Coach Jerry Kill: No doubts

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2010 - 7:21 AM

The new Gophers football coach has proven in his life and career that it's foolish to underestimate him. Just don't ask him to program the VCR.

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New Gophers football coach Jerry Kill

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John Roderique laughed as he read the text message on his cell phone. The note, a reply to his own way-to-go-Gophers text moments earlier, congratulated him on Webb City High's recent state championship. It said it was from Jerry Kill. "I texted back, 'Thanks, Rebecca,'" the Kill family's longtime friend said, referring to Kill's wife. "C'mon, there's no way Jerry knows how to send a text message."

Ah, doubters. Every person who meets Jerry Kill doubts him -- for about five minutes. Then, say friends, relatives, employers and employees who have followed the football coach's unlikely rise to college football's highest level, they get to know him and understand the quiet confidence and oddly engaging personal magnetism that gives him the power to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

Well, except with gadgets. "Seriously, it took him two years to learn how to use his VCR," Roderique said.

The charisma part is real, friends say. He's a bald, stocky, less-than-imposing man with a soft Kansas drawl, but as one former employer said, "You don't have to have Tom Cruise to enjoy the movie." That's because Kill's homespun wit and Midwestern humility can win over any audience he addresses. Donors dig deep, recruits commit, fans buy tickets, athletic directors hire him and coaches sign on for entire careers.

"He's like a pied piper with people," said Paul Kowalczyk, who chose Kill to take over a hopeless Southern Illinois football program a decade ago. "He's organized, he's prepared, but on some basic level, he just has this extraordinary ability to make you buy in."

It even works on his wife. In a story they both love to tell, Rebecca was a high school senior in Liberal, Kan., when her brother brought Jerry, his college roommate from Southwestern College, home for a weekend. They were sitting at the dinner table that Sunday, Rebecca with her boyfriend, when Jerry made a startling announcement during dessert: I'm going to marry you.

"I was pretty shocked. I mean, OK, who is this guy?" Rebecca said. "He went home and told his mother the same thing, that he had met the girl he was going to marry. And I don't know, a couple of years later we were married."

The wedding was almost 28 years ago, when Rebecca signed on for a wild ride that nobody could have anticipated. It started as a young couple living in a trailer in Winfield, Kan., Kill putting aside his teaching degree (with a minor in biology) to make doughnuts at night so the couple could pay rent. It led through coaching jobs at five different colleges, each a level up from the last. And it arrived in Minneapolis a week ago today, with Kill hired at a million-dollar salary to coach in the Big Ten, at college football's highest level.

"I always believed there was no limit to how far he could go if he wanted to," Roderique said.

"Oh my gosh, this is happiest I've seen him in awhile," Rebecca Kill added, almost breathless herself. "This is a story that you just dream about."

Great expectations

If it's dreamlike for Kill and the extended family of coaches he brings with him from stop to stop, the effect may be a little different, at least at first, for Gophers players he's about to inherit. Kill might be genuine and charming, but make no mistake -- he's all football coach, too. The dynamic with his players goes: This is what I want. Give it to me. Period.

"Even with the girls, he could make them do what he wanted," Rebecca said of the couple's two daughters, Krystal, 23, and Tasha, 19. "They didn't misbehave around him."

Nor would it be advisable for his players to, during what promises to be one of the most demanding spring camps they can imagine. Kill's players describe him as drill-seargent tough, fire-siren loud and brain-surgery precise, yet always spookily calm, when he runs practice.

"He's the most intense guy you've ever seen about practice," said Roderique, now a high school coach himself. "He packs so much teaching into the time, you don't know what hit you."

His notion: Make practice the hard part, so the games come easy.

"Those Minnesota players, they're about to experience something they've never faced before," said Ryan Morris, a former Northern Illinois quarterback. "He's incredibly, incredibly demanding. Practice is very high-tempo, highly scripted, and you see how extremely competitive he is when he's out there."

The intensity can be bracing, Morris said, but effective.

"He'll get in your face and see if he can break you. 'I don't even know what I did wrong, and this guy is screaming at me.' Guys get frustrated at first," Morris said. "He's fiery, but he doesn't crush you. He just knows how to make you better, to get what he needs out of you, and guys will amaze themselves at what he can get them to accomplish. I tell you, he made me a better, more resilient person for it."

That love/hate dynamic is part of the Kill playbook.

"He has that unique ability to be loved and feared by his players," said Mario Moccia, athletic director at Southern Illinois. "Our senior class loved him more than I've ever seen players attached to their coach. There's a healthy respect, and quite frankly, a twinge of fear. You don't want to cross him -- you want to win for him."

Morris is grateful for the experience -- which is a testimonial in itself. The West Chicago native waited through a redshirt season and two years as NIU's understudy and was in line to take over as the Huskies' signal-caller in 2008, when Kill arrived. The new coach preferred a spread attack and a mobile quarterback, and so he played a freshman over the pocket-bound Morris, who threw only four passes over his final two seasons at NIU.

"At first, my relationship with him wasn't the best. I wanted to play. I had waited my turn, and after making a 12-month commitment like I had, it was a crushing thing," Morris said. "But he helped me understand what he was doing, and did some things he didn't have to. He pulled me aside and asked me to work with the young guys, help teach them. I'm disappointed I didn't play, but I really appreciate what Coach did for me as a person. ... I feel like I can face anything."

