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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They've won nine straight football games, including four by a margin of 30 points or more, they own one of the top 10 offenses in the nation and a top-20 defense, and they are just one spot away from the AP Top 25. They are the Northern Illinois Huskies, and they've got two coaching staffs -- their own, and Minnesota's -- taking a great measure of pride in their success.
"We all watch. We're very, very happy for what those young men are doing," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "It's neat to see guys who were on the work team (two years ago), who weren't the stars, have stepped into the spotlight now and taken it to a higher level."
That level, higher even than when Jerry Kill was their coach and most of the Gopher assistant coaches were on the NIU staff, is both a model and a goal for what they hope they can accomplish in Minneapolis.
"Every place we've been, that's one thing I'll say -- as a staff, we've built it right. It takes a little bit more time, but every place we've left, they've continued to win for the next few years," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, pointing to the continued playoff run of Southern Illinois in the mid-2000s, too. "We left an awful lot of good young kids there. Everybody gets frustrated because maybe it's not going fast enough here, but if you do it right, (you'll) have a consistent winner."
The Huskies, 9-1 this season, certainly fit that definition. Kill and his longtime employees left after leading the Huskies to a perfect 8-0 record in the Mid-American Conference in 2010 (though NIU was upset in the conference championship game), and the university hired former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren to replace him. Utilizing a roster mostly assembled by Kill and his recruiters, Doeren has coached the Huskies to a 20-4 record over two seasons, including 14 consecutive victories over MAC opponents and a victory in last December's godaddy.com Bowl.
"A large amount of those kids, you know, we recruited, the majority of them. So we're part of it," Kill said. "But I'm very proud of Coach Doeren for doing a great job of coming in and making the transition easy for those kids."
Gopher coaches discuss NIU's latest exploits each week, and watch with amazement, pride -- and even a little guilt -- at what's going on in DeKalb.
"You feel bad, because you recruit those kids there, and then you leave because of how well they play," Claeys said. "It makes you feel a little bit guilty for leaving, so it's great to see them continue to win."
The Huskies are playing so well, the school has even launched a longshot campaign to promote quarterback Jordan Lynch's Heisman Trophy candidacy. The junior, finally getting a chance to play after school record-holder Chandler Harnish graduated, leads the nation in total offense and touchdowns, and is second in rushing. He set a new NCAA record for quarterbacks this year by rushing for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games, largely using the same offense Kill installed.
"He's a great player and a great kid. Great family," Kill said, before admitting that he didn't really recruit Lynch -- he just did an old friend a favor.
Frank Lenti, who owns more victories than any other coach in Illinois high school football history, was Lynch's coach at Mt. Carmel High, near the south Chicago lakeshore. Lenti's offense was an option attack, with few passing opportunities for the quarterback, so recruiters were ignoring Lynch.
So Lenti called Kill. "He said, 'You've known me for a lot of years. He can throw the ball, I'm telling you,' " Kill recalled of their conversation. " 'I'm trying to help you here. Trust me.' So I trusted him, and that's been an awful good decision for Northern Illinois."
The Gophers' non-conference football schedule will be toughened up again, coach Jerry Kill said Thursday, once the team improves to the point where it can be competitive in those games.
"Once we get our program it needs to be ... then let's go play those people. I've got no problem with that," the Gophers coach said on his weekly KFAN radio show. "If we tried to go play a schedule we have no chance (against) and then we go play a Big Ten schedule, and we're beat up on top of it -- we've got to be careful with that."
It was Kill's first public response to the furor that arose this week when Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague cancelled a two-game series against North Carolina at the coach's urging, paying $800,000 to negate the contract. And the coach also addressed the seizure that struck shortly after the Gophers' loss to Northwestern on Saturday, sending him to the hospital overnight.
Kill said he was surprised by the criticism he received over cancelling the home-and-home with North Carolina -- in an unrelated move, the Gophers' 2019 and 2020 games with Navy reportedly have also been cancelled -- but he defended the move, saying that lowering the strength of schedule until the program improves was a part of the plan he used to turn around the football fortunes of Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, too.
"All I'm doing is following the things we've done. We need to find a way to get our kids some playing time, win some games, get some confidence," Kill said. "Frankly, we have a plan. It's worked. But there's got to be a little bit of a trust factor in what we do."
Minnesota's football program "is not at the level where (former coach) Glen Mason had it," Kill said. "Do we want to do this the whole time we're here? No."
Besides, Kill said, the non-conference season is meaningless next to his No. 1 goal.
"We've got to worry about winning the Big Ten. We haven't done it for 45 years," Kill said. "That's the only thing that matters to me. And (when you're) preparing for the Big Ten, you better be smart."
He's also trying to be smart about managing his epilepsy, which has manifested itself in "15 to 20" seizures since last season. Kill cited statistics that show epilepsy is far more common, and manageable, than most people realize, and said his condition has gradually improved since last year. Saturday's seizure was notable, he said, only because he was in his locker room at TCF Bank Stadium when it struck. And because of the public attention, which he loathes, that the incident drew.
In fact, Kill said, he was irritated that he was taken by ambulance to a suburban Minneapolis hospital, which made the incident public. "I told (my wife Rebecca), 'Don't you ever let them take me to the hospital again,' " Kill said. "Just let me lay there" until it subsides, so he can get back to work.
