ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 01: Head coach Jerry Kill of the Minnesota Golden Gophers stands on the sidelines before the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on October 1, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
When Coach Jerry Kill was hired to be the next head football coach at Minnesota, I didn't think much of it. That's not to say that I thought he was a bad coach, rather I literally did not think much about it. I did not know who Jerry Kill was, and I think that the only ones to claim otherwise were of a select cadre of college football followers so monomaniacal about the sport that they can, you know, tell you who the head coach at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, or some other far-flung collegiate location defined by its location within a state.
I heard news of the hiring, at some point, but I don't really remember how. I probably received the news via ESPN text alerts--"Minnesota football hires NIU HC Jerry Kill"--or by a quick and timely glance at the ESPN bottom line. As far as prominence goes, it wasn't like hearing about the Hoke, Meyer, and, yes, the RR hirings in terms of media exposure and overload. The news of Brady Hoke's hiring was not just something you "heard", it was something you downright experienced through a number of media outlets--on the Internet, TV, the radio (if you happen to be in a car or 90 years old), talking about it with friends, etc.--in such a way that it wasn't just something that happened: it was an event. A spectacle, even.
Well, that's not what this was. I vaguely remember reading this post from EDSBS about the Kill hiring, and I'm not sure that I even heard the man speak at his introductory press conference (to my surprise many months later, Kill is folksy/country-sounding as all get out). If he had a Minnesotan equivalent to Hoke's "This Is Michigan" moment, I missed it. From everything that I read about him at that point in time, he was a logical hire for a school like Minnesota, one that has been embarrassingly uncompetitive since Glen Mason's firing. Kill's resume, most particularly his work at the two Illinois directional schools, indicated that he was a sensible choice.
In retrospect, the best way to compare and contrast the football hirings of two hapless programs like Indiana and Minnesota goes as such. Indiana's hiring of Kevin WIlson, a spread offense guy with name brand experience at a football institution like OU, was akin to receiving an X-Box 360--whatever the newest iteration is these days--for your birthday. It was flashy, exciting, and certainly high-powered. After years of mediocre and ephemeral products--yes, Gerry DiNardo is the Sega Dreamcast in this analogy--receiving said X-Box is quite the boon. Will it be fun? Yes, probably, but the chances of that red ring appearing a couple years down the line are startlingly real; history tells us that IU football and the X-Box are both infrastructurally flawed.
On the other hand, the hiring of Jerry Kill was like receiving a several pairs of thick winter socks. Whereas IU figuratively took out a loan to bring in a guy like Wilson--a calculated risk with relatively decent upside--Minnesota's decision thinking was decidedly antithetical. Minnesota grabbed a hammer, cracked open its piggy bank, and made a sensible decision. Of course, I don't mean that Minnesota made a better choice or had a superior selection process; the modes of thinking were just completely different.
And so, in review, I knew very little about Jerry Kill outside of the above details, of which are vague and sparse to begin with. On December 6th of 2010, he was just a coach that had been selected from the anonymous coaching ether. "Jerry Kill" even sounds like pure invention, a fabricated name for the silver screen.
Well over a year later, I think I know a little bit more about Jerry Kill, and that is decidedly a good thing.
As tailgating began to wind down before the Notre Game last season, I remember hearing, somehow, that Jerry Kill had had a seizure near the very end of a defeat at home against New Mexico State. The next day, I saw harrowing footage on BTN and ESPN of a stadium hushed as it all happened in front of everybody. This had happened to Kill twice before during games. Although the coaching and team doctors asserted that it wasn't life-threatening and they weren't worried, I find that a difficult notion to accept.
Growing up, it's difficult to imagine that anybody is mortal, let alone a football coach or player. As a child, everyone lives forever and championships won are just a matter of time. Unfortunately, the reality of things is much different.
I learned that Jerry Kill, plainly, had a serious health condition, one that affects a few million people in this country. It is a condition that is still to an extent not understood, in spite of all of our scientific prowess and past achievements. The manifestation of this illness is arguably the most physically terrifying of any one could have; experiencing such an episode--a seizure--is a naked statement of one's mortality, of the cognitive dissonance that is the human body. Due to the nature of this illness, this is a statement that can be made at any time, in front of anyone. It can be scary, embarrassing, inconvenient, life-threatening, irritating, faith-shaking, frustrating, and incredibly confusing.
