The Michigan and Minnesota football teams are both coming off bye weeks heading into their clash in Minneapolis on Saturday night. They have had time in the past two weeks to recover from losses, and time to prepare for each other.
But Wednesday, the contest became an entirely new matchup.
Minnesota announced around 7:30 a.m. that head coach Jerry Kill would step down effective immediately for health reasons. Kill, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2005, was in his fifth season with the Golden Gophers. He suffered game-day seizures in each of his first three seasons (2011 to 2013), taking a leave of absence in 2013 to focus on his health.
Before his decision to retire Wednesday, he had not had a reported incident since 2013.
“I was shocked, really,” said Michigan secondary coach Greg Jackson. “Sorry for Minnesota, but we will play Saturday. One thing we’re focused on is winning the football game and playing great defense.”
Tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh was also saddened by the news.
“I figured it was something that had to be pretty serious,” Harbaugh said. “You never want to do anything like that. I know he had a background of certain health issues, so you just hope and pray that he gets healthy, and then his family deals with everything all right. It’s a serious thing.”
Kill revealed in a press conference Wednesday that his health issues had escalated once again, and the stress of the job only compounded them. He said he hadn’t slept more than three hours in a night in the past three weeks.
As the season moves into its second half, Kill’s struggles could serve as a cautionary tale for other coaches who are under similar stress.
“I think a lot of it has to do with your work environment,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of the guys I work with, they’re serious about football, but they’re lighthearted guys. It’s fun, it’s loose and serious at the same time, if that makes any sense.”
The Wolverines now have three days to prepare to face a Minnesota team with a new face at the helm.
If any team is prepared for this sort of event, though, it’s the Golden Gophers. Kill coached from the press box during games in 2011 and 2012, while defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys led from the sideline. Claeys also took over in Kill’s absence two seasons ago, winning four of seven games while in charge.
And now, Claeys — who has been an assistant coach on Kill’s staff since they coached together at Saginaw Valley State in 1995 and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1999 at Emporia State — takes over for the rest of the season.
Minnesota is 4-3 after a 48-25 loss to Nebraska on Oct. 17. Last season, the Golden Gophers routed Michigan in Ann Arbor, 30-14, on their way to an 8-5 finish.
They have established themselves as a power-running team, and the Wolverines don’t expect to see anything different Saturday, even without Kill.
“I think that’s very indicative of who he is, maybe the best credit to him,” Harbaugh said. “They would play like their hair’s on fire regardless. I think that says a lot about who he is and how he coaches.
“You’re not going to show up and see a different team. I think that’s how he would want it, too, and that’s how those guys play.”