Another seizure knocked Gophers football coach Jerry Kill to the ground Saturday, but by Monday afternoon, he was back at work, riding a fresh wave of support from athletic director Norwood Teague and countless others.
Kill has epilepsy, a condition that affects nearly 3 million Americans, and Teague made it clear he has no concerns about the coach’s ability to lead.
“I support him 100 percent,” Teague said at a Monday news conference. “He’s an epileptic. He has seizures. We deal with it and we move on. If I felt like it was affecting things, it would be different.”
Kill is expected to participate Tuesday in his weekly news conference. While some fans and critics have suggested Kill should resign for health reasons, others have praised him since Saturday, when he suffered his third in-game seizure in three years as Gophers coach.
Bob Stein, a local attorney and two-time former All-America linebacker for the Gophers, said via e-mail, “The bottom line for me is one question, ‘Is he performing competently?’ … He has done a very good job, in my opinion, rescuing and righting a football program riddled with incompetent leadership and coaching for 10 years.”
Stein has been critical of Kill’s predecessor, Tim Brewster, along with former Gophers AD Joel Maturi.
“They had no teaching, no culture, no integrity, no discipline, terrible institutional support and really bad players when [Kill] arrived,” Stein said. “They are more talented, better coached, and much more disciplined on and off the field.”
‘Not just about Saturdays’
Teague drove Kill’s wife, Rebecca, to the hospital on Saturday, then returned to TCF Bank Stadium to be with the players. He spent time after the game talking to fans and waited to comment to the media until Monday.
“I believe more than ever that [Kill] truly represents what’s great about college athletics, and he is a tremendous role model for our student-athletes,” Teague said.
The Gophers went 3-9 and 6-7 in their first two years under Kill, finishing 2-6 in the Big Ten both seasons. They are 3-0 this year, heading into Saturday’s final nonconference game against San Jose State.
“Jerry’s job is not just about Saturdays,” Teague said. “He is evaluated on multiple criteria, including academic progress and character development of our student-athletes. What he provides to these young men in terms of leadership on a daily basis is immeasurable.”
Teague reiterated that he doesn’t think Kill’s seizures have hurt the Gophers in recruiting.
“We’ve never had a kid say anything about it,” Teague said. “I think if anything, parents and prospective student-athletes really are inspired and impressed by his story.”
Gaelin Elmore, a tight end from Somerset, Wis., who has given a verbal commitment to the Gophers, was among the recruits at Saturday’s game.
“I know it’s not the first time it’s happened,” Elmore said of Kill’s seizure. “But Coach Kill’s always been open with me, and I’m sure he’s been open with everyone else about his epilepsy. He doesn’t worry about it. He’s really open about it. He sometimes jokes about it, so it’s definitely not a concern for me, if it’s not a concern for him.”
Kill has had a seizure at halftime in two of the Gophers’ past five games, dating to last Nov. 24 against Michigan State.
He also had one in 2011 in the waning moments of a loss to New Mexico State and another not long after a loss to Northwestern Oct. 13 of last season.
But Teague isn’t ready to conclude that the stress of game day is unmanageable for Kill.
“Experts will tell you that epilepsy is a tricky thing,” he said. “You work with your medications … but there’s no irrefutable evidence that it’s stress or what goes into it.”
Since first being diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005, Kill has worked with various doctors to limit or eliminate his seizures. About 70 percent of the people with epilepsy can become seizure-free with proper medication, according to the National Epilepsy Foundation.
Kill began seeing a new epileptologist last November, Dr. Ilo Leppik, who works closely with Rebecca Kill to help monitor her husband’s progress.
“He looks better than he’s ever looked,” Teague said. “That’s because of the lifestyle changes. He’s working out more and eating better.”
Kill said in an interview this summer, “I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it.” Asked if he and Kill have discussed a scenario where the seizures simply become too much to continue, Teague said, “We have not, and I don’t expect Jerry to bring any of that up to me. I mean, he’s a competitor, and he is a great coach, and I have full faith that we can move forward with the program.”
Gregg Doyel, a national columnist for CBSSports.com, wrote a piece Saturday questioning whether it should be Kill’s decision to continue coaching.
“People die from epileptic seizures,” Doyel wrote. “It’s called Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP), and according to EpilepsyFoundation.org, it happens to about one in 1,000 epilepsy sufferers per year. But the odds go way up for people who, like Kill, have more frequent seizures — as high as one in 150 people.”
Vicki Kopplin, the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota’s executive director, refuted this point, noting Kill goes long stretches between seizures, while others with epilepsy have up to 100 seizures per day.
“I was really, really concerned about the reference to SUDEP in relation to Coach Kill; I find it very irresponsible,” Kopplin said. “People do die from SUDEP, but to my knowledge, nobody has ever died from SUDEP while receiving medical treatment.”
Kopplin was in Rebecca Kill’s suite at TCF Bank Stadium when Kill’s seizure struck Saturday.
“They have a seizure plan of action, and it was beautifully executed,” Kopplin said. “Everybody did exactly what they needed to do — the players, the coaches, the university, Rebecca, their daughter, Krystal — and there was a positive outcome.”
By that, Kopplin meant the 29-12 victory over Western Illinois, which came after the Gophers led only 7-6 at the time of Kill’s halftime seizure.
“Look at the way our kids operated in the second half, and the way his assistants don’t miss a beat moving forward,” Teague said. “All in all, it’s a well-oiled machine.”
Leppik, who can’t comment on Kill’s specific medical situation, is a former president of the American Epilepsy Society.
“My hope is that someday, people with epilepsy will be judged not by the nature of their seizures, but by the character of their lives,” Leppik said via e-mail. “In this, coach Kill has succeeded. He has destigmatized epilepsy to the point that not only did the game go on with little disruption, but it ended in victory.”