Coming off a 3-9 season, head football coach Jerry Kill and his Gophers players have plenty of areas to improve upon before the wheels start turning.
Still, Kill understands he can’t stay under the hood the entire time.
During an offseason loaded with national recruiting trips and team meetings, Kill has set aside time for 23 community events to date. Most of them are speaking engagements across Minnesota at which Kill promotes the future of the team.
“We have to sell our vision to the community and to our state,” Kill said. “It’s their team. We just have to reflect our team and let them know that.”
Kill said he has focused on two things since the Gophers’ recruiting period ended with National Signing Day on Feb. 1: his players and making public appearances.
It’s an often-overlooked aspect of a head football coach’s duties. Kill has spoken with coaches and alumni in Bloomington, Minn.; the community foundation in Preston, Minn., and a women’s group in Edina, Minn., among others.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 100 at a luncheon sponsored by CORES (Coaches, Officials, Reports, Educators, Sports Fans), Kill addressed the importance of high school coaches — who made up the bulk of his audience — in developing players. He also stressed the need for public support when the team is struggling like his.
“I’m only here for coach Kill,” Bob Elliott, 75, said at the March 8 event in Bloomington.
Elliott, a self-proclaimed life-long Gophers fan, said he and his wife had to sell their season tickets when the Gophers moved to TCF Bank Stadium in 2009.
“We can’t handle those winter Saturdays outdoors,” he said. “So it’s wonderful [Kill] can come to us. Otherwise, we all wouldn’t get this chance.”
In addition to speaking in Minnesota and at a couple of national football clinics, Kill said he also sets aside time for a “special young lady.”
Ten-year old Mia Gerold, a St. Paul native diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer almost two years ago, has become close friends with Kill, who is a cancer survivor.
“I went and spoke in Florida on [March 3] at a Nike clinic,” Kill said. “Flew back and had a hot date with Mia at the Make-A-Wish foundation gala.
“She even got me out on the dance floor.”
The coach and Mia formed a bond when they met almost a year ago — a bond Mia said developed quickly.
“I was kind of nervous at first,” Mia said. “But I felt like I knew him better after maybe an hour.”
Their bond grew as Kill showed her around during a Gophers practice and had her speak to the team.
Kill asked Mia to lead the Gophers out onto the field for last season’s Sept. 10 home opener against New Mexico State. But it wasn’t just football that brought them closer.
“I feel like we already had a strong connection, but it’s even stronger and more helpful because he has battled [cancer],” Mia said. “He knows exactly how it is and what it feels like. Anybody can say, ‘I know how you feel,’ but he’s been through it.”
Kill, diagnosed with kidney cancer in late 2005, has also endured a battle with seizures, which led to a public episode on the sidelines in the waning seconds of the New Mexico State game.
The lasting seizure condition meant that Kill had to seek clearance from the NCAA for his wife, Rebecca, to travel with him this offseason for his nationwide recruiting ventures.
In Mia, he had another personal consultant only a phone call away.
“He’d call me and tell me about traveling around and getting to new places,” Mia said. “I feel like I’m really lucky [to be Kill’s friend], and it’s not just something to do that’s cool. It’s something that’s really great in my heart.”
Mia’s mother, Sandy Gerold, said interpersonal relationships are important to Kill in improving the University of Minnesota’s brand name.
“He’s not afraid to speak about the things that matter,” Sandy Gerold said. “And they’re not always about football. I think [Mia] is not the only one who has a better opinion of the University of Minnesota because of Jerry Kill.”
With spring practices starting Thursday for the Gophers, Kill said he’ll have to redirect his attention to preparing the team. But there will be some familiar faces in attendance this spring: Sandy Gerold said she’d take Mia to some spring practices and as many games as she can.
Even though Mia said the 50-year-old, stout football coach has held her hand everywhere they’ve gone, Kill said the roles aren’t always as they seem.
“She’s probably taught coach Kill more than I’ve taught her,” he said.