The debate over the future of Jerry Kill’s tenure at the U of M gets seized by political correctness.
The scene last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium was tragically familiar – the Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach lying down, surrounded by medical staff, the victim yet again of his epileptic condition. It was the fourth such game-day incident since Jerry Kill inherited the mess of a program left by booster-in-chief Tim Brewster. And as reports trickled in throughout the weekend, conflicting stories surfaced about how many off-field seizures Kill has had since joining the Gophers, with numbers as high as nearly a dozen seizures in one week being casually thrown about by sports radio talking heads.
Ever-present in the wake of Kill’s latest health scare was the maddening silence from Athletic Director Norwood Teague, or any official from the University of Minnesota. Teague would eventually issue the standard press release of support backing his head coach, but not before Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan did what most journalists and sports commentators have apparently found verboten to discuss – is Jerry Kill’s health a determinant to the football program?
Even those who admire him most can’t believe that he should keep coaching major college football after his latest episode. Either the stress of the job is further damaging his health, or his health was in such disrepair that he shouldn’t have been hired to coach in the Big Ten in the first place.
The face of your program can’t belong to someone who may be rushed to the hospital at any moment of any game, or practice, or news conference. No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.
The reaction to Souhan’s comments showed precisely why few, if any, major media figures have dared to broach the subject.
Souhan’s column was deemed “ill-informed, dishonorable, and just plain nasty.” Callers into Dan Barreiro’s KFAN radio show denounced the topic even being discussed, with one caller even comparing the questioning of Kill’s fitness to coach as a form of bigotry. Multiple voices demanded Jim Souhan be fired. And all this just for questioning the health of a coach whose had four seizures in 28 games.
Souhan’s harshest criticism was directed not at Jerry Kill, who has little control over the frequency and severity of his seizures, but at Teague’s combination of silence and dismissive attitude on the matter. The lack of information from Teague allows speculation to run rampant (how many seizures has Kill really had since coming to Minnesota?) and fosters the concern that Kill’s health is a bigger hurdle to the program than assumed. Such silence doesn’t help when there are legitimately poorly-informed commentaries on the issue, such as CBS Sports‘ Gregg Doyel who believes Kill is taking his life in his hand by continuing to coach. But credit Jim Souhan for starting a conversation that needs to be taking place, if not in public, than at least in private within the University.
Removing Jerry Kill based solely on his health is almost certainly impossible, as the University would quickly run into Americans with Disabilities Act provisions. But a negotiated buyout of Kill’s contract, right now at $1.2 million a year for the next five years, might be possible – if extraordinarily expensive.
The better question is should Kill step down?
Let’s dispense, if we can, with the obvious. Jerry Kill is admirable for coming as far as he has with his condition and seems like an honorable man and a competent coach. Stepping down from his job would be a major career reversal and disappointment for both Kill and fellow epileptic individuals from whom he rightly ought to be a role model. But if stress is a major factor in Kill’s epilepsy, how exactly will that stress lessen as the coach of a Big 10 team on gameday? What if Kill suffers another seizure while leading against a top-ranked team? Or in a major bowl game? Will fans be as accommodating with his condition if they believe, rightly or wrongly, that his health cost them a game? Forget the opinion of fans, how will recruits react to Kill’s health?
If Kill’s condition worsens, even with the program reducing his day-to-day activities, at what point has the University reduced Jerry Kill to more of a figurehead than an administrator? Given the trajectory of Kill’s health, with seemingly an increasing number of seizures, that point may be coming sooner than anyone wishes.
ADDENDUM: The Star Tribune editorial board, rarely a fount of wisdom, offers the definitive assessment of the impact Jerry Kill’s health has on the team – and it comes from the coach himself:
[Kill] confessed that a seizure he suffered during halftime of last November’s Michigan State game had been a low point for him because he realized “you can’t be the head football coach and miss half of the game.” If that were happening all the time, “the university wouldn’t have to fire me,” Kill said. “I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it.”