that day was interrupted by a singing telegram, turned 50 four days before he was fired last October.
Kill's birthday reminds me of something his younger brother Frank said last month. The night before Kill accepted Joel Maturi's offer to succeed Brewster as Minnesota's coach, he called Frank for advice.
"I probably shouldn't say this," Frank Kill said. "I told him not to take it."
His reasons had nothing to do with the Gophers, at least not directly. Frank Kill knew the Gophers haven't exactly been in the national championship conversation lately, but he doesn't doubt that his brother can make Minnesota a winning team.
His hesitation, though, stemmed from that 50th birthday, and from watching Jerry Kill turn around Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State and especially Southern Illinois, all programs that required significant rebuilding. It's not easy wringing victories from programs that have lapsed into decline, and Frank Kill said the difficulty shows up in his brother's blood pressure.
"That's the only thing that worries me about him -- his health is good, his checkups are fine. But the stress of that job ... I don't know," Frank Kill said. "You know family, we worry. That's been true even before his [cancer] scare" in 2005, which was unrelated to his job, but rattled his family nonetheless. Kill was diagnosed and treated for kidney cancer, which has not recurred.
At Northern Illinois, Kill seemed to be building a program that, his brother dreamed, might follow the blueprint of TCU, coached by Kill's close friend Gary Patterson, or Boise State: Small-conference success stories that sustained themselves, and occasionally thrust themselves into the national consciousness. The Huskies had been to bowl games each of Kill's three seasons there, and improved from six wins to seven to 10 last year.
"The most difficult work at NIU had been done, and I thought he should stay there and ride it out. Enjoy himself a little bit," Frank Kill said. "But to start over again, with the stress it puts on his body -- that's tough. I told him I wasn't so sure it was a good idea."
Even Kill's mother, Sonja, wondered out loud whether he was sure he wanted another ground-up project, particularly on one of college football's biggest stages. "He said, 'I'll tell you right now, Mother: I could get fired. This is a big job,' " Sonja Kill said. "I didn't care about that. That's the game. But I said, 'I don't know why you have to rebuild all the time.' He likes the challenge, I guess."
He likes winning, too, though like plenty of successful coaches, he hates losing even more.
"Some years, I won't talk to him from Aug. 1 to late November," Frank Kill said. "After a loss, I don't want to be around him. Those kill him. He's so damn competitive. If anyone there thinks he'll settle for mediocrity, they're about to find out differently."
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