MINNEAPOLIS — As Jerry Kill enters his third year at the University of Minnesota, so too does his entire coaching staff. But for nearly every coach, the bond dates back many years before Kill stepped foot in Dinkytown.
Including the 2013 season, Kill’s assistants have a combined 124 years on his staff between 10 coaches and coordinators. There’s a sense of loyalty — of Kill’s assistants for him, and vice versa — that is tough to break. It’s evident when his coaches speak glowingly of their boss, although their relationship makes it feel as if Kill is not a boss at all but one of them.
Many of his coaches have been with him over a decade and are perfectly content with where they’re at in their careers, even though various job offers have come their way. There’s a reason so many assistants have stuck with him through the years when many have had opportunities to coach elsewhere.
The simple explanation: it all starts with Kill.
“We always say, we don’t really work for Coach Kill, we work with Coach Kill,” said Pat Poore, the Gophers’ wide receivers coach. “I think that’s a pretty neat thing.”
If anyone on the Gophers’ staff knows Kill well, it’s Eric Klein. This is his 20th season on Kill’s staff, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Minnesota’s strength and conditioning coach has been with Kill since the beginning, all the way back to 1994 when Kill took over as the head coach at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan. Klein had just finished his playing days at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. His defensive coordinator at Carleton was teammates with Kill at Southwestern College and knew Kill was looking to assemble a young staff at Saginaw Valley State.
Klein’s name was given to Kill, and the two have been together ever since. As Kill has gone from school to school — from Saginaw Valley State to Minnesota, with three stops in between — Klein has moved right along with him.
“He had got to Emporia (State), and within a week he goes, ‘Hey, I need you to coach. You’re going to be my strength guy. Less coaching, more strength and conditioning,'” Klein said. “It was a good fit. It’s always been that way, ‘Hey, I’m going to Minnesota. Will you be my strength guy at Minnesota?’ It’s like, ‘Yes.’
“It’s an easy sell for me.”
Rob Reeves has something the rest of Kill’s coaches don’t have: playing experience under Kill.
Reeves, currently the Gophers’ tight ends coach, was a quarterback at Saginaw Valley State. He began his playing days in 1991, which meant he was still playing when Kill took over as the head coach — his first college head coaching gig — in 1994.
After Reeves graduated, he knew he wanted to coach but wasn’t sure where or at what level. That’s when he met with Kill in an exit interview of sorts to discuss the recent graduate’s future. Kill offered him a job helping coach the quarterbacks as a graduate assistant, a position he held for three years until Kill left for Emporia State after the 1998 season.
Naturally, when Kill moved, Reeves followed.
“I played for him, and he’s raised me in the profession, so I’ve learned pretty much everything from him,” Reeves said. “I’ve never had to interview in my life.”
Asked if he’s ever fired a coach in his 20 years as a head coach, Kill pauses a moment to think. He draws a blank because he can’t recall ever having to do such a thing.
“When you coach for as long as I have, there’s difficult decisions you have to make,” he said. “The way I look at it, it’s my responsibility. If our coaches and players don’t perform, they need to fire me. I’m the one that hired them. I’m the one that’s teaching them. I’m the one that’s coaching them. I’m the guy at the top.”
Seven of Kill’s coaches have been on his staff for at least 13 years. Three of those seven — Poore, running backs coach Brian Anderson and defensive backs/special teams coach Jay Sawvel — joined the staff when Kill took over at Southern Illinois in 2001.
At that time, Southern Illinois was in shambles. The football program was in jeopardy of being dropped. But thanks to Kill and his dedicated staff, the Salukis turned things around in a hurry. They were 1-10 in Kill’s first year and went 10-2 just two seasons later before eventually winning 12 games in 2007, his final year at the helm.
Having that success together after going through such a trying time early on helped to strengthen the core of Kill’s coaching staff.
“I doubt that probably anybody wanted to work at Southern Illinois when we first worked there,” said Sawvel, who took a pay cut from his job at Ferris State to join Kill at Southern. “That place was in the dumps. But we’re all appreciative, because he worked hard to get a lot of things for the program and he worked hard to get a lot of things for us as coaches there. He worked hard to better our lives when we were there.”
Kill’s selflessness is frequently mentioned by his assistants, who have constantly been the benefactor of Kill fighting hard for them when he perhaps didn’t do enough for himself. No matter where he’s coached, Kill has looked out for his assistants and his players as if they were family.
Because truly, after so many years together, these coaches have indeed become a football family.
Many of them started out as young, single guys and have since gotten married and started families of their own. When Klein’s first daughter was born, Kill and his wife, Rebecca, were among the first people to congratulate Klein and his wife on their new addition..
It’s not just his coaches Kill looks after, either. A similar situation took place recently when Paul Rovnak, the Gophers’ assistant director of athletic communications, welcomed his first son earlier this year. Kill somehow found a way to contact Rovnak and his wife in the hospital to offer his congratulations before the baby was born.
“That’s just the way he is,” Klein said. “That’s what makes it easy to work for him.”
Moving up the ladder of college football doesn’t come without its trials and tribulations. That was evident at Southern Illinois, when Kill and his staff inherited a program on the ropes. They underwent another rebuilding project at Northern Illinois, although that program was in much better shape than Southern.
Now at Minnesota, that same group that worked wonders at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois is hoping to do the same with a Gophers team that hasn’t won a Big Ten championship in more than 40 years.
“We want to win. We’re not trying to (say), ‘Hey, the band’s together, let’s just play a tune,'” Sawvel said. “We’re trying to win big here. It’s not something that we’re all sitting around and just telling stories for the last 12 years. We’re moving forward. We’re trying to win. We’re trying to get this program better.”
Yet for all the on-the-field struggles the staff has endured, there have been emotional roller coasters off it as well. Among those has been Kill’s health. It’s been well-documented that he has a seizure disorder and suffered a seizure on the sidelines of a game in his first year at Minnesota in 2011.
It’s something the 51-year-old Kill has dealt with during his coaching tenure, and his assistants have grown closer as a result.
“Whenever you see your boss with a health issue … it’s not like he’s separate from us,” Sawvel said. “He’s a part of us. We’re a part of him. When he’s had a health issue or anything like that, you also are aware of his wife, his two daughters. There’s a human element far more to it.
“I think through time, you have a loyalty and you have a responsibility that ultimately, our job is to please the head coach.”
Kill’s coaches genuinely enjoy coming to work every day. They know what they’re going to get from Kill, and he knows what to expect out of each and every assistant. There’s no mystery involved, and that’s the way they like to run things. Knowing each other as well as they do, the coaches feed off of each other in practices, on game days and even on the recruiting trail. That sort of continuity is something that can’t be forced.
There will surely be a day when some of Kill’s assistants might want to move on to other jobs or will make a decision that’s best for their family. For some that may be tough because of the loyalty they feel for Kill.
But Kill is loyal to his coaches and will do whatever is best for them — even if it’s not the best thing for him.
“I don’t want to ever lose a coach because we didn’t step up to the plate and take care of our coaches. I’ll take less money to save a coach, any day of the week,” Kill said. “I’m sure we’ve got guys that want to be head coach. They know that I would go to the end of the world to help them do anything they’d like to do.”