Gophers' Jerry Kill to focus on treatment, Claeys to coach
OCT 10, 2013 5:27p ET
The strong-willed football coach didn't turn around two mid-level college programs or land a job at Minnesota by backing down. He didn't help double the Gophers' victory total from their first season under him to the second by yielding.
But after yet another epileptic seizure -- one that kept him from even showing up at a game for the first time in his 20-year head coaching career -- Kill made one of the toughest decisions of his life.
He's stepping away.
"It's a big step for him," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who, per usual, will assume head coaching duties in Kill's stead.
There's no telling the longevity of Kill's indefinite leave of absence, of which he notified Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague on Thursday following six days of contemplation. With heavy input from his wife, Rebecca, Kill decided missing the Gophers' loss at Michigan on Saturday was enough to delay his return and focus solely on regulating his health.
"It's just something where he felt like it was time to look into it deeper," Teague said. "As I've said before -- and Tracy knows this as well as anybody else -- this epilepsy thing is not a black-and-white condition. It's a moving target. It's not static."
So instead of overseeing practice during the team's bye week this week while most of his staff is on the road recruiting, Kill will be consulting with doctors and resting at home. It wasn't an easy conclusion to stomach, according to his longtime colleague and friend that's filled in for him during four other documented epileptic episodes that occurred on gameday.
"To get him to go on vacation for two days is a long, hard conversation," Claeys said.
Claeys said Kill, whom he's coached alongside since 1995, has decided before to take some time away. He suffered in-game seizures earlier this year against Western Illinois, as well as in 2011 and 2012.
But a swift recovery each time caused him to change his mind.
Not this time. Not after skipping the team's flight to Ann Arbor on Friday because he wasn't feeling well, then seizing Saturday morning, which kept him from meeting the team in Michigan.
"I know he is not going to let that happen again," Claeys said. "By him missing that game finally, I just think he probably said 'Hey, if I want to be here all the time, I need to look into this and do what's required of me.'"
That was the most definitive statement in a press conference Thursday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium that did little to clear up the Gophers' long-term coaching picture.
Unless Kill returns by Minnesota's Oct. 19 road matchup with Northwestern, Claeys will be on the sidelines in his place. In past instances when Kill has left the game, Claeys remained in the booth while an assistant took charge down below.
As he has after every incident involving Kill's health, Teague vehemently defended a coach he didn't hire.
"I will tell you right now, I am personally extremely happy with the program under these guys," said Teague, the school's AD since June 2012. "They are terrific people, terrific leaders of the program. They are turning a major project around. It's going to take time, and they're doing all the right things."
Teague deflected questions about how this affects the program big-picture. Obviously, the ideal outcome is Kill finds the right balance of medications to eliminate seizures and mitigate damaging side effects and can perform his duties on a consistent basis.
But what if he can't?
"I don’t want to get ahead of myself or anyone else," Teague said. "I want Jerry to focus on this right now, because he's got the time to do it, with the bye week and just going forward."
"For me, I feel good. I feel good that he's gonna attack it even deeper and hopefully improve a lot."
Teague also added he wasn't worried the latest news would impact recruiting for the worse. If anything, Teague said, players are inspired by what's become a national story and watching current Gophers players rally around him week after week.
He knew it would affect Kill, though.
"Jerry, he's one of the toughest human beings I've ever known, and he's one of those relentless guys when it comes to this football program and this job," Teague said. "I think it's a good step for him to look into it."
In a statement issued by the university, Kill himself hinted at what an interior dilemma his latest seizure caused him.
"This was a difficult decision to make, but the right decision," said Kill, who has become a champion of epilepsy awareness since coming to Minnesota. "Our staff has been together a long time and I have full confidence in Coach Claeys and them during my time away. Every decision that will be made will be in the best interest of the players and the program. I look forward to returning to the Minnesota sideline on a full-time basis soon.”
When, exactly, is anyone's guess.
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