Jerry Kill changes the game plan

Originally Published: November 20, 2013
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Jerry Kill grew up in Cheney, Kan., his dad told him, "Never steal." He didn't just mean swiping a candy bar from Dewey's IGA on Main Street. He meant that if somebody gave you a job, you gave whatever you had inside you to do that job.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Courtesy of GopherGridiron.comJerry Kill wasn't with his team against Michigan on Oct. 5. He changed his game-day regimen, as well as his diet and work habits, and Minnesota is 4-0 since.

"My dad was wired differently," Kill said. "You grow up in a town of 2,000, his idea of a vacation was cutting wheat in a wheat field. That's his vacation. That was his release."

Kill is sitting behind an executive's desk in an executive-sized office. It is his desk, his office. He is bundled up in a gold Minnesota sweatshirt.

"My release is coaching football," Kill said.

Until last month, Kill coached football pretty much without stopping for 30 years. Minnesota is his sixth stop as a head coach, nearly all of them have-nots. Kill made them haves. He has won at every rung on the ladder, from the Missouri 4A high school title at Webb City High in 1989 through Division II Saginaw Valley State to FCS Southern Illinois to FBS Northern Illinois, and now, in the Big Ten, at Minnesota. The No. 25 Golden Gophers are 8-2 as they prepare to play No. 19 Wisconsin on Saturday.

Kill has won with good X's and O's, but he also puts body and soul into the team. Take the latter. The other night, his wife Rebecca baked sugar cookies, and she and Jerry took them over to center Jon Christenson, a former walk-on who broke his leg and is out for the season.

"He has a tough demeanor," senior free safety Brock Vereen said of Kill, "but at the end of the day, he's very persistent about showing how much he cares about us."

The soul may be steadfast, but last month, Kill's body wanted out. The check-engine light on Kill's dashboard has been lit ever since he suffered an epileptic seizure eight years ago, when he coached at Southern Illinois. That seizure led to a checkup that led to the discovery of Stage 4 kidney cancer. Kill beat the cancer. He had the surgery done right before USC and Texas played for the 2005 BCS National Championship, because it was a dead period. He didn't want to miss any recruiting.

The epilepsy came back. If Kill had a seizure on the sideline of a Gophers game, he would recuperate, nod at whatever protective steps his doctor suggested, and forget them the minute he walked out. He went right back to the office.

"Sometimes, I am a bullhead," he said, his voice a mixture of self-awareness, apology and his characteristic plainspokenness.

"I hear all these people say, 'God first, family,'" Kill said. "Hey, are you really telling the truth? I'm telling you. … When you're turning a program, you gotta do that. I put football [first] and I work God and my family in there when I could. That's being honest. I can't go back and change anything."

Maybe not in the past. But at age 52, Kill is changing a lot.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys and Jerry Kill
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltKill's longtime defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, left, has taken over sideline coaching duties on game days for Minnesota.

In the first week of October. Kill didn't have just one seizure. If he knows how many, he isn't saying. All he knows is that when he came to, it was 2 a.m. Sunday and for the first time in his coaching life, he had missed his team's game. Minnesota had traveled to Michigan without him. That they lost 42-13 is secondary. Kill hadn't been there for his players.

"It was the most devastating thing that has ever … " he said, not needing to finish the sentence.

But this time, when he came to, Rebecca had a message for him. They married when he was 21 and she was 19. She has nursed him back to health. In recent years, she has served as his chauffeur. When doctors suggested that he stop driving because of his epilepsy, Rebecca took the wheel.

"She goes, 'Jerry, this is serious,'" Kill said. "'You gotta listen to me. I can't deal with it. I need help. I can't deal with it anymore. You love your girls. You love me. You love football. You got to get it fixed.'"

"So," Kill said, explaining his decision, "I love her."

So, he listened to the doctors, something he had always refused to do. If you're an epileptic, and you want to have a seizure, you should get as little sleep as possible, eat poorly and subject yourself to enormous stress. "Putting a Band-Aid on it," as Kill described ignoring the protocols, turned out to be a poor answer.

