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Minnesota Football: The sad saga of Jerry Kill

The former Minnesota head coach has allowed his ego to tarnish his legacy

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

As you’ve probably heard by now, Jerry Kill is returning to Minnesota. Now that he is the head coach at New Mexico State, returning to the head coaching ranks six years after his abrupt retirement, he’ll be stopping by Huntington Bank Stadium for a visit on Thursday, Sept. 1.

And for some reason, Jerry is certain he’ll get booed.

“I’ll get booed out of the stadium, probably,” he said at his introductory press conference when asked about the Aggies’ season opener against the Gophers. Kill also admitted to having “a little chip on my shoulder,” wanting to prove wrong those who “counted the old man out.”

Both comments are a bit bizarre when you look back on his tenure at Minnesota.

Kill was hired in December 2010 and inherited a program that had bottomed out under Tim Brewster. He racked up a number of milestones, including beating Nebraska for the first time since 1960, beating both Michigan and Iowa in the same season for the first time since 1967, and leading the Gophers to their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962. Kill also helped the program improve in the classroom after being plagued with academic problems under Brewster.

It came as a shock to everyone when he abruptly retired midseason in 2015, and it was a decision that Kill had come to on his own. No one had counted him out.

So why does Kill think he’ll get booed at Minnesota? And where did he get this chip on his shoulder, if not from Gopher fans? Well, applying scrutiny to aspects of Kill’s generally congenial tenure at Minnesota raises some flags about his rose-colored perception of his time with the program. That’s not to say P.J. Fleck is without sin, but Kill sure likes casting stones, which is interesting when you consider some of the things he has said and done over the last six years.

The A.J. Barker saga

Early in his tenure at Minnesota, Kill raised eyebrows with some of his disciplinary tactics, which included forcing players to practice while wearing brown or pink shirts that read, “Minnesota Loafers” and “I let my teammates down.” It was punishment for any conduct Kill considered detrimental to the team, from skipping class to showing up late to team meetings.

But no one seemed to have serious concerns until A.J. Barker quit the team.

A walk-on wide receiver from De La Salle High School, Barker saw limited action in his first three years with the program before having a breakout season as a redshirt junior in 2012. He led the team in receptions (30), receiving yards (577), and receiving touchdowns (7). But after a career-best game against Purdue in which he hauled in five receptions for 135 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Barker didn’t see the field the next three games while dealing with an ankle injury.

The day after a 38-14 loss to Nebraska, Barker announced he was quitting the team and published a 4,000-word open letter alleging he was mistreated by Kill. He accused the coaching staff of pressuring him to play while hurt and blaming him for his slow recovery, and claimed that Kill himself attacked “everything about me, from an athlete to my character as a person” in a 20-minute tirade in front of the team the previous Thursday.

Kill denied the allegations and said, “I feel bad for A.J. I feel bad that that’s the way he feels about the situation. I’ll do anything I can to help him in the future, whatever he decides to do. I’m all in it for the kids. I want to see kids be successful and do well.”

A “concerning pattern of football player conduct”

On Oct. 15, 2015, MPR News published a report that the University of Minnesota investigated five reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and retaliation by players within the football program. The complaints had been raised during the 2014-15 academic school year, prompting the university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office to reach out to then athletic director Norwood Teague about a “potential pattern” that may have been indicative of a broader problem.

The email to Teague outlined two concerns of sexual assault committed by individual football players, two concerns of sexual harassment involving groups of football players, and one concern of retaliation involving a group of football players. There were no criminal charges.

In a statement released following the report, interim athletic director Beth Goetz said, “One report of sexual assault or harassment is one too many and we took prompt, responsive action to investigate when notified of these reports.”

The first of many retirements

Following a 48-25 loss to Nebraska, Kill announced on Oct. 28, 2015 that he was retiring effective immediately due to health reasons. Kill had dealt with epilepsy his entire coaching career, suffering seizures during multiple games throughout his tenure at Minnesota.

In an emotional press conference, Kill explained that his doctor warned him his health could worsen if he continued on his current path, and advised him to step down in the best interest of his family and future. He admitted to feeling as if “a part of me died” when he walked off the practice field the previous night, knowing he may never coach again.

Kill receiving an outpouring of public sympathy and support, including a “Thank You, Coach Kill” open letter published right here on this very blog by yours truly.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was named interim head coach before having the interim tag removed by interim athletic director Beth Goetz in November.

Jerry wants a job — just not that job

Four months after his abrupt retirement, Kill told Joe Christensen at The Star Tribune that he and then University President Eric Kaler could not agree on a permanent role for him at Minnesota.

