Still too soon to judge Kill after another seizure
Veteran coach Jerry Kill missed a game for the first time in his professional career on Saturday. Kill's Minnesota Golden Gophers lost to Michigan, 42-13.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Jerry Kill didn't show up for work on game day for the first time in his professional career. It wasn't his choice. That’s what has to be eating at Minnesota's coach right now.
On the same day Kill was informed he had kidney cancer eight years ago, a doctor asked him to come into his office. Kill declined, saying he had to meet some recruits. He later learned about his Stage 4 cancer over the phone according to the New York Times.
The past 25 years, the man worked his way from the Webb City (Mo.) High School to the Big Ten. A critic recently sent him an anonymous email calling him a "freak" for coaching while dealing with epileptic seizures.
"Anybody’s who's got the guts to do that, come see me," Kill said on his radio show last month. "I'll show you how damn tough I am."
Nothing was going to stop him, until it did Saturday at about 4 a.m. Back home in Minneapolis, Kill suffered his fifth seizure since becoming the Gophers' head coach in 2011. But this is the first time he has missed a game, this one a 42-13 loss to Michigan. If his affliction wasn't a national story before, it is now.
A lot of us are going to be asked to have an opinion on Kill's ability to do his job. But please, not now. It is, truly, too soon.
"I'm not going to speculate what's down the road," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said.
Why should he? What's the urgency? Teague inherited Kill, having gotten the job only 18 months ago. He's the guy who hired Shaka Smart at VCU. No one wants to be the person to tell Jerry Kill it isn’t going to work for reasons that have nothing to do with football.
This is unprecedented. It feels uncomfortable. Not because Kill has been writhing on the sidelines during some of his in-game seizures. Reality isn't always pretty, kids. Kill deserves our sympathy more than our judgment at the moment.
The availability of one of the country's hardest-working coaches is, essentially, day-to-day. Columnists have recently questioned Kill's ability to continue, as well as Teague's wisdom in continuing to employ him. But even those opinions have flaws. Minnesota hired Kill knowing about his condition. It was not something that surprised them.
Even if the school wanted to let him go, I'm no lawyer but there may be an issue with the Americans With Disabilities Act. There is also this reasonable question: If a player misses a practice -- no matter what the reason -- that eventually affects his playing time to some degree. Should Kill be held to the same standard?
Legally, can he?
Kill recently embraced his role as an advocate for those with his condition. As mentioned, he is as tough as asphalt. Acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was asked what his boss was feeling at the moment, having to miss the game.
"He's got to be extremely disappointed," Claeys said.
With the right mix of medication, Kill could beat this. The seizures started out of nowhere nine years ago. Could they disappear just as easily? Football seems to be some kind of stressor in the coach's life. In 2011, he collapsed on the sidelines against New Mexico State. Last month, it happened just after halftime of the Western Illinois game.
Football seems to be a stressor but Kill told ESPN's Rick Reilly that he's had 20 seizures in the last two years.
"The biggest sense that I've got is epilepsy is a moving target and I didn’t know that until the last year," Teague said before the Michigan game. "I do know that if you really work at it … it can be controlled to a degree."
Some guys are coaching for their jobs this time of year. On Saturday, Jerry Kill couldn't even make his case.
"He takes care of your family. He's a guy you can trust," said quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. "That's why you bust your ass for him. Coach Kill's awesome to work for. He just gets it."
The loyalty factor is off the charts -- both ways. Kill doesn't get rid of assistants and they don't leave him. Minnesota’s assistants have a combined 124 years of experience with Kill. Nationally, there's not a close second. Seven of Kill's 10 coaches have been with him at least 13 years. Strength coach Eric Klein has been with him two decades.
They finish each other's playbooks. Only KISS has been together longer.
"None of us are mercenaries, guns for hire," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
He added that by the time they'd all moved to Minnesota, the coaches had been used to the game day drill of Kill being absent, due to his condition, "three or four times."
"Everyone knew exactly how it was going to work out," Limegrover added.
Claeys, a Kansas guy through and through like his boss, takes over from the press box. Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps and H-backs/tight ends coach Rob Reeves run the sidelines. When Kill didn't make the trip Friday night, it took a shrewd eye to notice. The staff took over like it had in the past. Players ate, broke off into position meetings, visited with their parents and went to bed.
Not a word leaked until CBSSports.com broke the story Saturday afternoon shortly before the school released a statement. It became that national story. We come to scrutinize, though, with the staff having it under control.
"Business as usual," Claeys said.
"With the cancer," Limegrover said, "I can honestly say I don't remember [Kill] missing any amount of time."
That's because Kill didn’t. Certainly not any games. He eventually beat the cancer. Why can't he beat this?
If the school does something with Jerry Kill, it's going to have to do something with that staff. That would be an added tragedy. The difference in this argument is we expect head-jarring hits, twisted knees, writhing bodies -- when it comes to football. But we don't expect -- to see a hard-working, buttoned-up coach suddenly lose control of his body.
It's the human condition. We slow to see a wreck on the side of the highway because we're morbidly curious. But, God forbid, anyone sees Kill have a seizure.
Kill's situation is not necessarily serious enough to keep him from being in his office Monday, but it was serious enough to keep him from one of the 12 football Saturdays upon which his job evaluated.
Can it go on like this?
Sorry, it's still too soon to answer.
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