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MADISON - The University of Minnesota said Wednesday that Jerry Kill will be the only Gophers coach to appear on the Big Ten Coach of the Year ballot. In a normal year, that would be expected and not newsworthy.
This year is certainly an addendum to the norm, and it’s been the rallying point for a Gophers team finally starting to climb out of mediocrity thanks to Kill and defensive coordinator/interim head coach Tracy Claeys.
“We’re doing very well on how we’re working it and doing it,” said Kill. “That’s what’s best for our football game right now.”
At one time health issues of their head coach seem to threaten Minnesota’s rebuilding project. The opposite as happened, as the Gophers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) have won four straight, are ranked No.25 in the BCS and have an outside chance at winning the Legends Division.
Most importantly, Minnesota is hoping to break a nine game losing streak when it hosts No.16 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) on Saturday, marking it the first time since 2005 that both schools are ranked at the time of the annual matchup.
“We love it,” said senior linebacker Chris Borland of both teams having national attention. “That adds a lot to it. It makes it even more meaningful.”
While the turnaround is mostly due to Minnesota finally developing a good group of players, a large part of it is Kill. He is a program builder, and he knows how to do it. His 143 career FBS wins are the most among Big Ten coaches, and he got the opportunity to lead Minnesota after piloting Northern Illinois to a 23-16 record, a conference championship game and three consecutive bowl games during his tenure.
He’s been trying to resurrect that same kind of success at Minnesota, but an old enemy keeps getting in his way: his health.
Kill suffers from epilepsy and has been subjected to seizures, including one on the sidelines in the waning seconds of home loss to Illinois State on October 15, 2005, an event that led to him being diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer. Kill, who lost his father to cancer, was admittedly concerned, not for his healthy, but that he wouldn’t be able to finish coaching the season before having kidney surgery.
He decided to wait, and led Southern Illinois to a share of its third straight conference title. He also beat cancer, doing the surgery during a dead period so he wouldn’t miss a chance to recruit.
“That’s why I love coaching football, because you are so damn busy you don’t have to think about anything else,” said Kill, who has been in remission for over seven years and has since started a foundation to assist low-income southern Illinois residents with treatment. “I could handle it because I had a job to do.”
The spells continued - both major and minor - until they finally caught up with him this season. Kill had already exposed his players to his issue when he collapsed at the end of a 28-21 loss to New Mexico State in September 2011, but had multiple during a four week stretch that started in late September; one at halftime of a week-three win against Western Illinois and multiple ones before the team’s trip to Michigan, causing him to miss the game. During the team’s bye week that following the 29-point loss to Michigan, it was announced that Kill was going to take time to get his health in order.
Minnesota was 4-2 and 0-2 in the Big Ten with plenty more tough games ahead. For a man that lives and breathes coaching, it could have been cause for concern when in reality it really wasn’t because …
“I have good people here to help me,” said Kill. “There’s a trust factor that I didn’t worry about it.”
That man was Clayes, Kill’s right-hand man for the last 18 years. Clayes has followed Kill from the NAIA to the Division II and I level, from Saginaw Valley State in Michigan; to Emporia State in Kansas; to Southern Illinois; Northern Illinois and now at Minnesota. He’s been Kill’s defensive coordinator since 2001, and now he was Kill’s acting head coach.
They are almost one in the same: not too flashy, don’t accept laziness and Kansas-born men who refused to change his mantra to fit a new job.
“Nobody wants to look like a football program that has no direction,” said Clayes in an ESPN interview. “That was the biggest concern. You have to have someone standing up front that the people know are making decisions.”
Clayes may be the one calling the shots, but Kill has been the rallying point. He surprised his team by driving from Minneapolis to Evanston, Ill., and delivered a halftime speech that was more about life than about the first half. Minnesota beat Northwestern with a stronger second half and haven’t look back.
They beat Nebraska for the first time in a half century, knocked off Indiana on the road and finally filled one of their four empty trophy cases by winning the Governor’s Victory Bell from Penn State. Now Minnesota is looking to claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in a decade.
Clayes calls himself the “gate keeper’ of the Minnesota program; the manager or the protector of what Kill has built in just three seasons. Kill says he will get back, something he works at every day by eating better, sleeping longer and exercising more; things that Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen knows firsthand can cause problems when not respected.
“The ability that Coach has had to be able to rebuild that program and get them where they're at, and the ups and downs that we obviously all go through in those situations, he's a tremendous coach,” said Andersen. “A lot of respect for him and his program, with are they're at and what he's done in his career.”