Minnesota defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys, left, here shaking hands with Michigan coach Brady Hoke, filled in for head coach Jerry Kill, who missed the game due to an epileptic seizure. (Tony Ding / Associated Press)
Ann Arbor — After spending time talking to University of Minnesota players and coaches, it is clear they love and respect their head coach Jerry Kill.
He comes off as a caring man who loves his guys and his program. Here, we have people who proclaim themselves to be Michigan men. Kill is a Minnesota man. He loves the university, the state and the 10,000 lakes they have there.
But he wasn’t there for his team through no fault of his own. Kill suffered another epileptic seizure Saturday prior to the Gophers' 42-13 loss to Michigan Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium. It was his fifth one in three seasons and first time he missed an entire game. Kill has been unable to finish three games because of his illness.
He did not feel well on Friday and planned to fly to Michigan for the game Saturday morning. That is when he suffered another seizure. He stayed home and players were notified at the team hotel before coming to the stadium for a walk-through.
Different strategy needed
Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague did the smart thing by saying he would not speculate on Kill’s future when contacted by ESPN. I would have played it the same way. Kill deserves to finish this season but Minnesota must find a new role for Kill or a new man to replace him.
This is not a call for his firing. This is not a column to shove him into the street because he deserves better. But football is a powerful sport and it means too much to too many people. The school needs to find a new head coach at the end of the season or have someone share coaching duties with Kill.
This new guy can be a co-coach or associate coach. I don’t care what you call him.
I will leave it to others to figure it out. If Minnesota wants to retain Kill in a valuable position, that is fine. But the program needs someone who can be there 24/7 to return this program to its glory. Head coaches are often front men whom alumni like while the grunts in the meeting rooms do most of the work.
“We know coach's situation and we know we have to be ready,” said tight end Maxx Williams. “All the coaches were prepared. I don’t think this changed anything. We know coach goes through some things. We don’t really let it affect us. We go on a business trip and try to win a game.”
The team received a letter from Coach Kill and his wife Rebecca to play hard and bring the Little Brown Jug back to him. The Gophers tried their best but they lack the talent and cohesion to do so.
Michigan was vulnerable but Minnesota could not boot the Wolverines off the field and simply wore down. Michigan converted 10-of-13 first downs and ran away during what was a close ball game at the half.
Even if Kill were standing on the sidelines it is doubtful Minnesota would have won.
Thrust into spotlight
But I wonder what is said about the program during the vicious recruiting wars, which is the life blood of any program.
Put yourself in the shoes of quarterback Mitch Leidner. A lot was thrown on his plate in a matter of a few hours. He was told he would start the second game of his career — first at Michigan Stadium. And when he looked around he saw 111,000 people who wanted to see him fail.
“I was like, holy bleep there are 111,000 people,” he said. “And they are all stacked together. It is a cool atmosphere.”
He needed to prepare for the Wolverines and he needed to play without his coach, who often becomes father figures to players.
“Even not being here he inspires us so much,” Leidner said. “He is going through so much and deep down we know he wants to be here. That makes us work harder. Unfortunately, we were not able to bring that jug back to him.”
Coaches are a fraternity. No one wants to see someone get fired. I am sure every coach on that staff would disagree with this column. I understand that. The question is can Minnesota ever become a Big Ten title contender under this system?
My guess is no.
Kill said he would be willing to walk away if the stress of the job became too much for him to enjoy good health. He must not only think about his health, but also the health of the program when this season is finished.