Jerry Kill easing way back, will remain watching in press box

MINNEAPOLIS — There’s a parking spot outside of the Gibson-Nagurski football complex on the University of Minnesota campus that is reserved for the Gophers’ head football coach. It’s a spot that’s sat vacant for quite some time now.

Seizures have prevented third-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill from driving. He instead relies on his wife, Rebecca, or his assistant coaches to chauffeur him from place to place. But speaking to the media Tuesday for the first time in weeks, Kill said he hopes that his vacant parking spot will soon be in use once again.

“I’ll be driving in February,” Kill said adamantly. “I’m not going to say ‘I hope’ and ‘maybe.’ And I’m going to be driving that truck, too. As a matter of fact, I think I’m going to order the damn thing this week.”

Those same seizures that have prevented Kill from driving also forced him to leave the sideline as head coach, at least temporarily. He announced Oct. 10 that he would be spending time away from the team to focus on treatment for his epilepsy. Kill’s declaration that he’ll be driving in three months — the minimum time a Minnesota driver must wait to drive again after suffering a seizure — is an indication that he believes he finally has a handle on his epilepsy and his seizures.

For the time being, though, Kill will continue to cede the head coaching duties to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who has served as the acting head coach in Kill’s absence. Kill has been in attendance for each of Minnesota’s last two games — victories against Northwestern and Nebraska, respectively — but has watched from the press box and not the sideline.

That won’t change Saturday when the Gophers travel to Bloomington, Ind., to take on the Hoosiers. The superstitious Kill said he’ll be in the press box once again, looking on as his team fights for its seventh win of the year.

“My daddy always used to say if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it,” Kill said. “So I ain’t really going to fix anything. My ego ain’t that big. I just want to win.”

The fact that Kill addressed the media for the first time in weeks Tuesday is a sign that he’s starting to feel more like his normal self. He’s been around the team more and more, admitting that he was at each practice leading up to Minnesota’s upset of No. 24 Nebraska.

Yet Kill has learned during his time away from the game that he needs to take things slowly as he eases his way back into a full-time head coaching role. Many people from the football community have reached out to Kill over the last few weeks, including Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who took a leave of absence in 2012 when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“I won’t mention anybody else’s names, but there’s a lot of people that had different situations that have come back, and I’ve listened to those people,” Kill said. “I’ve got great professional advice from people that have been in the game. There’s a lot of ways to do things and win. I need to change a few things, and I’m doing it. I’m working on it.”

Kill has remained busy on the recruiting side of things, making sure the players who have already given their word to Kill are reassured that he plans to be at Minnesota for the foreseeable future. As he and his staff continue to work to turn the Gophers program around, Kill knows the importance recruiting plays in the rebuilding process.

As for Kill’s on-the-field input, he wouldn’t say just how hands-on he’s been in practice. He hasn’t had to yell as much since he’s taken a back seat, but his presence is still very much felt at Minnesota’s football complex.

“It’s just so great to have him out there and see him as his old self,” said senior defensive back Brock Vereen. “He’s still there giving us our pregame speech and halftime speech and postgame speech. The emotional factor and how we’re playing so inspired is all because of him.”

Kill didn’t have a timetable Tuesday on when he might return full-time to the head coaching position. In the meantime, Minnesota has had success on the field with big wins over Northwestern and Nebraska to become bowl eligible for the second straight year. While Kill wasn’t the one calling the plays on Saturday in the win against the Huskers, it was the system he put in place and his long-time coaching staff running the show, meaning Kill’s fingerprints were all over the win.

That’s why Kill and linebackers coach Bill Miller took a moment Saturday to soak in the scene as fans rushed onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium following the 34-23 victory. Perched high above the field in the press box, Kill had a unique vantage point of the festivities that he otherwise wouldn’t have had.

“We just stood up there and watched all the fans. I watched my wife about get run over,” Kill said. “I just felt good for the state of Minnesota and all the fans. As we walked down, you’re excited. But as a head coach your wheels are turning for the next week, really. You’re only as good as your last game in this business. 

“I’ve learned this: you only get so many moments in your lifetime. By gosh, you better enjoy them. So we enjoyed it.”

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