Kill stayed away from the team for two weeks. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over. Kill is training his body to sleep again, going from three hours a night to almost six. Pretzels and Diet Coke no longer constitute dinner. His doctors have found medication that has kept him on an even keel.

After the Michigan game he missed, Minnesota had the week off. The following Saturday, the Gophers played at Northwestern. Kill made it clear he wanted to be there. His doctor didn't want him on a plane. Rebecca knows her husband. She agreed to drive him to Evanston, Ill. His mother rode shotgun.

He laid down in the back seat of their Cadillac on Friday night. To pass the time, and perhaps provide a bit of comfort, he listened to the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 9-0 and advance to the World Series.

Kill told no one he was coming. He didn't want to raise expectations among his staff because he didn't know what kind of shape he would be in when they arrived in Evanston. But he felt good Saturday morning. He called a couple of his staffers and told them to make room for him in the press box. At halftime, he went with the rest of his coaches to the Minnesota locker room.

Kill spoke to his players. He didn't talk to them about the first half. He talked to them about life.

"Let me tell you something," Kill said. "I talked to you about sleep, how important it is. And I talked to you about nutrition, what you eat. And I talked to you about off-the-field activities. I'm an example of what not to do on some of those things. This is what we're going to do. We always talk about playing hard and giving your best and all those kind of things. But I forgot one thing I need to tell you. Let's have some damn fun. Let's go out and have fun. You've got to live for the moment. Let's enjoy the moments. Let's play relaxed and let 'er rip."

[+] EnlargeVereen
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMinnesota DB Brock Vereen credits a speech Kill gave his team during the Northwestern game as a turning point for the Gophers.

Kill's speech motivated his players, just not in the Hollywood fashion of them bursting out of the locker room on an adrenaline-fueled mission. They saw, as Vereen put it, that he was physically not at his best.

"The first half of his speech I couldn't hear," Vereen said. "I was in so much shock that he was there."

And yet Kill came. His players saw that he was there.

"The fact that Coach Kill would do something like that just shows how devoted he is and just committed he is to football," defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman said. "He really loves the game. He's trying to get a lot of the team to understand what football can do [for] people. I've been with him for three years, and I'm just starting to understand why he loves the game. The vibe he gives off, I'm trying to have that same mentality."

Minnesota won that game over Northwestern 20-17. Since Kill has come back, the Gophers are 4-0.

"That love that we have for him is we want him to know that everything is going to be fine," Vereen said. "When he was sick, I guess we'll say, I think us having success was so important because we didn't want him to feel rushed, like he was hurting us, like he had to come back as fast as he could. So it's been great to be able to have success. That way, he knows we're going to be OK and he can come back whenever he's fully ready."

Kill has not returned to his 16-hour days. He is working 11 or 12 hours a day. He is coming in late on some mornings. He is skipping some meetings to get in some exercise. Claeys is the interim head coach. He has moved from the press box to the sideline. Kill has moved from the sideline to the press box. There is less stress in the press box.

With past seizures, Claeys said, "I'm telling you, as soon as he got back in the office, it was right back to it, full grind, and he hasn't done that. He's stuck to what he's being told with everything. He's eating right."

Every head-coaching job Kill has had, he has taken over a team that couldn't get out of its own way and turned that team into a winner. He did it at Southern Illinois. He did it at Northern Illinois. He is doing it at Minnesota. When a head coach comes into one of those programs, Kill said, "You're hitting your head against that wall because you got to change the culture."

That makes Kill uniquely qualified to get well. He is used to beating his head against the wall in order to transform a losing culture. He knows how to effect change.

The other day, he walked into the hallway outside his office and found Rebecca sitting there.

"If you met her, she's a helluva lot better looking than I am," Kill said, "and she had rose-colored glasses on, and she cut her hair, and she's a very pretty gal, and she's sitting out here, and I said, 'Hey girl, you going through all this. Are you looking for a new man?'

"And she laughed. She said, 'Nope. I got a new man.'"

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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