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Never Die Easy

Farewell To A Great Coach and a Better Man

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"Some folks are gonna ask 'What are you gonna do, coach?'...I don't know anything else."

As much as we turn a blind eye to the realities of college football, it's no secret that the game has increasingly become a professional sports venture. Money rules the day. Coaches bounce from job to job in search of better pay and more fertile recruiting grounds. Players seek out programs that will ensure their games will eventually fall on a Sunday or Monday. That is the way of the sport now, and it is largely what we the fans have asked it to become.

College football has grown into a monster. It's a monster we love, but a monster nonetheless. Competing at the highest level means that players and coaches alike have accepted that football is life for as long as they're a part of the big-time college game. Many a retired coach and player has recounted tales of how football took precedence over spouses, children, sleep, and the countless other facets of being that enrich our daily lives. That is a choice they have made, and we are both benefactors and beneficiaries of their decision to feed the insatiable beast that is college football in the 21st century.

Perhaps that is why I loved Jerry Kill so much. In all his dealings as the head coach at Minnesota, he conducted himself as a man who was interested in more than just winning. Mr. Kill harkened back to an era of coaching and playing that has been ground under by the advancing glaciers of money and television. His aw-shucks attitude and unabashed love for his team conjured memories of the great coaches of yesteryear. Men like Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, and Duffy Daugherty. Shug Jordan. Red Blaik and Otto Graham. Lou Holtz and Murray Warmath. Even the irascible Bear Bryant, who once said he hated recruiting because "the whole process is kind of undignified for me and the young man," quite clearly belongs to an age coaching that has vanished into that glacial till. Jerry Kill mirrors those lost titans far more than he matches his own contemporaries.

Certainly, all those great coaches are more perfect and mythic in memory than in life--as we all hope to be one day. Nevertheless, Jerry Kill was a delightful anachronism in an era when coaches hop from one school to another, or hire the hottest assistants in search of a championship. Mr. Kill is a family man, and that quite clearly extended to his players. One need only watch the hilarious videos of him attempting to dance among his players to see a coach who checked pride at the door and cared more about connecting with the young men in his charge than how silly he might look. The faces of his players reflected that love, and their play demonstrated the loyalty he preached.

Jerry Kill felt like a dinosaur in all the best ways. He worked his way up from the very bottom, paying his dues for years. He wasn't some hot coach at an overfunded high school program who leapt into the big time thanks to the right connections. He built a family of assistants and took care of them wherever he went. Jerry's traveling family of coaches were the backbone of his success and he never forgot them.

Some years back, I was in the Twin Cities for work. Late August in Minneapolis is a fine time of year. The State Fair, better known as the "Great Minnesota Get Together" was in full swing. Rather than indulge our love of all things fried and skewered with sticks, we were treated to an insider tour of TCF Bank Stadium. A coworker's brother-in-law had the right connections and we shamelessly leveraged his kindness. Our small group stood on the field, wandered through the luxury boxes, and gazed in wonderment at the beautifully-appointed, football-shaped locker room. The Gophers' facilities are second to none in the FBS arms race.

What I remember best, though, is how many people had so many wonderful things to say about Jerry Kill. From the security staff to the secretaries, folks throughout the Gopher organization gushed about what a genuinely great human being Jerry Kill is, and how thankful they were that he came to Minnesota. No one mentioned wins, or bowl games, or mused that he might win the Gophers a title someday. Perhaps that's part and parcel of a typically restrained Lutheran take on life, but everyone seemed far more concerned about what sort man was running the show than they were about how many notches he put in the win column.

Truth be told, outright winning isn't what Jerry Kill ever seemed to be about. Not in the way other coaches are, anyhow. His mantra of "Brick-by-Brick" encompassed more than the idea of turning a program around. That simple phrase, emblazoned on the walls surrounding the field, spoke of a man who'd overcome so much adversity to reach a place he loved--a place where he was determined to make a difference in the lives of his players and his community.

Mr. Kill exuded strength. He harped on the importance of character and integrity, and lived his words as a coach, mentor, and father figure. He battled illness. He dedicated countless hours to charity for children with epilepsy. Best of all, he attacked his job with the attitude that, through hard work, a man can surmount the tallest of obstacles. Coach Kill's dogged determination not to let cancer and seizures deny him his dreams remind me of the great Walter Payton, a man who was no stranger to the ravages of that sinister illness.

"Never die easy," Payton said. "Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It's okay to lose, to die, but don't die without trying, without giving it your best."

People love Urban Meyer because he wins big. People love Mark Dantonio because he mocks his rivals on and off the field. Folks love Jim Harbaugh in spite of his flaws because he get results on Saturdays. Minnesotans love Jerry Kill for what he represents to their University--for the man he is and for the character he brought to a sport and a position where character seems ever harder to come by.

Jerry Kill was the hero Minnesota needed, and a hero that the beast of college football largely does not deserve. He will be missed.

Never die easy, Jerry.