Johnson: Kill makes right move

Dean Johnson and his fellow University of Minnesota Board of Regents members typically don't interact on a day-to-day basis with U staffers and employees.

Dean Johnson and his fellow University of Minnesota Board of Regents members typically don’t interact on a day-to-day basis with U staffers and employees.

For the Willmar resident and Regents board chair, Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill became the exception to that rule.

So it was with tears in his eyes that Johnson agonized with his “dear, dear friend” on Wednesday as a sorrowful Kill announced his retirement from coaching for health reasons.

“Why do Minnesotans love him?” Johnson said. “He speaks his mind, he’s down to earth, he’s a man of integrity and he has mentored literally hundreds of young men, not only in football but in the rest of their lives. We look up to people like that, who are a shining example of how we should live out our lives.”

Johnson, who will be on campus Friday for groundbreaking ceremonies for the U’s $166 million Athletics Village, said Kill has been the “main stalwart, proponent and fundraiser” for the project and that that work combined with his coaching duties likely worsened his epilepsy. Kill has dealt with seizures since 1992, and he also battled and beat kidney cancer while head coach at Southern Illinois in 2005.


Kill, named the Gophers’ head coach in 2010, has suffered very publicly from seizures in his five years as Gophers head coach and he missed seven games in 2013 as he attempted to get his condition under control.

Kill said he hadn’t suffered a seizure since then until recently, including two on Tuesday. On the advice of doctors, Kill said chose to retire rather than risk even more dire health concerns later in life. He said coaching while dealing with his health issues has taken years off his life and that of his wife. Kill said he’s slept no more than three hours a night in past weeks.

“Hell, that ain’t no way to live,” he said.

Johnson said he wasn’t surprised by Kill’s decision to give up on his life’s love. Johnson, U president Eric Kaler and Kill had been discussing Kill’s health concerns over the last 10 days. Kill had been putting in 20-hour days, coaching, speaking and fundraising.

“As head coach of a major football team, he was just simply wearing himself out,” Johnson said. “Yeah, it’s sad, and yet as you say to someone that you’ve done the very best that you could, his two priorities in life are his health and his family, and those are good priorities to have.”

Johnson said he and Kill grew close by happenstance. Johnson introduced his wife, a native Nebraskan, to Kill, who hails from Kansas.

“That led to a little back and forth, and planning for the Athletics Village led to more conversations,” Johnson said. “We started trusting each other as individuals.”

Kill and Johnson kept in touch regularly via text messages, phone calls and face-to-face visits.


“He felt comfortable talking about some of the struggles and challenges of being a head coach,” Johnson said. “I appreciated his willingness to visit the last few years. I consider him a very, very dear, dear friend. When I listened to his press conference (on Wednesday), I had tears running down my cheeks. He was a hurting man. He was a burdened human being and hopefully he can get some rest and get better.”

The sadness of the day was overwhelming but Johnson said he tried to focus on the positive impact Kill has had on the football program.

“As we lament his retirement, I think of all the good things he’s done,” Johnson said. “He went to four bowl games, the (grade-point average) of the team has increased an entire point, the graduation rate has increased and the recruiting class coming in is his best ever.”

Long-time Kill protege Tracy Claeys will take over as interim head coach for the remainder of the season and Johnson said the university will address the coaching position after an oversight committee investigating former athletic director Norwood Teague completes its work in the next month or two.

For now, Claeys will handle football operations and interim AD Beth Goetz will continue as Teague’s successor, Johnson said.

“We feel good,” Johnson said. “We have two people at this time who are very capable that are in place.”

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