Gophers coach Jerry Kill took an indefinite leave of absence Thursday to focus on his epilepsy treatment, leaving the program without its leader at the midpoint of the season and during a key period for recruiting.
Athletic Director Norwood Teague said there is no timetable for Kill’s return.
“Jerry will return when he feels it is best to do so,” Teague said. “This was coach Kill’s decision. He knows what is best for himself and for his family.”
The Gophers have a bye this weekend, and acting head coach Tracy Claeys said it’s possible Kill could return for the team’s next game, Oct. 19 at Northwestern.
Kill, 52, has missed parts of four games in three years at Minnesota because of seizures, including two this year. He suffered a seizure on the sidelines at halftime of the team’s Sept. 14 victory over Western Illinois and missed the trip to Michigan last weekend.
“For the first time in his career, he didn’t make it to game day,” Claeys said. “I know he does not want that to happen again.”
In his statement, Kill thanked everyone for their thoughts and prayers.
“This was a difficult decision to make, but the right decision,” Kill said in the statement. “… I look forward to returning to the Minnesota sideline on a full-time basis soon.”
Kill, who has a seven-year contract through 2017 that pays him $1.2 million annually, is trying to rebuild a program that has not had a winning Big Ten record since 2003. The Gophers are 4-2, including 0-2 in the Big Ten, coming off losses to Iowa and Michigan.
Head coaches cannot make recruiting visits during the season, but the Gophers have several assistants on the road this week, trying to persuade kids to come play for Kill. Each year, those efforts intensify during a bye week, but Teague downplayed the effects that Kill’s leave could have on recruiting.
“I think we can overanalyze that,” Teague said. “If I was really worried about that, I’d tell you. … I think kids are inspired by Jerry’s story, and I think they’ll be inspired by the fact he’s taking time to look into it in an even greater way.”
A cumulative effect
Epilepsy is a disease that affects nearly 3 million Americans, according to the National Epilepsy Foundation, which reports that nearly 70 percent of the patients with the disease can become seizure-free with the right medication.
Kill’s epilepsy was first diagnosed in 2005 after he suffered a seizure on the sidelines while coaching at Southern Illinois. After another seizure forced Kill to miss the second half against Michigan State last November, he began working with Dr. Ilo Leppik, an epileptologist from MINCEP Epilepsy Care, a Level-Four treatment center in Minneapolis.
Seizures come in many forms, but the ones with the stiffening and jerking of limbs — as Kill suffered against Western Illinois and in 2011 against New Mexico State — are known as tonic-clonic seizures. They used to be called grand mal seizures.
“With the individual seizures of the sort he has, there’s increasing evidence that over decades there’s a cumulative effect,” said Dr. Thomas Sutula, chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Wisconsin. “But it doesn’t happen in everybody.
“There was a tendency in the medical community and the epilepsy advocacy community to say, ‘Oh, you know, you don’t have to let this get you down. It’s nothing.’ Well, they have a cumulative effect. That’s a more modern viewpoint. That’s why [patients] try to get control.”
Sutula also said evidence shows that “sleep deprivation and irregular hours contribute to seizures becoming more frequent.” Those are common challenges for college football coaches. Still, as a past president of the American Epilepsy Society, Sutula is among those pulling for Kill.
“We’re encouraging people who have these [seizures] to go out and live a normal life,” Sutula said. “And he’s a productive guy, right? You don’t want to stop him from doing that.”
Kill has suffered other seizures at Minnesota, beyond the four that have kept him from parts of games. He spent time undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic in September 2011, after having a seizure the morning after a game, but he was back at practice the following Wednesday.
He had a seizure on the flight home from Northwestern in November 2011 and another one after last year’s Northwestern game.
‘A big step’
Teague declined to say whether Kill would be leaving his home for the next phase of his treatment.
“They’re trying new things all the time,” Teague said. “And in trying new things, you’re trying to come up with the right formula, and that’s what they’re in the middle of doing. It’s nothing radical, but it’s just a new approach because it’s a very complicated condition.”
Claeys, who has worked under Kill for 19 years, including the past three as the Gophers defensive coordinator, said it’s been tough over the years to get Kill to take a two-day vacation. So the news that Kill was ready to focus exclusively on beating epilepsy came as good news to the coaching staff, Claeys added.
“He has made the decision to try this before, and as he’s felt better, he’s put it off,” Claeys said. “So it’s a big step for him.
“I tell people all the time, he loves the University of Minnesota, loves the state of Minnesota. I mean, he’s had a great time here. And by him missing that game, finally, I just think he said, ‘Hey, I want to be here a long time. I need to look into this and do what’s required of me.’ ”
Kill will remain in close contact with the team, mostly via cellphone with Claeys. But asked whether Kill would still be doing things like breaking down film, Teague said, “I hope he will not do a lot of that. I think it’s time to stay really focused and zeroed in on his condition. So the more he does less of that, I think the better.”
Teague made it clear he won’t rush Kill to a decision about his long-term future, saying he’ll take it “day by day.” Teague also said, “Our support for coach Kill is unwavering.” University President Eric Kaler in a statement added, “I eagerly look forward to coach Kill’s return and wish him all the best.”