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.
Clearly, Teague isn’t thinking that way. “I think he’s an amazing coach,” he said. “He knows what has to be done for us to have success. Most of his staff has been with him forever, and when these health issues happen they’re almost seamless in the way they deal with it. His players love him. We all want him to coach here for a long time.”
But any decisions Teague might make on Kill involve much more than his record. There are some who believe Kill voluntarily should step aside now, especially with Minnesota going into a bye week. The sense is that it is unfair to the players not to know whether their coach is going to be able to show up on Saturdays and, if he does, not know whether he will make it through the game.
His coaches say they know exactly what to do when a seizure occurs and that Kill is always back ready to go to work within 24 hours. Players admitted in separate stories by the Star-Tribune and the New York Times that seeing Kill go through a seizure is upsetting but that they are comforted knowing each time he will recover soon.
After Kill suffered a seizure during a game against Western Illinois last month, Star-Tribune columnist Jim Souhan suggested Kill should step down, noting that “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.” He also pointed out that Kill had had as many seizures on home game days (four, three during games) as overall Big Ten victories since his arrival at Minnesota.
Souhan was buried in negative e-mails and tweets after the column, many from people involved in epilepsy-awareness programs. While his pointed language may have been insensitive, the points he raised about whether Kill could continue to do the job were legitimate ones — points that will be raised anew this week.
Kill, who turned 52 in August, has said in the past that if the seizures became frequent that the school wouldn’t have to fire him, that he would walk away voluntarily. The question now: What is the definition of frequent?
Teague conceded that question has been asked and will be asked again now. “It’s pointless for anyone to speculate right now,” he said. “We have to try to help Jerry manage this day-to-day.”
Epilepsy is not life-threatening and, according to experts cited by the Star-Tribune, can be controlled without seizures in about 70 percent of those afflicted with it.
Clearly, a decision to leave because of his health would have to be made by Kill. Minnesota doesn’t play again until Oct. 19 at Northwestern. There is a lot more for Kill and everyone around him to think about between now and then than that game.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.