Minn. coach takes leave

Published 3:16 am Saturday, October 12, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Even as his seizures have grown in frequency over the last two years, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has always maintained that his epilepsy would never slow him down.

When he wasn’t able to make it to a game for the first time in his coaching career last weekend against Michigan, Kill decided it was time to take a step back, put his health before football for once and try to get a handle on an issue that has taken him from the sideline twice in the last month.

Kill and the university announced Thursday that the coach is taking an open-ended leave of absence from the team to focus on treatment and management of his epilepsy, and it is uncertain when he will be able to return to the Golden Gophers.

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“This was a difficult decision to make, but the right decision,” Kill said in a statement distributed by the university. “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.”

As he has each time Kill has been absent from the sideline, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will fill in as acting head coach. Kill and the bulk of his assistants have been together longer than any staff in the country, and they’ll lean on that continuity and familiarity now more than ever.

“As a staff we are all happy he’s made this decision to do this,” Claeys said. “We support him 100 percent. We will represent him well … for however long it is.”

Kill has had five seizures on game day in his two-plus seasons at Minnesota. President Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague have steadfastly stood behind him through those absences, insisting that the issue could be managed and that the progress the program showed under Kill validated their faith in him.

But Kill is on record saying he couldn’t continue to miss parts of games, as he did for the second half of last season’s game against Michigan State. The seizures appeared to worsen this season. He missed the second half of a win over Western Illinois on Sept. 14 and then couldn’t even make the trip with the team to Ann Arbor, Mich., last weekend.

That absence appears to have hit home particularly hard for Kill, who has overcome kidney cancer and dealt with seizures for years.

“When he didn’t make it to game day, for the first time,” Claeys said, “I know he does not want that to happen.”

The Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) are off this week, which contributed to Kill deciding that now was the right time to seek more help with his condition. Teague declined to discuss specifics about what Kill was doing and would not put a timetable on any possible return. Claeys said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Teague returning for the Gophers’ next game, on Oct. 19 at Northwestern.

“There is no time frame here,” Teague said. “Jerry will return when he feels it is best to do so.”

Players were unavailable for comment because the team is on the bye. Claeys and Teague met with the team to inform them of Kill’s decision on Thursday afternoon, about an hour before a scheduled practice.

“Obviously, they’re concerned about him and all that,” Claeys said. “The one thing about the players is we make sure they always know things first. A lot of them have been texting him and (his wife) Rebecca. I let them know that they very much appreciate that. They’ll stay in touch with him that way.”

Teague said he wasn’t concerned about Kill’s absence affecting recruiting, and Claeys said the entire staff, outside of himself and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, were on the road speaking to high school kids this week. Claeys and Limegrover remained in Minneapolis to run practice, which is what they always do during off weeks.

Claeys, who has worked with Kill for going on two decades, said the hard-driving head coach has tried to step away a few times over the years to seek more medical treatment for his epilepsy. But each time he’s returned in short order after starting to feel better.

“I think it’s a huge step for him and his family that have decided this is the time to look at it more carefully rather than go and say we’re going to put it off until later on,” Claeys said. “He’s very positive about it. Feels very good about the decision.”

Earlier this week, Kaler reiterated his support for Kill and his ability to handle the job. Kaler said he and Teague haven’t discussed a “Plan B” and that he believes changing coaches on a continual basis is a recipe for failure in football. Teague was asked several times on Thursday if the leave of absence changed his outlook on Kill’s long-term future with the program.

“I’m taking it day by day. Trying not to get ahead of things,” Teague said. “Right now, I am personally extremely happy with the program under these guys. 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. It’s been fun to be around them.”

Claeys won’t count Kill out for the Northwestern game until the Gophers take the field and he’s not there.

“I know I would be more than happy if he showed up at 10 a.m. there,” Claeys said. “I’d gladly say, ‘Here you go, here’s your headset, coach. Get after it.”’