Words with ... Jerry Kill

Dec. 01, 2014
Dec. 01, 2014

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Dec. 1, 2014

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Words with ... Jerry Kill

Minnesota's football coach is working his turnaround magic with the Golden Gophers, and doing so while battling epilepsy

Minnesota was once a college football powerhouse—the school claims seven national championships from 1904 to '60. Alas, it's been almost a half century since the Gophers have won even a Big Ten title.

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2014 issue Original Layout

But after winning eight games last season for the first time since 2003, Minnesota is 8--3 heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at Wisconsin. And yet the happiest aspect of the season might be the improved health of fourth-year coach Jerry Kill. Diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005, Kill has suffered numerous seizures; last season they caused him to leave one game in the third quarter and miss all of another. His assistants have developed a "seizure protocol" in which they divide up his responsibilities until he is back at full strength.

The 53-year-old Kill hasn't had a seizure in more than a year. He spoke recently with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about his season, his health and his future.

What do you like best about your team this year?

They've been relentless. They've done what we've asked them to do. We've still got work to do. But we're getting better, and that's all we want to do: When you're building a program, just get better.

Your health is also better. What do you attribute that to?

A lot of it has to do with the medication I'm on, making sure I get sleep, eating right and having the right mixture of drugs that you have to take. I've been blessed.

What's been the biggest adjustment?

The sleep that you get. With recruiting year-round, you're going all the time. So you really don't have much time to get any rest.

I have trouble sleeping because my wheels are always turning. That's just how I'm wired. So I've really had to work at trying to get sleep. I was getting probably two or three hours of sleep a night for eight years, which is not good for anybody.

Was there a time when you said, I love football, but maybe I should look at career 2.0?

It wouldn't matter what I did—working at a gas station or working on a farm, I'd go a hundred miles an hour. So I never really thought about it.

You've been a public face for epilepsy recently. How big an adjustment has that been for you?

You always worry about the perception. Through opening up, I get calls from all over the country, [and] emails, pretty much every day. When you can help somebody, there's not a better feeling in the world.

What is your main message when you speak about your condition?

That I'm here to help you. My wife and I started the Chasing Dreams fund to educate people about epilepsy and to make schools epilepsy smart. 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.

Some of your assistant coaches have been with you for more than a decade. What has that loyalty meant to you?

It's been great. We all started off at [either] high school or Division II. I just felt like you always stay with the people who got you where you are. I think they feel loyalty to me for giving them opportunities. When you're turning programs around, it's good to have that continuity because they understand what to do, and you don't have to teach somebody.

How did that continuity express itself last season when you were not on the sideline?

[Associate head coach Tracy] Claeys was down on the field, I was up in the box. But we've been talking to each other for 20 years. Our staff just went on. I think a lot of people made it a big deal, but to our guys it wasn't. We were coaching the same way. The only thing is, I wasn't down there with the players. But, shoot, I'm down there every day throughout the week, so they know what to do.

It seemed like everyone from local columnists to the university president weighed in on the situation.

When things were difficult, people kind of rallied around it. And our team did. That was the most important thing. I appreciated everybody's support, not only from president Eric Kaler but also throughout the country. There were a lot of people who reached out that are very powerful people, some who have the same situation I have, but they keep it very quiet because of their profile. It made me feel good.

I think everybody's just nervous about how people perceive you and whether they will give you an opportunity. [At] Northern Illinois, [athletic director] Jim Phillips knew my situation. I think he would tell you he hired me because he feels like I can coach football. [Former AD] Joel Maturi hired me here. He knew the situation.

So I think the people who have given me opportunities, we've proved [to them] that we've been able to win football games.

You previously turned around Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. What is your long-term goal for Minnesota?

Our long-term goal is to continue to get better. Our mission is to win the Big Ten championship. It's not easy to do, but that's what our mission is. The next stage is, we haven't been to the Rose Bowl—I get reminded every day—since [1962]. So everybody wants to get that accomplished. The ultimate thing is to win it all. But we've got to take steps.

We have to improve our operating facilities, because in recruiting, that's what kids look at. So we're in the process right now of raising money. And we're looking forward to breaking ground here on a new indoor facility for academics and athletics.

What is it about turning around a program that appeals to you?

When I was at Emporia State, I had an opportunity to go with Gary [Patterson] to be the offensive coordinator at TCU. I also got offered the [head coaching] job at Southern Illinois. Gary said you [might] only get one chance to be a head coach; it's not easy to get in at the I-AA or Division I level. So I took that opportunity, and I told [former boss Dennis] Franchione, "This is a tough job."

He said, "Hey, you need to understand that's the only job you're going to get. Not a lot of people know who you are. You're going to have to go make a name for yourself."

Now I think we have a reputation: "Take a look at those guys. When programs are down, they can get them better." We've been in two bowl games; we're qualified for our third.

It's getting harder to turn programs around. People have to be more patient. That's hard in this business. But to get where we want to get, it's going to take six or seven years. It's just the way it is.

"Our mission is to win the Big Ten championship. The next stage is, we haven't been to the Rose Bowl— I get reminded every day—since [1962]."