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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Joe Christensen: Minnesota’s Jerry Kill proves to be ‘great coach to have around’

Joe Christensen Minneapolis Star Tribune

CHICAGO – Jerry Kill has worked hard to get his epilepsy in check heading into another football season. Now, about that leg injury.

The Gophers coach walked with a slight limp this week at Big Ten Media Days, still hobbling from an ill-advised decision to join the players in a recent conditioning drill.

“Jiminy Christmas, it’s the back of my low hamstring, down in my calf,” Kill grumbled Tuesday.

But the mere fact Kill even considered participating in a drill the players call “Up-downs” spoke volumes about his overall health. After taking a two-week leave last fall to manage his epilepsy and coaching several games from the press box, Kill was back to 100 percent, at least until the hamstring incident.

“I’ve done a lot of walking,” he said. “I dropped about 12-13 pounds, quit drinking Coke and Diet Coke. I’m drinking water. All the things that can help bring on (seizure) situations, I’ve made sure I addressed.”

Kill pledged to start driving again, knowing that would mean remaining seizure-free for at least three months before doing so. And, sure enough, he was behind the wheel of a new, white Ford F-150 by February.

Recognizing his work improving the program from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 in his first three years, the university gave Kill a one-year contract extension, through 2018, and nearly doubled his yearly salary to an average of $2.3 million.

Kill, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005, has missed parts of four games because of seizures in his three seasons with the Gophers, including the Western Illinois and Michigan contests last year.

Last fall, after returning from his leave, he coached the final seven games from the press box before returning to the sideline for the second half of the Texas Bowl. In May, Kill said that he would be back on the sideline this fall, and he reiterated that Tuesday.

“It’s not a major difference,” Kill said of coaching from the press box. “My ego’s not that big. If there’s a situation I don’t feel comfortable with, I can go in the box. But right now I plan on being on the field.”

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who served as interim head coach last season on the sidelines while Kill was in the press box, plans to return upstairs.

Spring practices were open to the public, and Kill was clearly in charge. He made it through a grueling June that included 15-hour work days with his recruiting camps and fundraising events. He took a much needed eight-day vacation in early July.

But about 10 days ago, he was watching his players go through a 6 a.m. conditioning workout. They were doing “Up-downs,” a drill in which they run in place and drop their chest to the ground each time they hear a whistle.

“We had guys struggling on our last 10 reps,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “We’re trying to get guys going, and then Coach Kill goes in there and does it himself. I think he hurt himself maybe on rep six, and he finished the drill.”

Kill, who turns 53 next month, said he felt something “pop” in his hamstring and kept going until he felt something “pop” again. He’s still waiting for the swelling to subside.

“When somebody isn’t running very good, I run,” Kill said. “You can laugh or get after me, but when you turn 50, it’ll be a good lesson for you – that you don’t need to play with your kids after 50 years old.”

Leidner couldn’t help but smile when asked about Kill.

“There were even times this summer, when the freshmen would be doing their own conditioning, trying to get in shape,” Leidner said. “We’d look over there, and coach Kill’s running with them. He’s a great coach to have around. He really cares about the players, and he’s going to push you and get you out of your comfort zone, for sure.”

Aside from the injury, Kill looked and sounded like his old self in Chicago. He plans to be in Bristol, Connecticut, on Wednesday for a series of appearances on ESPN’s various television and radio platforms.