Adversity no stranger

Kill can give you that feeling, and part of his secret may be that he's faced daunting challenges himself. He took over one football program, at Emporia State, sight unseen, just because he wanted to be near his parents while his father was dying of cancer in 1999. He accepted the job at Southern Illinois when the program was in such disrepair, the locals had discussed disbanding it. And he received terrifying news in 2005, after collapsing on the sideline during a game: There's cancer in your kidney, and we don't know how much.

That devastated Kill so much, he almost missed a game. Almost.

"He accepted it, determined that he would beat it, and didn't let it slow him down at all," Rebecca Kill said. "He said, 'Do the surgery,' and four days later, he was recruiting a kid."

Still, the Kills regard the scare as another example of their good fortune. After he collapsed, doctors concluded he was suffering from stress or exhaustion, nothing serious, and were about to send him home. But Rebecca, remembering her husband's back had been mysteriously sore a month earlier, asked them to take an X-ray as a precaution.

The cancer was visible, and the early treatment might have saved his life.

"It changed us," Rebecca Kill said. "It really made Jerry consider his priorities. He's so passionate about football, he sometimes would not put his family and God first. He learned what's really important, and it made him a better person. He really enjoys his life."

Of course, what's not to enjoy?

He wasn't a great high school athlete at Cheney (Kan.) High, and his coach at Southwestern told him he should try out for basketball instead. Yet he became a starting linebacker at both places on sheer will, was named captain and made all-conference teams.

Shortly after he and Rebecca were married, he was hired to teach science, coach wrestling and help with the football team at Midwest City, Okla. Then Dennis Franchione called and offered him a job coaching linebackers at Pittsburg (Kan.) State, where he discovered his true talent: people.

He recruited Roderique from nearby Webb City, Mo., and made a friend for life the day Roderique's brother died in an accidental shooting.

"Jerry was the first one at the house, to make sure we were OK, ready to do anything he could to help," Roderique said. "I had known him a couple of months, maybe, and he really cared about me and my family."

Roderique ended up playing for Kill, then coaching alongside him at Pittsburg State. The staff included Franchione, who coached Alabama and Texas A&M among other stops, and Gary Patterson, whose unbeaten and third-ranked Texas Christian Horned Frogs will play in the Rose Bowl next month.

Roderique eventually succeeded Kill as coach at Webb City High, where he notes that his rather spectacular lifetime winning percentage of 90.1 (163-18 in 14 seasons) still trails Kill's 96.0 (24-1 in two seasons, including the first of Webb City's eight state titles).

"I guarantee you, Jerry can tell you why they lost the game they did," Roderique said. "We still run the offense Jerry put in, the split-back veer. This program still feels the effect of what he accomplished here."

Record of rebounds

That's a common theme.

Same at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State, where Kill turned a Division II mediocrity into a nationally ranked team, and downtrodden Emporia State, where he produced a winning record in just his second season. But his real miracle-working came in Carbondale, where he faced a stadium with dangerously crumbling concrete, a weight room with space for just a handful of players at a time, a dank, small locker room with water leaking from the ceiling, and a fan base turned apathetic after one winning season in two decades.

"We had nothing to work with," said Kowalczyk, now athletic director at Colorado State, "or worse."

"We got on the plane after he interviewed, and he looked at me and said, 'Boy, I don't know. What do you think?'" Rebecca Kill recalled. "I told him, 'It's meant to be. It feels right.' "

Must have been. Kill turned SIU, 1-10 in his first season and a loser for 11 consecutive years, into a I-AA (as the Football Championship Subdivision was known at the time) powerhouse, taking the Salukis to the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, winning four Gateway Conference titles in a row, and reaching the division's No. 1-ranking in 2004, earning the Eddie Robinson Award as coach of the year.

"The cynicism was so strong at SIU, he had to prove he could win before anyone took him seriously," Kowalczyk said. "But he got everyone to buy in. You could just see the guy had a plan, a mission, a vision. And an intensity to pull it off."

A simple approach

The intensity doesn't fade, but Kill knows how to put it aside now, though he is still largely hobby-free. He likes to fish, but doesn't really fish much. He used to golf, but gave it up so he would have time to watch his daughters play soccer and softball. He fancies himself a master of the grill, but grilling season is brief. He will make time for a vacation -- well, for a weekend.

"We went to Chicago last spring and just walked around, looking at the buildings, the museums, the aquarium," Rebecca said. "Just tourists. That was enough for us."

It's a simplicity that informs Kill's entire life. He doesn't change coaches -- most of his assistants have been with him for a decade or more, and none ever leave. He doesn't change his approach -- "You learn his offense, his defense, and learn it really well," Morris said. "He doesn't switch everything around on you." And he doesn't change his commitment, his common touch, nor, so far, his results.

"Jerry is one of the greatest role models I've ever come across. He has tremendous integrity, and he can relate to everyone, from donors at a black-tie dinner to kids playing football in the yard," said Jim Phillips, who brought Kill to Northern Illinois and now serves as Northwestern's athletic director. "To be honest, I'm not that excited that he's in our division now. Because I know what he can do."

Yes, but there are things he can't do, too. Learning to use all those electronics, for example.

"He's a legal-pad guy. He hires people to work the computers," Rebecca Kill said. "I guess it's part of his charm."

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