There's a reason everybody around the Minnesota football program and even outsiders rushed to embrace Jerry Kill. There's a reason Golden Gophers students created the "JerrySota" slogan and why he was almost universally respected among his fellow coaches.
Sure, Kill had the ability to turn previously moribund programs into winners throughout his career. Even better than that, though, people related to him. There was nothing slick or invented about Kill. He was an honest, by-your-bootstraps success story who never forgot his roots.
As Minnesota interim athletic director Beth Goetz put it Wednesday morning, "They don’t come any more authentic than Jerry Kill."
That's why Kill's news conference announcing his sudden retirement for health reasons was so gut-wrenching to watch. Kill struggled to hold back his emotions as he talked about the difficult decision to step away from the game he loves. He nearly cried at several points as he explained how he just couldn't overcome his epilepsy any longer. This was as real as it gets.
"I know somebody will ask, 'Coach, what are you going to do?'" Kill said during his opening statement. "I don't know. I ain’t done anything else. That’s the scary part."
In just five years at Minnesota, Kill built a strong legacy. The Golden Gophers were still reeling from the failed Tim Brewster experiment when he took over, and they went just 3-9 in Kill's first season. But he led the team to a bowl game in Year 2 and again in 2013 and 2014. Last year, the team won eight games, challenged for the West Division title and reclaimed trophies from Michigan and Iowa. Minnesota played in its first New Year's Day bowl game since the Kennedy administration, and the program epitomized Kill's toughness in its physical style.
Of course, Kill also battled seizures during his tenure, including one during his home debut in 2010 and a series of them in 2013 that caused him to take a leave of absence. Kill then worked with a team of doctors to get his epilepsy under control, and whenever anyone would ask him about his health in the past two years, he would invariably brush it off with a quick "I'm good. Thanks for asking."
In reality, he hadn't been doing so well lately. Kill, 54, revealed on Wednesday that his seizure episodes had returned, that he hadn't slept more than three hours any night in the past three weeks and that he had ignored doctors' advice several times, including not taking medication on game days. He said he was told by doctors that if he continued down this path, he might face neurological problems. He felt he couldn't coach the Gophers in his usual intense way without jeopardizing his health further.
Kill had beaten the odds his entire 32-year career, coming from a small Kansas town and rising through the lowest levels of football to wind up as the head of a Big Ten program. But he couldn't beat this, no matter how hard he tried. Even after he'd mostly decided to step down, Kill went to practice on Tuesday after suffering two recent seizures. But he knew he couldn't give the job all his energy anymore.
"When I walked off that practice field, I feel like a part of me died," he said. "I hate losing, and I feel like I’m losing today. I just don't know -- empty feeling."
Wednesday was a sad day, but at least it wasn't tragic. Had Kill continued to push forward against his doctors' wishes, he might not have gotten to determine his own exit. His health must take precedence for him and his family, including his wife, Rebecca, who would stay up monitoring him from a chair during his sleepless nights.
"That ain't no way to live," he said.
Kill's sudden retirement causes some immediate turmoil for the football program. The school lacks a permanent athletic director and is still waiting for an external review of the department after the Norwood Teague scandal. The Gophers are set to break ground later this week on a crucial $166 million facilities campaign, and now they have no face for the football team. Interim coach Tracy Claeys has to get the Gophers ready for Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive weeks.
But Minnesota will figure the football angle out eventually. What's most important now is that Kill takes care of himself. He can no longer do the only job he's wanted his whole life, but he can still do lots of good with his children's epilepsy foundation. Kill is undoubtedly crushed today, but he should know that so many people related to him and rooted for him because of who he was, not just what he did. And he should know everyone will still be pulling for him now as he walks away.