The most compelling story in college football this fall has nothing to do with who is going to win the national championship or whether Mack Brown is going to survive the season as the coach at Texas. Though compelling might be the wrong word for what is going on at the University of Minnesota. Perhaps sad, disturbing or unsettling are more appropriate.
The Golden Gophers are trying to avoid finishing at or near the bottom of the Big Ten. They are a program in transition, having gone 3-9 two years ago in Jerry Kill’s first season as coach and 6-7 — losing a bowl game — last season. They were 4-0 to start this season against a weak nonconference schedule but have lost the last two weeks, at home to Iowa and on the road to Michigan.
But wins and losses are not at the heart of the Minnesota story. Kill is — specifically his health. He suffered an epileptic seizure Saturday morning and missed that day’s game in Ann Arbor. It was the second seizure he has suffered this season and the fourth that caused him to miss all or part of a game in his three seasons at Minnesota.
“One thing I’ve learned about epilepsy is that it’s a moving target,” Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon. “Jerry’s resting today, but I suspect he’ll be in the office tonight. The most important thing for us right now is to help Jerry, but there has to be concern about the perception that’s out there because of what he’s dealing with right now.”
Minnesota knew Kill had a history of seizures when it hired him in December 2010 after successful stints at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. His first seizure took place in 2000, and his first in-game seizure occurred in 2005 when he was at Southern Illinois.
The second seizure may have saved Kill’s life. He complained of back pains afterward, and tests showed he had stage 4 kidney cancer. He has been in remission since surgery to remove the kidney.
But now, even though Kill has seen different physicians, switched medications and has moderated his diet, the seizures seem to be becoming more frequent. Of the Gophers’ past eight games, Kill has missed all or part of three because of a seizure. Prior to the season, he told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune he had never felt healthier, but he refused to answer a direct question about how many seizures he had experienced during the offseason.
Teague might have the most difficult job in college athletics right now. He has been at Minnesota only since June 2012. He has a football coach who he believes is doing the right things to try to rebuild a program but may not be healthy enough to finish the job. Now he may face a decision that is far more complicated than deciding a coach’s fate based on wins and losses.
If Kill had no health problems, his future at Minnesota probably would not be in doubt — at least not this season. The Gophers won three more games last season, Kill’s second, than in his first. But they have won a total of four Big Ten games since his arrival, and after Saturday’s 42-13 loss to Michigan, they are 13-18 overall under Kill. If they were to finish the season with a losing record — which looks entirely possible at the moment — there might be some pressure on Teague to make a change.