“I visited with the president, and it was very professional in manner,” Kill said. “He would like me to speak on behalf of the university, raise money and teach a class or two. I really appreciate that offer, but I want to be involved with athletics. I’ve been involved with athletics my whole life, and I want to be around the kids more than anything.”

“That wasn’t part of the offer. I understand that, but that was the deal-breaker for me.”

Even though he wasn’t able to secure a position in the athletics department, Kill at least seemed to be on good terms with the university. “I love the university,” he said. “I’ll always be a Gopher. If the university needs my help, I’m a phone call away.”

“I won’t be stepping foot back in the stadium”

What a difference a year makes.

One day after Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle fired first-year head coach Tracy Claeys in the aftermath of a sexual assault scandal that had culminated in 10 player suspensions and a short-lived team boycott, Kill went on 1500 ESPN radio and ripped Coyle for his decision. He took particular issue with comments Coyle made in his press conference, during which the athletic director stated his commitment to building a football program that “operates with integrity and class academically, athletically and socially.”

“I didn’t listen to the whole press conference, but it’s my understanding that the athletic director talked about class and integrity. Well, my comment on it is to be fair, not only was I part of that program but (I know) the people. And I would say that the program was run in a first class manner. I don’t think there’s anybody in the country that would argue that – anybody that knows me or any of the assistant coaches.”

“For him to make a statement, you have to go back to Mark wasn’t even here when it started. Maybe he needs to visit with [former Minnesota AD] Joel [Maturi] and find out where the program was to where it is now and look how far it’s come.”

Kill finished his tirade by wishing Minnesota “all the luck in the world” and hoping “the program continues to do well,” but also made clear, “I won’t be stepping foot back in the stadium and I won’t be stepping back into the university.”

The blow-up at Hopkins High School

After retiring from coaching at Minnesota, Kill secured a position as an associate athletic director at Kansas State, which would enable him to work closely with then head coach Bill Snyder. But he spent less than a year in Manhattan. In December 2016, Kill was hired by then Rutgers head coach Chris Ash to serve as his next offensive coordinator.

The very next month, ahead of National Signing Day, Kill and new Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck crossed paths in the halls of Hopkins High School, where both were there to recruit Boye Mafe. Mafe confirmed that both visited him on the same day but claimed “they missed each other by about five minutes.” Not according to others, including Kill himself.

What reportedly transpired could be charitably described as Kill losing his cool after coming face to face with Fleck. Whether the halls of a high school is the time and place for such an outburst is open to debate, but Kill evidently couldn’t help himself. His animus toward Fleck can be traced back to his introductory press conference. Kill took issue with Fleck “saying they have to rebuild the program,” believing instead that Fleck was walking “into a gold mine.”

In an interview with SiriusXM’s “Big Ten Today” — more on that in a minute — Kill admitted the conversation “wasn’t good” and vowed it would be the last between him and Fleck.

The interview with SiriusXM’s “Big Ten Today”

In the two years since the incident at Hopkins High School, Kill had retired from coaching again, choosing to return to his old stomping grounds at Southern Illinois to serve as a special assistant to the chancellor before eventually being promoted to athletic director.

In February 2019, Kill sat down with Matt Schick and A.J. Hawk for an interview on Big Ten Today and decided to pick an old wound. He made a series of personal attacks on Fleck, talking about how he had “changed” since he had worked as an assistant under Kill, referencing how his first marriage had ended in divorce, and criticizing him for firing everyone from the previous coaching staff at Minnesota, most of whom had been hired by Kill.

Kill went on to say Fleck is more “about himself” than “about the players,” and in one of the least self-aware statements ever uttered, said, “I think sometimes ego gets carried away.”

Fleck was asked about Kill’s comments in a conversation with radio announcer Mike Grimm during halftime of a Minnesota men’s basketball game. He did not return fire:

“Listen, I’ve got a lot of respect for Jerry Kill, I always will. I’ve learned so much from him, especially working for him and knowing him a lot of years. I’m really sorry that he feels that way. I’m not sure where that came from. We’re focused on our team. I wish him all the best as he gets in the next journey of his life being an athletic director, and I hope he’s OK.”

Given Kill’s public comments about Fleck, it should come as no surprise that much is being made about their head-to-head matchup next September. And to be clear, neither of them should be anointed for sainthood. This isn’t about Fleck being better than Kill. It’s the story of a coach who has delivered a master class in how to ruin his reputation with a fan base that should be able to appreciate his efforts as their head football coach without having to be weighed down by the way he has conducted himself in the years since.