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Monday, July 14, 2014

Kill stays true to his Kansas roots

BY BOB LUTZ
The Wichita Eagle

Jerry Kill has hit the big time. This is his moment.

This small-town guy from Kansas, who has always coached football because he loved the game and not because he was chasing fame or glory, is the new coach at Minnesota.

If the 49-year-old Kill, who went to high school in Cheney and college at Southwestern in Winfield, stops to think about his incredible coaching journey, which included a diagnosis of kidney cancer in 2005, he becomes overwhelmed. So he just tries to enjoy the ride.

"When I got out of Southwestern, I just wanted to be a high school football coach,'' Kill said. "That's what I thought I would end up doing.''

Instead, Kill has spent a career taking bigger and better jobs. He started out as a graduate assistant at Pittsburg State, then moved up to defensive coordinator. He was a high school coach for three seasons in Webb City, Mo. Then he returned to Pittsburg State for three years as offensive coordinator before become coach at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan in 1994. He was at Emporia State for two seasons, Southern Illinois for seven and spent the past three years at Northern Illinois.

When Minnesota parted ways with Tim Brewster last season and started looking for his replacement, Kill was not on the list of coaches Gophers fans wanted.

Al Golden, Mike Leach, Jim Leavitt and Pat Hill were names tossed around.

Jerry Kill?

Who?

But Kill worked wonders at Northern Illinois, in four seasons taking that team from a 2-10 mark to 11-3 and a Humanitarian Bowl victory over Fresno State.

He had done a similar rebuilding jobs at Southern Illinois and Saginaw Valley State.

His younger brother, Frank, who has an appliance repair business in Cheney, became a believer while watching his brother work miracles.

"One thing I'll always remember,'' Frank Kill said, "is being at Southern Illinois for Jerry's first game there as coach and there are 1,700 people in the stands. They were really bad, I think 1-10 that season. As I was driving back home, I told my wife he'd never turn that program around. Three years later they're 10-2 and in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.''

So don't count out Kill's chances for a similar makeover at Minnesota, which has done no better than a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten since 1986. The Gophers last shared a Big Ten championship in 1967 and haven't won one outright since 1941.

* * *

The first thing you notice about Kill is that you don't really notice anything out of the ordinary.

He's a plain guy from a plain family who just happened to have an aptitude and a love for football. His father, Jim, worked at Cessna and, having grown up on a farm, wanted to raise his family in the same kind of setting.

It was telling that Jim decided Goddard was too big of a community for his family and decided to move to Cheney during the summer before Jerry's eighth-grade year.

"I don't know where I'd be without the values I learned in a small town,'' Kill said. "I got to be back in Cheney over Christmas for a couple of days and that was the first time we'd been back in two years. I love going back home and putting my blue jeans on. Most of the friends I grew up with are still there. I call them the real people. They work their tails off. And both of my high school coaches, Ken Diskin and Jack Thomas, are still in that community.''

Kill played for Dennis Franchione at Southwestern and was interested in everything about the game. He played football with an eye toward coaching.

One of his best friends in the business is TCU's Gary Patterson, whose Horned Frogs were 13-0 last season. Like Kill, Patterson is a small-town Kansan, from Rozel. He spent one season as an assistant at Pittsburg State in 1988, just a year after Kill had left the Gorillas' staff to coach at Webb City.

"In my opinion, Gary Patterson is the best college football coach in the country,'' Kill said.

There is mutual admiration.

Patterson said he pushed Kill for the Minnesota job and was elated when his friend was hired.

"Jerry has paid his dues and we're very much in the same cloth as far as growing up in Kansas, treating people right and working hard,'' Patterson said. "Plus, you have to have a little luck to go along with it. Jerry is a great family man and very loyal to the people around him.''

That loyalty is evidenced by his staff at Minnesota, which includes defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Claeys has been with Kill for 16 years; Limegrover 12. Kill also hired native Kansan Billy Miller, from Hutchinson, as assistant head coach.

"I believe in these guys and I know I wouldn't be here without them,'' Kill said. "Sometimes when you take a new job, there are circumstances that don't allow you to bring along everybody. I feel bad about that, but for the most part I've been able to take the people I needed to take. They've been loyal to me so I try to show some of that back to them.''

