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The Gophers are the latest reclamation project for Jerry Kill.
Jerry Kill boarded the plane headed home and settled into the seat next to his wife, Rebecca.
He was unusually quiet, his normal traveling salesman buoyancy suppressed by what he had just seen: A football program in disrepair, perhaps irreversible decline.
He had been offered the job as head coach, a colossal and exciting step up the professional ladder, but soon learned that he wasn’t the first choice, and quickly discovered why others had turned the job down. The football team, its glory days a long-faded memory, had lost relevance in its community. Apathy had turned to cynicism, and skeptics were questioning why the university was spending so much money on a sport it could obviously never hope to compete in. The talent level was alarmingly low, the football facilities and donor support lagged behind the rest of the conference, and recruits could sense the torpor the moment they stepped on campus.
“Boy, I don’t know,” Kill said to his wife as he sat on that plane, his job interview just concluded. “What do you think?”
Rebecca was as certain as her husband was hesitant.
“It’s meant to be,” she said categorically. “It feels right.”
And that’s how Jerry Kill became the University of Minnesota’s head football coach.
Well, sort of.
Actually, Rebecca Kill recounts that story from 2001, and the school that hired her uncertain husband was Southern Illinois, a Division I-AA (as it was called at the time) program that had produced one winning season in two decades. But that leap of faith proved to be a perfect match, propelling Kill to astonishing success, acclaim, another professional promotion and finally, last December, onto one of college football’s biggest stages — the Big Ten, where he promptly discovered many of the same quagmires he had faced at SIU.
“It really feels like I’m starting from scratch again,” Kill said of the Gopher program he inherited from Tim Brewster, fired after a 1–6 start to his fourth season.
The Gophers, who this year celebrate the 50th anniversary of their most recent Rose Bowl team, have become an afterthought in their hometown, and an also-ran in the competition for recruits, donations and, yes, victories. Like SIU, Minnesota searched for a fit-the-profile miracle-worker before settling on the short, bald Midwesterner with the sex appeal of a CPA and a penchant for bluntness pronounced through a thick western Kansas accent.
“There’s an awful lot of work to be done,” Kill said shortly after landing in Minneapolis, “before we’ll even know if it’s possible.” See, that’s the great thing about hiring Jerry Kill: He’s already proven it’s possible. Everything about his football life has been a triumph over the disbelievers.
Kill was hardly athletic, yet through sheer will made himself the best linebacker at Cheney High, a half-hour’s drive from Wichita. His coach at Southwestern College told him he should consider basketball instead, then watched as Kill made all-conference in football. He tried high school coaching, and drove Webb City to a 24–1 record and a Missouri state championship in his two seasons there.
He jumped to college coaching, and turned mediocre Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State into a nationally ranked powerhouse, then needed only two years to resuscitate Emporia (Kansas) State into a winner. Kill’s biggest challenge was at Southern Illinois, where the stadium was in shambles, the press box was a trailer, the dank locker room leaked and the football team occasionally had to move practice if the ROTC program had reserved its field. Faculty members had suggested the school drop its football program.
Within three seasons, Kill began a string of five straight playoff seasons with the Salukis, winning three straight Gateway Conference titles, and reaching the division’s No. 1 ranking in 2004, earning him the Eddie Robinson Award as Coach of the Year.
Lured to Northern Illinois, Kill took the Huskies to three straight bowl games, yet was rarely talked about as a BCS-level talent. “People underestimate him because he doesn’t look like a matinee idol,” says Joel Maturi, who settled on Kill after interviewing several other candidates. “But he is tremendously organized, and confident in his system. He has a way of making you believe he will succeed. I think he will.”
It won’t be easy in Minnesota, where no team has finished higher than fourth in the Big Ten standings in 25 years. Kill takes over a team with no quarterback who has taken more than 30 snaps in college, the 10th-ranked rushing offense in the league and a defense that registered the fewest sacks in the nation. Oh, and special teams? The punting unit was also the NCAA’s most feeble.
Still, there are those who are convinced he will succeed. “I wouldn’t be surprised by anything he accomplishes there. Jerry is one of the best motivators, planners, organizers — coaches — that I’ve ever come across,” says Jim Phillips, who brought Kill to Northern Illinois from SIU and now serves as Northwestern’s athletic director. “To be honest, I’m not that excited that he’s in our division now. Because I know what he can do.”
OK, but how will he do it? And will his system translate from lower-level football to the Big Ten?
“It’s pretty straightforward football — he likes to play aggressively on both sides of the ball, always attacking. He’ll use a variety of offenses, spread it out sometimes, then go pro-style. And he loves to run the ball,” says John Roderique, who succeeded Kill at Webb City High. “But his secret is his honesty and his intensity and his energy. He levels with the kids about what he expects, and he holds them to it. And he’s a drill sergeant in practice, the most intense guy you’ve ever seen. He packs so much teaching into the time, you don’t know what hit you.”
He’s not alone, either. Kill has assembled an incredibly loyal staff of assistants — eight of his nine on-field coaches were with him at NIU, and six have worked for Kill for a decade or more, despite occasional offers to move elsewhere. That unheard-of-stability, Kill says, gives him an advantage most coaches don’t have.
“We don’t have to explain things. We don’t have to worry about hurt feelings, and we don’t have different people delivering different messages,” Kill says. Pointing out that Brewster employed six different coordinators in his four seasons at Minnesota, Kill says “kids benefit from hearing one voice and one consistent message. We do things this way, and we know it works, because it already has.”
He’s never tested it at the highest level, however. Yet Kill sees no reason why he can’t make Minnesota a winner, too. After all, it’s not the biggest challenge he’s faced.
In 2005, Kill collapsed on the sideline during a game, and doctors soon made a chilling discovery: A cancer was growing in his kidney. That devastated Kill so much, he almost missed a game. Almost.
“He accepted it, determined that he would beat it, and didn’t let it slow him down at all,” Rebecca Kill says. “He said, ‘Do the surgery,’ and four days later, he was recruiting a kid.”
He’s cancer-free and more determined than ever to outwork anyone or anything in his way.
“I ask these kids to fight through adversity, to give every drop of themselves, and I try to give them an example,” Kill says. “Do I know I’ll succeed? Heck, no. But teaching kids is my passion, and if you’re passionate about something, nothing can stop you. I want to make these players feel that, too.”
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