Team doctors had little choice, he admitted, because he was alone when the seizure hit, so they ordered an ambulance as a precaution. But when such incidents happen in private, he recovers quickly, Kill said.
"All I know is, when you get up from them, you're sore. You feel like someone ran you over with a truck," Kill said. "And then you go back to work."
It's not their coach's health that the Gophers should worry about this weekend.
Jerry Kill conducted his Tuesday press conference as normal on Tuesday, and though the university's public-relations staff cut the appearance short by about half before he could address his recovery from Saturday's seizure, the coach said on the Big Ten conference call that he is "back to work and going full speed."
But several Gophers starters aren't able to go full speed this week.
Most notable is quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is wearing a boot on his left ankle and had difficulty jogging on Tuesday. With another sprained left ankle, his condition is similar to what it was during the team's bye week, when the coach said Gray would not be able to play. His status for Saturday's game at Wisconsin is uncertain.
Left tackle Ed Olson is "likely out" for the game, however, after suffering a knee injury during Saturday's loss to Northwestern. Safety Derrick Wells has a laceration on his knee, and his status is undetermined.
And three receivers -- Devin Crawford-Tufts, Isaac Fruechte and Marcus Jones are all "questionable" as well, Kill said, with Crawford-Tufts' injury the most serious.
That's a serious talent drain for the Gophers' offense, which has not scored more than 17 points in a game since Sept. 15.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill was released from a suburban Minneapolis hospital on Sunday morning, roughly 14 hours after he suffered a minor seizure at TCF Bank Stadium following the Gophers' 21-13 loss to Northwestern.
The seizure was far less severe than the one that occurred in front of fans during a game 13 months ago, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, and Kill was likely to return to work on Monday. The Gophers don't have another practice scheduled until Tuesday, and Kill has never missed a game due to his condition.
"If this had happened 30 minutes later at home, there's no big deal about it," Claeys said, and it may not have even required hospitalization. "But when it happens (at the stadium), you have no choice but to get an ambulance and get him to the hospital."
A statement released by the university said Kill was tested and cleared to return to work. "All tests confirm that he remains in excellent health," Dr. Pat Smith, the Gophers' team physician, said in the statement. "His only concern is his team and his staff, and he is excited to resume his normal coaching duties."
The seizure occurred in Kill's private locker room less than an hour after the game ended, shortly after he finished his normal series of post-game interviews. No players witnessed the seizure, but they were informed via text message of his condition Saturday evening.
"He wishes it wasn't public, because it doesn't affect how we do things, how we prepare. Without a doubt, that's the most frustrating thing to him," Claeys said. "Other people don't have such a public job, but they live with it and do their jobs. It just so happens during the season, it's more public. ... I don't mean to (say) it's all so ho-hum, but there are a lot of people who live with it."
The Gophers, 4-2 but 0-2 in the Big Ten, face Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday.
The Gophers' succession plan, as well-oiled as any vice president's, kicked into gear once news spread that Jerry Kill had been hospitalized with another seizure on Saturday. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, as he did a year ago and whenever necessary before that, will handle Kill's day-after media obligations, then presumably conduct the Gophers' team meeting and Sunday practice if Kill is still recovering.
The football team won't notice any disruption, because Kill's longtime coaching staff has had plenty of experience in stepping in whenever their coach is stricken.
Here's hoping it's a brief fill-in, and that Kill is back at work as fast as possible. The university did not reveal how serious Kill's seizure was, only that it required hospitalization. But as last year showed, it's difficult to focus on football when something so much more serious is at stake.
Kill will hate that, of course, will dread the attention that comes from his condition. And he will be disappointed that questions about his health will come to the fore once again. But he conceded in July, just a few days before opening training camp, that the questions would never go away.
"You can't ever say that it's a non-issue. You can't predict what will happen," Kill said. "But I know that I've worked very hard. I've lost 12 or 13 pounds, I walk every day, I've been to the Mayo Clinic and got a clean bill of health. I'm cancer-free. So I feel very good. I'm in good shape."
That doesn't mean he's seizure-free, however, as Saturday's relapse proved. Kill appeared completely normal in his post-game press conference, though he had been unusually animated during an extended tirade at an official who called a penalty on the Gophers.
The stress of a football season obviously triggers something in his nervous system, and Kill said he spent the off-season dealing with that reality.
"I can't control everything, but I've done everything I can to beat this. I don't want to let our kids down, or our fans," Kill said. "I'm well-prepared, I think."
The last seizure that Kill revealed publicly occurred on the Gophers' team flight home from Northwestern last November. Kill said he "blanked out" for just a few seconds, a minor incident that only a few on the plane even realized had occurred. And he was back at work the next day.
"You come out to practice [and see], I can still get after people's tail end pretty good. I"m pretty scrappy, so I think I'll be fine," he said then. "My health situation is something that can be controlled, and every once in a while, something might happen. But I'm not going to let that define me. My situation is going to be with me for the rest of my life, so I deal with it. ... I'm not going to cheat the University of Minnesota, and I'm not going to cheat our fans. I'd walk away from it" before allowing it to affect the program, he said.
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