Realistically, there’s only one person who can decide whether Jerry Kill will continue as the University of Minnesota’s head football coach — and that’s Jerry Kill.
It’s well-known by now that Kill suffered his fourth gameday seizure in just over two seasons with the Gophers during halftime of Saturday’s win over Western Illinois. Athletic Director Norwood Teague, who accompanied Kill to the hospital, was right on Monday to reassert his support for the ailing coach, telling reporters: “Jerry is our coach. We are 100 percent behind him, and I am 100 percent behind him.”
There may come a time when Kill and his family, perhaps with Teague’s concurrence, decide that the pressures of big-time coaching pose too great a risk to his health, or that his disability is standing in the way of restoring prominence to a football program that has been dismal for decades. But that time hasn’t come, and may never come.
As Kill told the Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen last month, learning to manage one’s epilepsy is a long-term battle. He confessed that a seizure he suffered during halftime of last November’s Michigan State game had been a low point for him because he realized “you can’t be the head football coach and miss half of the game.” If that were happening all the time, “the university wouldn’t have to fire me,” Kill said. “I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it.”
But then, asserting his toughness, Kill said he couldn’t imagine walking away after overcoming so many setbacks in his life, including cancer, and still achieving a Big Ten coaching job.
Kill is, in many ways, an inspirational and courageous figure. Far from concealing his condition, he has been active in the community helping to improve understanding of epilepsy and encourage those who live with it to not let it narrow their dreams. As Teague pointed out, there’s far more to Kill’s job than Saturday games. His task is as much about building character and fostering academic success as it is about diagraming plays. In all phases, Kill has been an exemplary coach. The loyalty of his longtime assistant coaches speaks volumes.
For their part, the team’s fans seem to understand that it may take the remainder of Kill’s contract (five more years) to build a competitive team. At this point, they seem willing to give him a chance. Epilepsy was not in the script they had hoped for. But it’s possible to imagine that Kill’s coping with his illness while building a successful team could be just the heroic narrative that college football needs right now. The game is swimming in scandal and hypocrisy. If Frank Capra were still alive, he’d be pitching Kill’s story all around Hollywood.
Gophers’ followers should be aware, however, that there’s a darker possibility — perhaps probability. Fifty percent of a big-time college coach’s job is recruiting. Minnesota’s football futility (not having gone to a major bowl game since 1962) is legendary. That long losing streak alone ties an albatross around Kill’s neck when it comes to attracting good players.
And now there’s his epilepsy. It may go unspoken, but some high school players who might have considered Minnesota might now take the Gophers off their lists. They may admire Kill’s grit as a man but still wonder if he is the coach who can help them realize the full potential of their athletic gifts. Some rival coaches, or boosters for rival schools, will surely use Kill’s disease against him.
There’s not much Kill can do about that except to understand that he possesses the ability to teach his players something about life’s lessons that other coaches can’t teach, and to hope that talented young players are drawn to those lessons.
Jerry Kill was not near the top of the U’s list when it last went searching for a football coach. But now that he’s got the job, there’s no reason for him to give it up easily. We trust that he’ll know when or if to call it quits.