* *

Kill was on the sideline for an Oct. 15, 2005, game while coaching Southern Illinois, which was in the process of wrapping up a 61-35 win over Illinois State. He collapsed in a heap and began convulsing, as he had done a couple of times before.

Kill's wife, Rebecca, rushed to the field.

Gallstones were discovered, but the reason for the seizures was never determined. However, a more serious diagnosis was made during the many tests run on Kill. He had kidney cancer.

It was growing slowly, so Kill was allowed to continue coaching the team before finally having surgery on Jan. 2, 2006. A quarter of one of his kidneys was removed, but he was back on the recruiting trail four days later.

The cancer has been in remission ever since. There are hours that go by when Kill doesn't think about his cancer, but never a day.

"As long as I take the medicine, I'm fine,'' said Kill, who admits the C-word isn't his favorite topic. "I'm doing really well right now. I'm fortunate there were people who hired me with the cancer card because they certainly didn't have to.''

* *

Frank Kill made a mistake in the days after his brother was named Minnesota's football coach. He looked at some message boards, where fans go to anonymously express their opinions on a variety of topics. The hot topic of November and December was the football coaching vacancy, and once Kill was hired, there were a variety of opinions.

"A lot of people there wanted them to hire a big-name guy,'' Frank Kill said. "So it was pretty horrible to read some of the things people were saying. I was thinking that if they only knew what Jerry's done and what he'll do there. I can't believe he won't be successful but they've got to give him three or four years.''

For Kill's 70-year-old mother, Sonja, the Minnesota job represents a new travel destination for September. She spends the football season with Jerry and Rebecca and if she was hoping he might get a job in a warmer climate, she didn't say anything.

"It's quite an opportunity,'' she said of the Minnesota job. "I don't think Jerry and Rebecca could believe it at first. They're just two country people (Rebecca, from Liberal, met Jerry when they were students at Southwestern) and here they are going to the Big Ten. Jerry said, 'Wouldn't Dad be surprised?' And I said he'd be very honored, too.'''

Jim Kill was a disciplinarian, but he was fair. His hard nose, though, couldn't mask the great compassion he had for people, Frank Kill said.

Jerry has the same thing.

"I'm not saying this because he's my brother, but Jerry would give the shirt off his back to anybody. He wouldn't want anyone to know, but if a homeless guy was standing there and no one was around, Jerry would probably hand the guy a $100 bill. He does all these things for people, but he doesn't want to take credit for it.''

* *

Every year before she leaves for football season, Sonja Kill decorates the grave of her husband, in Venita township, with a football helmet and pom pons from the school where Jerry coaches.

Jerry took the job at Emporia State in 1999 so he could be closer to his parents. His dad was not in good health and died on Jerry's first day with the Hornets.

"To this day, I'm scared to let that guy down,'' Kill said. "I wish my dad was here. That's the toughest thing.''

When Kill was home for Christmas, many of the stories centered on his father. They always do. That's one of the biggest reasons he loves to get home as much as he can.

But the daunting task of coaching at Minnesota is different than any challenge Kill has faced. Minnesota opens the 2011 season in the Los Angeles Coliseum against Southern California. His first Big Ten test will be at Michigan.

This isn't Northern Illinois and Kill knows it.

But he won't change. And his wife, mother and brother won't change, either.

"I thought when Jerry quit playing that I could finally just sit back and watch a football game,'' Sonja Kill said. "But with him coaching, I'm as wore out as he is after a game.''

Kill's wife and family, of course, will have the use of a suite for all of Minnesota's home games. A heated, luxurious, well-stocked suite. A warm refuge from the Minnesota fall.

But these are country people. Tough and set in their ways. It might be the Big Ten, but football isn't a sport to be watched from behind glass.

"Fortunately,'' Sonja Kill said, "there are 18 seats outside of the suite and that's where Rebecca and I will be. We've never sat inside during a football game, no matter what the weather is.''

And they never will, no matter how far Jerry Kill makes it.

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