Syracuse’s Texas Bowl opponent heads to Houston after wrapping up its best regular-season finish in 10 years, and it did so with its head coach guiding his team from the press box for the second half of the regular season. In his third year at Minnesota, Kill has had five seizures, the most recent before the team’s Oct. 5 loss at Michigan.
Since then, his team rattled off four straight Big Ten wins for the first time in 40 years — including victories against Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State — before dropping two straight to Wisconsin and Michigan State to close the regular season.
“They could have gone the other direction, but they rallied around the situation and really stepped it up,” Kill told reporters in Houston on Thursday.
“That’s really when we kind of turned a corner in our program.”
Taking over for Kill on the sidelines while he manages his health has been longtime assistant Tracy Claeys, who turns 45 on Christmas Day and first coached with Kill in 1995 at Saginaw Valley State before joining him at Emporia State in 1999 as defensive coordinator, a position he has held on Kill’s staffs at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
“There are not egos in the room,” Kill said. “I think that’s why we’ve been together so long. I don’t sit there and say, ‘Hey this is the way it’s going to be and I don’t want any input.’ We’ve always had input. We’ve worked together, so when something happens everybody knows what to do. It’s not like it’s a big situation.
“And our players did a great job. I mean, when I walked into practice it was different. They stepped it up. I didn’t have to say, ‘Hey, get over here to the next drill.’ They just did it.”
Clayes was there in the waning moments of a 2005 game at Southern Illinois when Kill suffered his first on-field seizure. Follow-up tests showed Kill had kidney cancer, which he beat. In August, Kill told ESPN’s Rick Reilly that he estimates he had 20 seizures over the last two years.
Kill had been hesitant to use the word epilepsy until last year, when he received an angry email from a fan who called him “a freak.” In an impassioned response on a local radio station, Kill stood up for the many people who suffer from epilepsy and said, “I’m not a freak and neither are they. We’re normal people. (I’m) trying to coach the game of football.”
Kill has been quite good at doing so, too. Known for his rebuilding efforts at his previous coaching stops, he has Minnesota trending upward and will look to secure the Gophers first bowl victory since 2004, when they defeated Alabama, 20-16 in the Music City Bowl.
“For us, it shows you you’re moving the program forward,” Kill said. “It shows you that, hey, people recognize that you’re doing good things. This time of year, this is what you work for 365 days.”