ANN ARBOR, MICH. – Last winter, many of the biggest names in Minnesota hockey attended a charity dinner benefiting disabled sled hockey players. There was hockey royalty, and there were good-hearted people who had taken an interest in the sport, and there was … Jerry Kill.
The Gophers football coach came over, introduced his wife, and chatted. Why was he the only non-hockey celebrity in the crowd? He said he liked Pat Fallon, the founder of the Minneapolis advertising agency sponsoring the event. Kill just wanted to help.
He’s that kind of guy.
The last time I spoke with Kill 1-on-1, after a recent weekday practice a few days after he suffered a seizure during a game at TCF Bank Stadium, he was upbeat and determined to gain control of his condition. The conversation was off the record, but it was telling that he eventually steered it toward charitable endeavors.
Even under duress, facing the challenge of coaching at the peak of his career while suffering frequent epileptic seizures, he’s that kind of guy.
All week leading up to Saturday’s game at Michigan, Kill spoke of his desire for his first signature victory at the University of Minnesota. He talked about visiting Michigan Stadium when he was coaching Division II Saginaw Valley State. He was prepared Saturday to coach at The Big House for the second time as the Gophers coach.
He suffered a seizure Saturday morning. He did not make it to the sideline.
Kill grew up poor in rural Kansas. He became the first member of his family to graduate from college, and he tossed in a minor in biology as he earned his education degree.
He became a successful head coach at Saginaw Valley State, then took a step backward in his career by taking the Emporia State job to be close to his ailing father in Kansas.
He’s that kind of guy.
After his father passed, Kill became the head coach at Southern Illinois, then Northern Illinois. In 2010, he took Northern Illinois to TCF Bank Stadium to play the University of Minnesota, then coached by Tim Brewster. Kill’s team whipped Brewster’s, 34-23.
That game helped lead to Brewster’s ouster, and positioned Kill so that when Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi missed on his preferred candidates, he recalled positive memories of Kill’s sideline acumen and feisty personality.
Kill took over a lousy program made worse by Brewster’s incompetence. His most loyal backers love to say that he has the program on the right track, but that’s a leap of faith. No one knows whether Kill, or any mortal coach, can win at Minnesota any time soon. It’s difficult to even compare Kill to other Big Ten coaches. He has a tougher job than most.
What we’ve learned in his three seasons with the Gophers is that Kill owns a backbone, and a heart. He represents the university well when dealing with the public, and Minnesota high school coaches. Whatever becomes of his coaching career, he has proved himself a grand overachiever in life.
Saturday, for the second time in four games, Kill could not do his job because of his condition. For the first time at Minnesota, he missed an entire game, as the Gophers lost 42-13 at Michigan. He is 0-2 in the Big Ten this season and 4-14 in conference play since he arrived at Minnesota.
In August, Kill told the Star Tribune: “You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game. I mean, I’m not stupid, I realize that. If I was doing those things, the university wouldn’t have to fire me. I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it.”
Kill is being paid $1.2 million a year, a sum he couldn’t have imagined when he entered coaching, to be the face of a massive university. He knows he has to be on the sideline, and in front of recruits, to do his job well.
If he can’t find a way to perform his duties, and if his doctors can’t find a way to more effectively help him, I do believe he will eventually walk away.