Jerry Kill doesn't go it alone coaching college football. From the beginning, he has had a willing and able partner in wife Rebecca.
Jerry Kill is the head of the Gophers football program and Rebecca is the matriarch — some of the players even refer to her as “Mom.” Their first year at the university had its rough patches, but as they have in the past, they persevered.
Rebecca Kill made her wedding vows at age 19, a small-town Kansas girl turned coach's wife, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.
She knew her husband's dream. She shared it, too. Jerry would be a college football coach. And she would stand beside him every step of the way, offering support and encouragement and anything else to help him fulfill his career ambition.
That's not an easy life, though, a reality that tested the young couple as they struggled to pay their $150 monthly rent at Bartos Mobile Home Park. The newlyweds hardly saw each other as Jerry chased his dream in 18-hour workdays as an assistant coach at Pittsburg State. She worked and took college courses and wondered how a football coach could possibly work so many hours.
Rebecca didn't know where that life would lead, but she understood the sacrifice.
"There's not a manual that tells you because all coaches and wives are different," Rebecca said.
They made it work through teamwork, 29 years and counting, a union strengthened by parenthood, health scares and a shared love of football. Jerry remains a hard-charging spitfire hellbent on rebuilding the Gophers program. Rebecca serves as his rock, the eternal optimist who wears many hats in her unofficial role as matriarch of the Gophers football family.
They survived a difficult first season in Minnesota in which the Gophers went 3-9 and Jerry suffered a very public seizure on the sideline in the home opener. He prefers not to talk publicly about that painful episode anymore, saying only that he feels "great" as he prepares for a new season.
Rebecca maintains a visible presence inside the program. She even accompanied her husband on recruiting trips in January as doctors got a handle on what triggered his seizures. That didn't surprise those who know the couple best. Jerry said his wife has stood as a pillar of strength in difficult times and encouraged him to continue coaching when others questioned whether his health would allow it.
"Not one time last year, not one time through all the stuff that happened, she never once mentioned, 'Hey, maybe this is it,'" Kill said.
Nor did she in 2005 when Jerry hit rock bottom emotionally after returning home following surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his kidney. He asked Rebecca if he should quit, find a new profession, something less stressful and less physically demanding. They both knew he wouldn't change the way he coaches. He only knows one way to do his job and he won't ever scale back, for cancer or any other reason.
"She reassured me that I can do anything," Jerry said.
Without that support from his wife and two daughters, "I wouldn't be coaching," he said.
That was never even an option in Rebecca's mind.
"He loves what he does, and I love what he does," she said. "When he had his cancer, I truly believe football saved his life because he was able to do that and not think about what was getting ready to happen before he went in for surgery. I think it would be worse for him not to do what he loves to do."
Rebecca has always loved football, too. Her brothers played the sport, her father worked as a high school referee, she dated the quarterback.
She attends most Gophers practices, a football den mother armed with a Rolodex that contains background information on every player. She scrolls through the cards to learn facts about players so that she can connect with them on a more personal level off the field.
Many of the players refer to her as "Mom," and over the years she's helped counsel a few who were dealing with serious emotional issues. Rebecca recently spotted a group of players eating in the student union and stopped for a 10-minute conversation.
"She is the team mom," junior safety Brock Vereen said. "She's everywhere."
Lifestyle, not an occupation
A balanced life and coaching football are mutually exclusive. Coaching at this level is a lifestyle, not an occupation. It requires long hours at the office, personal sacrifices and a very understanding wife, someone who accepts that her husband spends more time with his players than his own family. The Kills admit the first few years of marriage were difficult.
"She had to figure out whether she really wanted to do it," Jerry said. "At the same time, I had to do some changing on my part to make sure we stayed married. I've always competed my whole life. Like my father used to say, 'You love that girl, you've got to bend a little bit.'"
As Jerry climbed the coaching ladder, Rebecca ran the household, managed the finances and handled most of the parenting duties with their daughters, who were active in sports. Jerry's contract with the Gophers pays him $1.2 million annually, but he didn't reside in that tax bracket coaching at lower levels so Rebecca also had to work to help support the family.
"Even when the girls were going through high school, I can count on one hand the number of games Rebecca missed on Saturday," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, a member of Kill's staff for 18 years. "She's loved the game. If you don't love the game, it's going to put a strain on your relationship at some time just because we work so many hours."
Kill regrets missing important events and everyday functions in his daughters' lives, which is why he created a family-friendly atmosphere as a head coach. His daughters hung around practices growing up, and his assistants' wives and children are always welcome at the facility. Jerry and Rebecca often attend the sporting events of his assistant coaches' kids.
"We truly got in it because we love coaching," Jerry said. "You really have to have a special wife that understands it. Both of you grow as the years go by. You understand the profession more and more."
Wife with a long reach
Rebecca has used each career stop as an opportunity to support different philanthropic causes dear to the couple's heart. She helps organize several charity events and spends her Monday mornings rocking babies in the Amplatz Children's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. She enlisted close friend Karen Kaler, wife of university president Eric, to join her in the Mother Goose volunteer program.
"If a baby is really having a fussy day, it's good to have somebody just to hold them and rock them," Karen Kaler said. "We both rock babies."
Jerry credits Rebecca for helping save one of his former players at a different school years ago. The player battled drug and emotional problems and had wandered off from campus. Jerry and the team chaplain eventually found him by a lake and brought him back to the Kills' home.
Jerry counseled him until 2a.m. Unable to stay awake any longer, he asked Rebecca to switch off and keep an eye on him. The player opened up to Rebecca in a conversation that lasted several hours. He sought professional help the next day and returned to school the following semester.
"I think I was just able to listen to him, and I told him that, 'You can do this,'" Rebecca said.
Rebecca keeps a watchful eye over her husband, too. She monitors his health with his doctors and makes sure he's getting enough exercise, taking his medicine, maintaining a proper diet and generally keeping good care of himself. Jerry interrupted his wife when she denied that she nags in that regard.
"I guess I do," she admitted, laughing. "It's not because I want to drive him nuts. It's because I care and I love him."
Jerry just smiled. He might project an old-school toughness, but he knows he'd be lost without the woman he vowed to marry the first time they met three decades ago.
"Coach has told me on a number of occasions, if something happens, don't call a doctor or 911," said Dan O'Brien, director of football operations. "Call Rebecca."
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