By Jordan Ray
Several years ago, a young college quarterback was walking through the football facility at Northern Illinois University, when his head coach stopped him.
“What have you done today to get better?” the coach asked.
“Uh…uh…you know, I’m not really sure, Coach. I lifted?” the quarterback responded, caught off guard and a little in awe of his coach’s presence.
“You’re either getting better,” the coach said, “or you’re getting worse. Every single day. You’re never staying the same.”
Kill, 54, revived the football programs at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before he took over as head coach at the University of Minnesota, where he ended his career Wednesday due to health concerns.
But Kill leaves behind a legacy that includes three conference titles at SIU and a division championship at NIU.
“There’s no doubt Coach Kill helped set the stage for where we are as a program right now,” NIU coach Rod Carey said in a statement. “Personally, he was always willing to help and spend time with me, talk with me as I started out as a head coach. He is just a genuine, genuine person who is stepping aside for all the right reasons. It’s so hard, because we’re going to miss him.”
Before arriving at the DeKalb campus, Kill turned an SIU program that had gone 14-30 in its previous four seasons into a winner. His 55-32 record with the Salukis still ranks as the second-highest winning percentage in program history.
“Coach Kill has had an impact on every campus he has coached, high school or college,” SIU athletic director Tommy Bell said in a statement. “He has mentored many young men and women as players, coaches and staff with leadership, character and passion that are life altering to the recipients. That leadership style is what makes him a legendary figure to all of us.”
At NIU, Kill led the Huskies to bowl appearances in each of his three seasons. The athletic director who hired him, Jim Phillips, now has the same position at Northwestern.
Phillips was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but previously described Kill as “a guy you’d turn your son over to” in a 2012 Chicago Tribune story.
Harnish, who eventually went on to play football professionally for the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, started 31 games for Kill at NIU, racking up more than 7,000 yards of offense during that stretch.
“When you look back, you just realize how much he did for you,” Harnish said. “Man, you’re just so thankful that he entered your life.”
In 2010, Kill left NIU for Minnesota, where he would go on to lead the Gophers to consecutive 8-5 seasons in 2013 and 2014 and earn Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
“He is what college football is all about,” Big Ten analyst and former Nebraska wide receiver Matt Davison said.
Northwestern played Minnesota every season during Kill’s tenure there, and Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald had nothing but praise for his former rival Thursday.
“Unbelievable man,” Fitzgerald said of Kill, “great coach, great person. I think an inspiration to us all with his toughness and his perseverance.”
Kill regularly suffered from epileptic seizures throughout his career. In July, he announced that he had been seizure-free for 18 months, but the seizures eventually returned, cutting his career short.
Kill announced his retirement in an emotional press conference Wednesday morning.
Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill announces his retirement.
“This is not the way I wanted to go out,” Kill said, “but you all know about the struggles. I did my best to change, but some of those struggles have returned, and I don’t want to cheat the game. And I ain’t gonna change.”
“I feel like I can beat anything. I hate losing. And I feel like I’m losing today. It’s an empty feeling.”
Harnish said he commends Kill for putting his health first, describing the move as “very selfless.” He also praised his former coach for being one of the few “good guys” in sports today.
“You think of guys like [TCU coach] Gary Patterson and Bill Snyder with Kansas State,” Harnish said. “[Guys] that are fundamentally sound, and do things the right way, not just in the game, but in life. And Jerry’s one of those guys.”
Harnish mentioned the adjustment to not thinking of Kill as a coach anymore feels a little strange to him.
“It’s just awkward, man,” Harnish said. “It’s weird not seeing Coach Kill coaching football. It’s going to be really different for a lot of those guys that worked and played for him.”
And while Kill said the adjustment to life beyond football would be hard, he used his final press conference as an opportunity, like the opportunity he had with Harnish all those years ago, to lend some advice.
“Count on your health,” he said, “instead of your wealth. Count on God, instead of yourself.”