Minnesota coach Kill retiring amid medical concerns
Minneapolis — Minnesota coach Jerry Kill abruptly and tearfully retired Wednesday, saying his epilepsy had become too draining for him to continue his exhaustive effort to turn the program into a Big Ten power.
Kill told his staff and his players of his heart-wrenching decision in early-morning meetings. Then he sat behind the podium used for post-game press conferences and spoke, his Kansas drawl quivering often, for nearly a half-hour about just how hard it will be for him to stop coaching.
“I ain’t done anything else. That’s the scary part,” Kill said, pausing several times to keep from breaking down.
Kill said he had two seizures this week and went to practice Tuesday anyway, hoping he could still make this work. But the toll on his body, his mind and his family had become too big. Kill said he hasn’t slept more than three hours on any night over the last three weeks.
“I went through a bad situation two years ago, and I’m headed right back there,” Kill said.
His wife, Rebecca, has been staying up all night to monitor him in case of another seizure.
“Hell, that ain’t no way to live,” Kill said.
Kill missed at least a portion of five games in his first three seasons at Minnesota due to seizures, including one that occurred on the field against New Mexico State in the 2011 home opener and another during halftime against Michigan State the following year. He also had game-day seizures in 2001 and 2005 as the coach at Southern Illinois.
Kill took a leave of absence in 2013 to address his condition, spending time with a specialist in Michigan that clearly helped him make progress in dealing with the disorder. Kill even said in July that he had been seizure-free for the previous 18 months and was able to make it through the entire 2014 season without one.
The 54-year-old Kill had a career record of 156-102 as a head coach, 29-29 in four-plus seasons at Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, one of Kill’s many trusted assistants for the last 21 years, will be the interim head coach for the rest of the season. University President Eric Kaler and interim athletic director Beth Goetz will soon discuss the search process for a permanent replacement.
Claeys filled in for Kill in 2013, leading the Gophers to a 4-3 record with wins over Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana.
The Gophers (4-3) have returned from a bye week to prepare for a critical game against 15th-ranked Michigan on Saturday night. Kill’s retirement came just three days after Minnesota Timberwolves executive and coach Flip Saunders, a former Gophers basketball star, died of complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Kill, whose seizure at Southern Illinois in 2005 led doctors to discover he had kidney cancer, said the death of Saunders was on his mind as he made the difficult decision. Major college football, as conference colleagues like Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio can attest, can be highly stressful.
Kill came to the conclusion that living a healthy life with epilepsy and building a program to the best of his ability were mutually exclusive paths.
“It’s a big monster. I don’t think there’s any question about that. It can wear you out,” Kill said.
Kill’s retirement is a setback for a long-struggling program that has been trying to re-establish itself as a consistent Big Ten winner since the 1960s. Kill never won a bowl game, but his pattern of quickly rebuilding programs established first at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois was repeated at Minnesota and highlighted by an 8-5 finish last season. That included a 5-3 mark in the Big Ten for the Gophers’ first winning record in conference play since 2003 and an appearance in the Citrus Bowl for their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.
Kill signed a contract extension in August that raised his pay to $2.5 million per season. The deal included language covering the university in case of health-related absences and allows Kill to “transition” to another position in the athletic department at a substantially reduced salary.
For now, Kill was just trying to get his head around the end of his life’s work.
Earlier this year, Kill and his wife partnered with the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota on a new “Chasing Dreams” fund geared toward helping children with epilepsy.
“I’ve been trying to just kind of survive this situation,” Kill said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Tuesday during the Big Ten conference call spoke highly of Kill, who coached against Harbaugh’s father, Jack. Kill was coaching at Southern Illinois and faced Harbaugh’s Western Kentucky teams in 2001 and 2002. Harbaugh won both of those meetings and went on to win the 2002 I-AA national title.
“You see it in all phases, speaking from my perspective, in his football team,” said Harbaugh when asked why he respects Kill. “They play the game like the game’s supposed to be played.
“Everything my dad’s always talked about — it’s great, honest, fair competition when you play a Jerry Kill-coached football team. I see it the way they cover kicks, the way they execute their schemes and the effort they play with.
“My dad gets such joy and amusement with the competition he had with coach Kill. He said one year they were trying to out-power each other. They must have run combined over 50 power plays. It was a game within the game to see who could run power most. It’s heart-warming. The Harbaugh family has a deep abiding respect for coach Kill and his abilities.”
Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit News contributed.