This statement of mortality isn't unique insofar as it is saying something that is unknown. We are, of course, all mortal beings. Still, to have the very concept thrust in your face, even if it wasn't a life-threatening event this time or the last time or the tie before that, is still very scary:
It was hard not to be when a coach was writhing around on the turf with his arms and legs flapping back and forth, out of control.
Needless to say, we are occasionally reminded that this is all just a game, and that there are far worse things in the world than losing a football game, landing a 3-star recruit instead of a 4-star, or stadium music selection. The fact that this has happened during games before--and countless other times off the field--should tell you that this is a man that truly lives for this game that we all love to watch. I don't mean that in the trite way this is often referenced, that "Coach So and So is obsessed with and loves and/or bleeds the game of football. Look at all those hours in the film room and the recruiting and the wins and all those gritty adages." Being good at your job and doing it for a long time does not necessarily connote love for said job. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that a man like Jerry Kill, having gone through what he has gone through, does not live to coach college football. His illness's manifestation on the field of play is perhaps the most brutally and transparently raw testament to such a deep-seated need and love to be a part of this game.
I remember watching an interview last offseason during which Kill stated that if he had to do something other than coaching football, he'd become a professional tailgater. He even went so far as to say that he plans on being out at 7 a.m. for every Saturday tailgate once he retires. The man himself:
Kill asked students to send him emails if they think of ways to improve the program. He also opened up by saying when he retires he plans to be out at 7 a.m. tailgating until game time. "That's what you're supposed to do," he said to about 60 students.
"From [age] 17 to 22, I did everything once, maybe twice, and I did it really well," Kill said.
Sticking with the tailgating theme, I learned that a thing called the "Jerry Killwagon" is something that exists, and it is awesome.
As someone that lives for the fall tailgate, I decided to actively root for the success of Coach Kill's program once I heard of this. I never would have expected that Kill was a tailgating aficionado, but that goes to show you that people, no matter how anonymous they may seem to you at some point, have specific wants and needs and interests and goals, just like you. Just because the are far away does not mean these things don't exist. They are coaches, but they are, believe it or not, people first.
The first time I heard Kill speak, I was somewhat blown away by his accent. Like Danny Hope, he possesses a folksy demeanor and twang that is amusingly out of place in the Big Ten conference. In fact, when Kill says anything, I imagine that I'm hearing an SEC or Big 12 coach speak. It's just an accent, but it makes him unique, and that is something.
Kill also wants you to know--in a country lingua franca--that in spite of his condition, he "don't need no pass." If he fails, Kill would tell you that there would be nobody to blame but himself. I don't need to tell you that there are many coaches in this era whom do not take this sort of accountability, coaches whom don't have to deal with even a minuscule percentage of the issues that Kill does (both on and off the field).
Although Minnesota went 3-9 last season, it was obvious that Kill wasn't just some small school guy doomed to fail without a fight, the newest casualty of the Peter Principle. The Gophers very nearly upset USC in the Coliseum last season on the first Saturday of the season. Kill also coached the Gophers to victories against Big Ten bowl teams, Iowa and Illinois, while also keeping games at Michigan State and Northwestern admirably competitive. I don't know if Kill will ultimately succeed at Minnesota, but after one season I think it's safe to say that the Gophers have a fighting chance.
What is the point of all of this? Well, it's obvious: some folks often seem to forget that coaches are human beings. Yes, even the bad ones (whether ethically or tactically) are imperfect human beings, no matter how much you or I think that Nick Saban is a cybernetic organism. As I've gotten older, I've become exponentially more reluctant to criticize coaches, let alone say things like "FIRE COACH X." That's not to say that I think college football coaches are beyond criticism, just that I think most of it is beside the point.
If you have made it this far and decide that you would like to take anything away from this: think of your head coaches (whether you are a Michigan fan or not) as people, not as unerring heroes, ideals, or means to an end (i.e. wins, prestige, pride). I still don't know much about Jerry Kill, but I know infinitely more than I did when he was hired, and this knowledge has made my experience as a Big Ten fan just a little bit richer than it was before.
In the same vein, it's important to remember that this is just a game. No matter how intense things get, no matter how vitriolic the banter between rivals becomes, there are always more important things in life. I'm not sure that there are many football coaches out there that typify this notion better than Jerry Kill, and I'm glad that he is a head football coach in the Big Ten conference.