Gophers’ Kill retires due to health reasons, Claeys named interim head coach
MINNEAPOLIS — The seizures had returned for Jerry Kill.
Perhaps hoping he could still mesh his demanding, pressure-filled job as Minnesota’s head football coach with his epilepsy, Kill guided the Gophers through one more practice on Tuesday. He was pleased with this week’s game plan for Michigan, yet he knew as he walked off the field what his heart-wrenching decision would be.
He was done coaching. The toll epilepsy took on his body, his mind and his family had become too much to bear for someone trying to turn around an FBS program.
"I feel like a part of me died," Kill said.
The 54-year-old football lifer reluctantly and tearfully retired on Wednesday, halfway into his fifth season at Minnesota. The drain of his condition and the related medication was clashing with his exhaustive effort to transform the Gophers into a Big Ten power.
"I don’t have any more energy," Kill said. "None."
Millions of people with epilepsy lead healthy, normal lives, but coaching major college football is not healthy, normal living.
"I don’t want to be a liability. I don’t want somebody to have to worry if I’m going to drop on the field. I don’t want to coach from the press box. I want to coach the way I’ve coached my whole life," Kill said during a half-hour news conference, his Kansas drawl quivering often and his wife fighting back tears nearby.
Kill told the team in early morning meetings, five days before a critical game for the Gophers (4-3, 1-2) against the 15th-ranked Wolverines. The players wept, too.
"You’re so sad, because there’s never going to be another day when you’re going to go out to practice and you’ll have coach Kill behind you," quarterback Mitch Leidner said.
Kill missed at least a portion of five games in his first three seasons at Minnesota due to seizures, including one that occurred on the field against New Mexico State in the 2011 home opener. Episodes also occurred on game days at Southern Illinois, where one led to a diagnosis of kidney cancer in 2005. He was on the road recruiting five days after surgery, and the disease was soon in remission.
Kill’s ability to give his all to the job was tested again in 2013, when a recurrence of seizures forced him to take a leave of absence and see a specialist. Progress was made. Kill lost weight, slept more, ditched his Diet Coke habit and recommitted to regular exercise.
Last season, while the Gophers were on their way to an 8-5 finish, their best Big Ten record in 11 years and their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962, Kill looked as relaxed and fit as ever. In July, Kill said he had been seizure-free for the previous 18 months.
Medication sometimes left him foggy, though, and Kill said Wednesday he stopped taking one of his drugs before games against his doctor’s advice so he could coach with a clearer mind. That, and the stress of a so-far disappointing season, made him more vulnerable to seizures.
He had two of them, just in the last few days. He said the most he’s slept in a night over the last three weeks was three hours.
"I went through a bad situation two years ago, and I’m headed right back there," Kill said.
Kill’s wife, Rebecca, has had to monitor him around the clock in case of another episode.
"She stays there and sits in a chair and watches me. Hell, that ain’t no way to live. I’ve taken years off my life and hers. But we both say we’d do it again, wouldn’t we?" Kill said, turning to look at his wife, who nodded as she cried.
Kill had a career record of 156-102 as a head coach, 29-29 at Minnesota. Tracy Claeys, Kill’s longtime defensive coordinator, will be the interim coach after going 4-3 in 2013 during Kill’s absence from the sideline. University President Eric Kaler and interim athletic director Beth Goetz will soon discuss a search process for a permanent replacement, though Kill naturally expressed confidence in Claeys to be his successor.
"I ain’t done anything else. That’s the scary part," Kill said, pausing several times to keep from breaking down.
Claeys said he wants the job on a permanent basis, and he’ll run the team with that mindset the rest of the season, giving Kill some space rather than consulting him for advice.
"This is going to bother him for a while," Claeys said. "And he’s just not somebody that can let it go."
Earlier this year, Kill and his wife partnered with the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota on a new "Chasing Dreams" fund geared toward helping children with the disease. He’ll surely spend more time on that moving forward. For now, he was just trying to wrap his head around the end of his life’s work.
"I hate losing and I feel like I’m losing today. I just don’t know. It’s an empty feeling," said Kill, who signed a contract extension in August that raised his pay to $2.5 million per season.
The deal included an automatic termination clause if Kill were unable to fulfill his role for 45 consecutive days during the season. Kill can remain a university employee at an "agreed upon position" for $200,000 annually, and the athletics department would surely welcome his presence as a fundraiser.
But that will be determined another time. This day was for the emotion of the finality of it all. Ultimately, he realized his wife, daughters, brother and mother needed him more in the future than the Gophers.
"I stood by him through his episode two years ago and through some pretty harsh criticism and I thought it was the right thing to do then and it’s the right thing to support him now," Kaler said. "I will miss him and I’m very grateful for what he’s done and I look forward to knowing him for the rest of my life."