MINNEAPOLIS — Even as his seizures have grown in frequency over the last two years, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has always maintained that his epilepsy would never slow him down.
When he wasn’t able to make it to a game for the first time in his coaching career last weekend against Michigan, Kill decided it was time to take a step back, put his health before football for once and try to get a handle on an issue that has taken him from the sideline twice in the last month.
Kill and the university announced Thursday that the coach is taking an open-ended leave of absence from the team to focus on treatment and management of his epilepsy, and it is uncertain when he will be able to return to the Golden Gophers.
“This was a difficult decision to make, but the right decision,” Kill said in a statement distributed by the university. “Our staff has been together a long time and I have full confidence in coach Claeys and them during my time away. Every decision that will be made will be in the best interest of the players and the program. I look forward to returning to the Minnesota sideline on a full-time basis soon.”
As he has each time Kill has been absent from the sideline, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will fill in as acting head coach. Kill and the bulk of his assistants have been together longer than any staff in the country, and they’ll lean on that continuity and familiarity now more than ever.
“As a staff we are all happy he’s made this decision to do this,” Claeys said. “We support him 100 percent. We will represent him well ... for however long it is.”
Kill has had five seizures on game day in his two-plus seasons at Minnesota. President Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague have steadfastly stood behind him through those absences, insisting that the issue could be managed and that the progress the program showed under Kill validated their faith in him.
But Kill is on record saying he couldn’t continue to miss parts of games, as he did for the second half of last season’s game against Michigan State. The seizures appeared to worsen this season. He missed the second half of a win over Western Illinois on Sept. 14 and then couldn’t even make the trip with the team to Ann Arbor, Mich., last weekend.
That absence appears to have hit home particularly hard for Kill, who has overcome kidney cancer and dealt with seizures for years.
“When he didn’t make it to game day, for the first time,” Claeys said, “I know he does not want that to happen.”