Northern Illinois came to TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 25, 2010, for the Gophers’ fourth non-conference game of Tim Brewster’s fourth season. There had been a humiliating loss to South Dakota, and then a respectable effort against Southern Cal, and a victory over NIU would have given Brewster a 2-2 record and to maintain a chance for survival entering the Big Ten schedule.
The Huskies had the Gophers’ defense flummoxed for most of that Saturday night and came away with a 34-23 victory. The play design that allowed running back Chad Spann to gain 223 yards on 15 attempts – 14.9 yards per carry – was beyond impressive.
I had run across occasional news items on Jerry Kill, the NIU coach, and almost always with a reference to his past “health problem.’’ It had been a big problem: kidney cancer in 2005.
There had been an issue early in the 2010 season at NIU, although it was not described as an epileptic seizure. “I think what was said publicly was that it was stress-related,’’ said Dave Mona, the Gophers’ booster who was with Athletic Director Joel Maturi during the search process for Brewster’s replacement.
Yes, Brewster was gone three weeks after the loss to NIU, and Maturi started preliminary work on his second search for a new football coach.
“We went to Atlanta and gave a list of coaches we were interested in to the search firm,’’ Mona said. “Jerry Kill was on that list. I can’t say where on the list, because it was alphabetical.’’
Considering the manner in which Maturi had screwed up his first football hire, with Brewster, we took as Gospel the speculation that he was being turned down hither and yon, and that Kill was a sixth or seventh choice.
We probably were wrong about that. In fact, watching that NIU team tear up the turf at the Bank a few months earlier, it seemed clear the Huskies were a well-coached team.
What made me most doubtful that the Gophers would settle on Kill was the health situation … meaning cancer, at that time.
And I have to say, while it was wrenching to watch Kill’s emotional retirement announcement early Wednesday morning, there was a sense of relief that this wasn’t the worst health news.
Maybe I’m alone, but when the information on Kill’s sudden retirement started to spread after 7 a.m., I had this thought:
Kill wouldn’t be doing this because of epilepsy. He has a handle on that. It has to be a reoccurrence of his cancer.
Immediately, I went on-line (a bad place for medical information, I agree) to read about what happens when kidney cancer returns. The prognosis wouldn’t cause you to go skipping down the sidewalk in joy.
Early in Wednesday’s announcement, Kill made it clear that he was stepping away because of renewed epileptic seizures– brought on, it seems, when the coach stopped following his doctor’s directives and ignoring his medication schedule.
We watched Jerry Kill function as a big-time football coach in 2014, when things were going good for the Gophers, when there were no serious setbacks with his program building, and he looked terrific physically from Week 1 through the Jan. 1 bowl game.
I went to three or so of his Tuesday media sessions and each time left saying to media colleagues: “Dang, he looks good. He’s slimmed down, he doesn’t have that ruddy color … he’s definitely handling this.’’
This season has been different. There have been setbacks --- the embarrassing effort against Kent State that resulted in a 10-7 victory, the shutout loss at Northwestern, and 11 days ago, the meltdown against a mediocre Nebraska team.
It appears that Kill can’t deal with setbacks. His public seizures at TCF Bank Stadium were in games the Gophers were in danger of losing to lowly teams (New Mexico State and Western Illinois).
It is a great thing for most coaches to reject the reality of setbacks, but obviously not good for a man who is willing to fudge on his epilepsy meds because he thinks it gives him a chance to get a better effort from his team.
We have a good hint from 2014 that Kill can handle his epilepsy, as long as he does what he’s supposed to do. As a reporter who didn’t see eye-to-eye with some of Kill’s poor-mouthing this season, and said so, I still like “Country Jer’’ as a guy, and from here …
Well, it’s good news that what he’s dealing with is his old rival epilepsy, and not a reoccurrence of that “other deal’’ (as he might say) from 10 years ago.