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Updated: November 11th, 2013 6:51pm
Zulgad: Kill, Claeys deserve Big Ten Coach of the Year consideration

Zulgad: Kill, Claeys deserve Big Ten Coach of the Year consideration

by Judd Zulgad

There are a few signature moments in what has turned into one of the most pleasant surprises in the Minnesota sports scene in 2013.

The Gophers football team has built an 8-2 record, and a 4-2 mark in the Big Ten, with a four-game conference winning streak that is the longest in a season in 40 years.

But when one reflects on what might be the most important game this season, the realization is it might not be a victory. In fact, it could be their most lopsided loss.

The Gophers' 42-13 defeat on Oct. 5 at Michigan dropped their Big Ten record to 0-2 and came in a game coach Jerry Kill missed after he suffered from an epileptic seizure.

It was the second-known seizure that kept Kill from the sideline this season. The first occurred at halftime of the Gophers' victory over Western Illinois on Sept. 14. Kill also had missed the second half of the Gophers' Big Ten finale in 2012 after having a seizure in the locker room.

Kill's seizure in September sparked debate about what needed to be done for the best interest of his own health and the football program he was trying to coach. Unfortunately, the take away of many was that those who felt it would be best to handle the situation as soon as possible were attempting to get Kill fired.

But when Kill suffered the seizure before the Michigan game, it became clear something needed to be done and the debate seemed to subside. Kill took a leave of absence, went to a top epilepsy center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Gophers went about finding some normalcy in their season as they entered a bye week.

Those who felt Kill should continue coaching despite the seizures had been attempting to tell everyone that he was at no great risk and that his assistants and players were well versed on how to handle these episodes.

They were missing the key point.

That was that no matter how prepared they were to witness Kill's seizures, each time he had one it became a focus and upset the stability Kill had tried so hard to build.

Think about how often football people talk about avoiding distractions and the importance of keeping a consistent routine. It wasn't that the Gophers couldn't have beaten a not-great Michigan team without Kill - they trailed only 14-7 at halftime - it's that when he couldn't make the trip at the last minute, it upset everyone's routine.

Kill knew this, and to his credit, decided something needed to change.

As the Gophers' departed Michigan, every game story being written and every highlight show focusing on the Wolverines' win, made Kill's absence one of the primary story lines.

This wasn't what Kill had wanted when he took over the Gophers program in December 2010. It wasn't what any football coach would have wanted.

A month-plus later, things have turned 180 degrees.  Kill and his defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys, who has served as acting head coach on the sideline since Kill stepped away, could get serious consideration for Big Ten Coach of the Year.

That certainly will be the case if the Gophers can beat Wisconsin on Nov. 23 at TCF Bank Stadium - the team is off this week again - or can follow that up with an upset of Michigan State on Nov. 30 in East Lansing.

Kill has become increasingly more involved and has been working from the coaches' booth in the press box, sitting alongside offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and offering his input.

It wouldn't be surprising to see Kill remain upstairs for the rest of this season, partially based on superstition and partially based on the fact that this formula is working so well.

It might not be ideal for Kill, but the fact that the success of his football program -- not the discussion of his seizures -- is now the main talking point surrounding the Gophers has to be viewed as a major positive by all who follow this program.

On that we can all agree.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd