MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill likely won’t be on the sideline Saturday as his team takes on Northwestern.
The team announced last Thursday that Kill would continue take time to deal with his epilepsy and find the right balance of medications. The third-year Gophers coach missed Minnesota’s game against Michigan on Oct. 5 after suffering a seizure the morning of the game.
When the news was announced last week, it remained unclear as to when Kill would return. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, serving as the acting head coach in Kill’s absence, spoke with Kill on Monday night. He said Tuesday that he doesn’t believe Kill will return by Saturday.
“He’s feeling good,” Claeys said. “I don’t anticipate him being at the game at this time, but we’ll just have to see what happens. It was good to talk football with him.”
Kill has had five game-day seizures since taking over as the head coach prior to the 2011 season. Two of those have come this season, including one on the sideline at halftime of Minnesota’s game against Western Illinois. The other happened two weekends ago prior to the Michigan game. That seizure forced Kill to miss an entire game for the first time in his 20 years as a head coach.
The Gophers have endured plenty of ups and downs during Kill’s tenure, including his seizures. When the news came last Thursday that their head coach would be out indefinitely, it was yet another blow to Minnesota’s players. Yet they also realized the importance of Kill taking time away from the game to tackle his epilepsy head-on.
“He’s more than a coach. He’s a second father to most of us,” said senior safety Brock Vereen. “We know that this is the best thing for him, so we’re in full support of that.”
Claeys has mostly remained in contact with Kill’s wife, Rebecca, since Kill took his leave of absence. But the two coaches did talk about football Monday night as the 4-2 Gophers prepare to take on Northwestern on the road. Claeys was asked Tuesday if he knew if Kill planned to watch Saturday’s game on television.
“That’s a good question. I didn’t ask him at all,” Claeys said. “I’ve known him a long time and I can’t answer that question. I don’t know if he could sit there and watch it or not, or if he goes for his walk on the river and finds out what happens later. I’m not sure.”
Claeys will move from the press box to the sideline this weekend as he serves as the Gophers’ acting head coach. He’s the longest-tenured coach on Kill’s staff, having worked with Kill since 1995.
Given the coaching staff’s continuity — seven of Kill’s assistants or coordinators have been on his staff for at least 13 years — Minnesota’s players feel comfortable in practice and on game days even if Kill won’t be there with them.
“I don’t think it changes anything for us,” said freshman tight end Maxx Williams. “We know coach Kill has a situation and he’s moved forward. Coach Claeys is the head coach right now. All the coaches know what they’re doing. We’ll prepare the same way and we look forward to playing Northwestern this week.”
While the players insist practices have remained relatively the same with Claeys in charge, it will no doubt be different to once again play again without Kill on the sideline this Saturday. Currently sitting at 0-2 in the Big Ten, the Gophers need a win to spark their season.
If that wasn’t motivation enough, they’ll now be trying to win one for Kill, too.
“It’s something obviously that’s a big part of this team. He’s an awesome guy,” said sophomore center Jon Christenson. “He’s in our thoughts and prayers. But it’s one of those things where he’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met in my life. To see him have to take a little time off, it just drives us to get better and to keep going. As much as I pity him and I pray for him and I’m thinking about him, it’s one of those things where we are really excited to keep on going and keep chugging away.”