Sandell: Taking leave of absence is a 'huge step' for Jerry Kill
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MINNEAPOLIS -- At least for the moment, Jerry Kill has chosen to step aside.
Caught in an ongoing, public battle with epilepsy, the Minnesota Gophers coach made the bold choice on Thursday to take an indefinite leave of absence, with the hope of turning his focus solely towards getting the disorder he has struggled with for more than a decade under control.
The decision was a tremendously difficult one, and one that holds major significance to those closest to him.
For an unshakably strong-willed head football coach, who takes notable pride in his resiliency and that of his long-tenured staff, taking time away from the program he was entrusted with three years ago with rebuilding is an unprecedented move for Kill. It signals both his determination to find a long-term solution, and the realization that it has to happen now.
Even getting Kill to take a few days off in the summer to relax by a lake in his home state of Kansas, when recruiting is in a slow period and a new season is still several weeks away, takes nearly endless prodding from his family and the coaches he has called friends for more than 10 years.
But he reached a significant turning point last Saturday
After missing the Gophers' trip to face Michigan on Oct. 5 following his fifth documented game day seizure in his tenure at Minnesota, Kill understood it was time to do whatever necessary to remedy the situation.
"For the first time in his career he did not make it to game day, and I know he does not want that to happen again," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, a member of Kill's coaching staff for 19 years, and now the Gophers' acting head coach in Kill's absence.
"He has made this decision to try this before, but as he's been feeling better he's put it off. It's a big step for him ... By him missing that game finally, I think it was like, 'Hey, if I want to be here a long time I need to look into this and do what's required of me.' As a staff we are all happy that he's made the decision to do this. We support him 100 percent. We will represent him well, I can tell you that."
Claeys sat alongside Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague Thursday afternoon in the media room at TCF Bank Stadium to address Kill's status with reporters, shortly after meeting with players at the team's practice facility.
Teague would give no timetable of when he expected Kill to return. The second-year "U" athletic director repeatedly responded to questions of what this means for Kill's future with a strong showing of support, but with the caveat that it is unknown where the program will go from here.
"We're taking it day by day. I don't want to get ahead of myself or anything else," Teague said. "I want Jerry to focus on this right now, because he has the time to do it with the bye week."
Teague later added: "I don't know. It is not a static condition. There are millions of people who suffer from it ... I just know that he is going after it hard, and that really pleases me. I think it is a big time step in the right direction."
Since suffering a seizure at halftime on Sept. 14 against Western Illinois, Kill has been working with his doctors to restructure his medication. Epilepsy is a highly fluid disorder and treatment can be frustratingly trial and error-based.
Last week, as he continued to be monitored by his doctors, Kill began to not feel well, a side effect of the adjustment in medication. The decision was made then to not travel with the team Friday to Ann Arbor, with the hope of joining the team on Saturday. A seizure Saturday morning at his home in Minneapolis abruptly altered those plans.
Kill has spent the time since resting at home under the watch of his wife Rebecca, while wrestling with the decision that came to fruition on Thursday.
What does this mean for the Gophers, not just in the six games remaining in their current season but for the long-term outlook of the program as well? Those questions are still waiting to be answered, and it could be several weeks before that happens.
Neither Teague nor Claeys would rule out Kill being back for Minnesota's match-up at Northwestern on Oct. 19, but they also admitted, given the dramatic nature of this move, it could be longer.
In the meantime, Claeys and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have led practices during the bye week, while the majority of the Gophers' position coaches are on the road recruiting.
If Kill does not return before the trip to Northwestern, Claeys is expecting to leave his usual post in the press box and coach from the sidelines.
What is different about Kill's current situation, more so than at any point in his life, is that that he has resolved to take the time needed to tackle the treatment of his epilepsy head on, choosing to take a humbling, but admittedly imperative step back for the moment.
"I think it is a huge step for him and his family to decide this is the time to look at more carefully, rather than say we're going to put it off for another time," Claeys said. "He's very positive about it. He feels very good about the decision."
Deciding to step away was a major and commendable step by Kill. The key now for the 52-year-old coach is to follow through in his pursuit of stifling the disorder in the most manageable way possible. He must do so while avoiding the temptation to unnecessarily rush back to the game and team he has devoted his life to.
A premature return followed by another game day incident this season would have a seismic impact on the perception of the situation, and whether right or wrong, it would saddle Kill and Teague, as well as University of Minnesota with an uncomfortable question of "now what?"
Kill realizes that. He wouldn't have made the choice unless he felt it was undoubtedly the right one for his own longevity.
What happens next for the Gophers is unclear, but it will slowly be revealed as the next few weeks unfold.
For now, it comes down to time, which Kill now has.