It’s the saddest type of coaching change. One not brought about by losses or age or the offer of a better job, but by health reasons. Jerry Kill’s health has constantly surrounded his coaching career. On Wednesday, it halted it.
Kill retired, effective immediately, as head coach of the Golden Gophers due to health reasons, the school announced. Associate head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will serve as interim head coach.
It is easy to become cynical about college sports, but Kill is a reminder of what they can and should be. He is a man who loves football and has a passion for leaving his players and programs better than he found them. It makes his unexpected retirement all the more tragic, even if it's unquestionably the correct decision.
“I’ve given every ounce that I’ve had for 32 years to the game of football and the kids I’ve been able to coach,” a tearful Kill said at his press conference Wednesday. He added, “When I walked off the practice field, I felt like a part of me died.”
Kill’s health first affected his career when he suffered a seizure in 2000 while serving as the head coach at Emporia State. In 2005, he was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 44 after suffering a second seizure while on the sidelines at Southern Illinois. Doctors also discovered that he had kidney cancer and removed a portion of his kidney. He has been in remission since.
After taking over at Minnesota in 2011, Kill suffered seizures during each of his first three seasons before going seizure-free last year. His assistants, many of whom have served under him since he coached at Saginaw Valley State from 1994 to ’98, developed a “seizure protocol” in which they divvied up his responsibilities until his was able to return to coaching. Claeys served as the acting head coach for seven games in 2013 when Kill stepped away from his head coaching duties to focus on treating his epilepsy.
Kill’s health seemed to be improving last year, as he coached the full season without issue. He told SI’s Jon Wertheim in December that he attributed it to getting his medication right as well as eating and sleeping better.
This coincided with the Gophers’ best season under Kill. Minnesota went 8–5 in 2014, including a 5–3 mark in conference play that earned the Gophers a tie for second in the Big Ten West. They rose to No. 22 in the AP poll and reached a bowl game for their third straight year, falling to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl. The progress earned Kill the Big Ten’s coach of the year award.
Unfortunately, Kill confirmed Wednesday that his seizures returned and said he went to practice Tuesday after having two seizures. “I probably wasn’t supposed to be there,” he said. Kill said he had avoided taking some of his medication because “I couldn’t think the way I wanted to think.” His doctors warned him that continuing to coach would jeopardize his long-term health.
Although the first half of the 2015 season failed to live up to expectations that Minnesota could compete for a Big Ten West title, it was still clear Kill had the program on an upward trajectory after taking over a team that went 3–9 in the year before he arrived. The Gophers improved from a 3–9 mark in Kill’s debut season to reach bowl eligibility each year after, the first time they had done so since 2004-06.
Kill worked his way up the many rungs of the coaching ladder with a track record of a program-builder. He took Division II Saginaw Valley State from 6–4 in his first year to 9–2 records in each of his last two seasons with the Cardinals. Southern Illinois went 1–10 in Kill’s debut campaign in 2001 before improving to 12–2 by his seventh season, reaching five straight FCS playoffs and winning three conference titles. Kill had similar success at Northern Illinois, improving the Huskies to 10–3 in his third season before taking the job at Minnesota.
He energized the Gophers program and became a face for the fight against epilepsy through his perseverance. Last year Kill and his wife, Rebecca, donated $100,000 to start the Chasing Dreams fund with the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota to fund “seizure-smart school initiatives” and Camp Oz, a camp specially designed for kids with epilepsy.
Kill’s passion for football is unwavering, but concerns about his own epilepsy simply became too much. “I want to coach the way I want to coach,” he said. “I don’t want to be a liability. I don’t want somebody to worry I’m going to drop on the field.”
Unfortunately, that means stepping away from his life’s work, which means embracing an unknown on top of confronting his health. “People are going to ask, ‘What are you going to do now?’” Kill said. “I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else.”
Perhaps, as Kill speculated, he’ll find an answer through Chasing Dreams.
“My wife and I started the Chasing Dreams fund to educate people about epilepsy and to make schools epilepsy smart,” Kill said in December. “People [with epilepsy] can be very successful, and they can do a lot of things. I'm not the only one. Sometimes we live in a selfish society, and if we could get back to the ‘we’ and caring about each other, we'd have a better country.”
That care that Kill showed for others throughout his career made him widely respected. So even as he makes the tough decision he clearly had to make, to watch him give up his passion is undoubtedly somber.
“I hate losing,” Kill said Wednesday. “I feel like I’m losing.”
When a man like him is forced to step away from the game, we all lose.