Flash back, if you will, to September 10, 2011: A shell-shocked Minnesota Golden Gophers squad and a silent TCF Bank Stadium watch as first-year head coach Jerry Kill is rushed off the field after suffering a seizure in the waning moments of the Gophers' defeat at the hands of New Mexico State.
After the game, Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys noted, "We've been through this situation before. It looks worse than what it is, for the most part...He's never missed a game. We just told our kids don't panic with it. We'll keep them up to date." Added offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, "Unfortunately as a coaching staff, we have been through this before. As a group and as a staff, we know what needs to be done. ... Any time you see something like that happen, even if it's happened before, it's tough. It takes the wind out of you."
Now return to the present day: A 6-5, bowl-eligible Minnesota team enters the locker room trailing Michigan State 13-7, and while the score went unchanged, the man in charge on the home team's sideline changed. Kill suffered, according to team doctors, a seizure in the team locker room, but was not hospitalized and left the Gophers' complex to return home after resting for a few hours.
After the game, Claeys remarked, ""You just move on. It's very organized. It's very structured. So when something like this happens, everybody knows their job and what to do, and I'm telling you there's no panic in the staff or the kids or anything." Players like defensive end D.L. Wilhite (quietly a revelation for the Gophers' line with 8.5 sacks in 2012, good for 3rd-best in a single season by a Gopher) noted that the players' assignments and jobs did not change, and MarQueis Gray admitted that he "'had no idea Kill wasn't on the sideline at first until he figured out an assistant coach was giving the pep talks."
In a press conference after Kill's latest seizure, Gophers AD Norwood Teague quickly dispelled rumors of any break within the ranks of Gophers football:
I know this will bring up questions about him and moving forward, but we have 100 percent confidence in Jerry. We'll evaluate at the end of the year his health, and that mainly is for him, to continue to take care of himself, exercise, diet, eating right. The more he makes progress there, the more he'll make progress with his health in general. I feel very good about that. ... Regardless of Jerry's health right now, we're making progress on this program. Does it hurt the perception in recruiting? I don't think so. I've seen Jerry talk to recruits about it, and it's something millions of people deal with.
But once you really start thinking about it and we move forward and we work, and he works, it doesn't really bother me at all. Recruiting-wise, they did such a great job last year; they're doing a great job now. Again, this is a staff, and I can't say that enough. It's a staff I'm incredibly impressed with. Whether it's Tracy, or whether it be Matt Limegrover or any of the guys, they know how to manage a program. I think that overcomes any perception issues you run into. (emphasis added, via)
Amidst swirling controversy from the AJ Barker debacle (catch up here, if you need), another seizure could cause concern for whether or not this new model at Minnesota is, in fact, sustainable. Kill's health has removed him from games on two separate occasions in just two years at Minnesota; however, the team is bowl-eligible for the first time since 2009 and met or succeeded the expectations of all the OTE writers in terms of record. Important to remember is that Kill was not hired by Teague--former AD and non-revenue sport deity Joel Maturi, on seemingly his eighth or ninth choice for head coach, landed Kill. Is this, then, a potentially damning "vote of confidence" from Teague, or an earnest profession of support for the Kill Era in Minneapolis?
Nary a report has surfaced in which Kill does not claim to be upfront with recruits about his medical condition. After the initial shock of the 2011 on-field seizure, Kill and the program reacted responsibly, ensuring that the program had an in-game succession plan and that the players were adequately prepared to cope with Kill's unexpected departure.
No player mentioned that they felt "distracted" by Kill's absence in the second half of Saturday's disappointing loss. No recruit has said that he turned down Minnesota on account of Kill's medical condition. From the program, which is hardly North Korean in terms of accessibility, all signs point to players rallying around their coach, putting the episode in the past, and preparing for a bowl game.
None of this is written to make light of Kill's situation and seizure concerns in general or to turn a blind eye to the medical needs of Jerry Kill. Rather, it is to understand Kill's management of his health and condition and the risks weighed against the rewards for the University of Minnesota and Jerry Kill.
Barring a Barker-esque Tumblr post about what Jerry Kill's medical condition truly does to players and morale in the locker room or on the field, anyone attempting to judge whether or not Kill should take a step back and consider the tangible results in Minneapolis: the Gophers have improved their record by three wins, earning a trip to a warm-weather bowl game and a much-needed additional month of practices, produced a more competitive on-field Big Ten product still using many of Brother Tim's players, and improved their total defense from 77th in I-A to 27th (offense, regrettably, remains 110th for the second consecutive year; via).
Jerry Kill has set Minnesota on a course for respectability--the jury remains out on championship-worthy competitiveness--in the Big Ten and deserves the opportunity to carry out that progress. He and the Minnesota Athletic Department have remained forthright about the medical challenges facing Kill and met those questions with improved on-field performance. The Gophers and Kill have a long way to go, but asking Kill to step down--or, perish the thought, firing him--is not the answer for Minnesota. Jerry Kill, the coach, should be judged on his merits of coaching, recruiting for, and leading the University of Minnesota football team. As he has done that, such talk of a regime change is unnecessary and overlooks hard work Kill has put into improving his health, recruiting for the team, and leaving his mark on Gophers football.