Do Kill’s sideline seizures present the University of Minnesota with a dilemma?

Inspirational — or a handicap? (Dave Einsel/AP)
  1. Listen MPR’s Alex Friedrich discusses the debate around coach Jerry Kill

    Sept. 17, 2013

University of Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill was scheduled to be back at work today after suffering an epileptic seizure during Saturday’s game against Western Illinois.

He returns with the full backing of Athletic Director Norwood Teague, who told reporters today he was “confident” in Kill’s ability to overcome his condition.

“I see what he does, and I see the way the kids react to him,” he said. “That really overrides a lot of things that are going on, and I’m excited about us moving forward.”

But the seizure has raised some uncomfortable questions about whether Kill is physically up to the job.

Some skeptics say it’s a problem that the seizures are happening so publicly. They say he and the U could become an object of pity if the seizures continue, and fear he could die from a seizure — right in front of a large television audience. That wouldn’t help the U win fans or recruit players.

And they note that he hasn’t always been able to finish out the game, as was the case on Saturday. The stress of coaching seems to be getting to him, they say, and that for his own health perhaps he should no longer be head coach.

And yet it’s tough to say that the seizures really have affected Kill’s performance.

A head coach may make certain crucial decisions during games, but the nuts and bolts of running the game fall to the assistant coaches. Gopher coaches did well on Saturday, winning the game.

“Look at the way our kids operated in the second half and the way they played, and the way [Kill's] assistants just don’t miss a beat,” Teague said. “All in all, it’s a well-oiled machine.”

Former U Athletic Director Mark Dienhart, who now runs the Schulze Family Foundation, agreed:

“There’s virtually no risk,” he said, “that Coach Kill having a seizure during a game is going to affect the play of the team.”

And Saturday game days are just one part of the job. Teague says the real work lies in the recruiting, the big-picture decisions, how Kill manages the program and his coaches. He does a good job there, he said, and seizures aren’t a distraction.

Dienhart said the real impact — if there is one — could be in recruiting.

He said, “There are other coaches who are competing for the same players that the University of Minnesota is trying to recruit, who are saying to those recruits out there: ‘While everybody loves and admires Jerry Kill, the unfortunate thing is that you probably won’t be playing for him when you’re a senior because, of course, he’s got these health problems. … You may want to come our way, because we’re more stable.’ ”

But that kind of tactic, he said, could backfire with recruits, and expecially with fans inspired by Kill’s courage to work through his illness.

“A lot of people who may not have been on the Gopher bandwagon,” Dienhart said, “are going to hope the program succeeds largely because of Jerry Kill.”

(A spokesman for the University of Minnesota Alumni Association says he wasn’t aware of any concerned calls by U alumni over the matter.)

Even if the U wanted to replace Kill, it would encounter an obstacle in the Americans with Disabilities Act, said U law professor Stephen Befort.

The U couldn’t fire Kill, he said, as long as he could still perform the “essential functions” of the job. It would have to make “reasonable” accommodations for him as well. (Teague, for example, has lightened Kill’s workload a bit to help out.)

But Befort said it’s unclear where the U would draw that line.

In any case, he said, the U probably couldn’t fire Teague based on the concerns of fans. He mentioned the case of an airline wanting only female flight attendants because customers preferred them over equally capable male ones.

“If fans are unhappy,” he said, “that’s sort of a customer preference issue which, in a disability case … [is] not considered to be a viable employer defense.”

Filing and winning a disabilities lawsuit has traditionally been difficult, at least until recent changes were made to the disabilities law, Befort said. Plaintiffs lost more cases than they won.

In the end, he said, the expense of a big contract buyout “might provide Coach Kill more protection than [the disabilities act] does.”

  • kevins

    He has epilepsy and he is a football coach. One does not define the other. Leave him alone unless you are an expert in one or the other.

  • Laurie Olmon

    Coach has had 3 sideline seizures, how many coaches have diabetes or other physical disabilities? Chief Justice Roberts has Epilepsy and no one is asking for him to step down.
    My epilepsy has made me who I am. You do not have the expertise to speak on this. Just back off will you, the only people that are complaining are bigoted fans.

  • L. Campbell

    I love irony, and this is some of the best…Concern that people attending an event highlighted by players “writhing on the ground” and sustaining closed head injuries might be offended by a coach experiencing a seizure.

  • Tracy Gulliver

    Kill Ignorance about Epilepsy

    I applaud those on the Minnesota Gophers team, those in the sports world, and those in the media who have challenged some of the comments made about Coach Jerry Kill.

    Those who question Kill’s ability to serve as coach because he has epilepsy, also call into question of the ability three million Americans—including reporters, politicians, executives, educators, health professionals, and veterans—who live with the unpredictability of seizures. Many don’t mention that they have epilepsy because of events like the most recent media firestorm that has shined the spotlight on the medical timeout that Coach Kill needed at his most recent game.

    When people question whether Coach Kill is qualified to do his job, they reinforce the silence of others who deal with seizures. Who wants to compete against public misunderstanding? It takes a lot of stamina to tackle antiquated attitudes. Ninety-nine percent of the time, qualified people who experience an occasional seizure are perfectly capable of doing their job and doing it well.

    When a football player gets hurt, no one writes him off as incapable of playing again. The game doesn’t stop when he limps off the field. Another team member is called in and the next play is called. Players don’t rely on only one person to coach them. When one of the coaching team members is “on the bench,” the team still has others to advise them on their next play.

    How often does a coach lose his temper during a football game? How often does the media question whether he should continue to coach whenever he displays this “out of control” behavior? Loss of control due to a seizure is just as temporary. And more excusable than emotional outbursts.

    At times like this, it seems our society hasn’t advanced much beyond the archaic thinking that once associated epilepsy with demons and witchcraft. It’s no wonder that many of the three million Americans with epilepsy are reluctant to step out of the shadows and explain that epilepsy is only part of their lives, when some people treat seizures—and the people who suffer from them—with suspicion, doubt, and misunderstanding.

    This incident will blow over as interest wanes. This story will be replaced by the next event deemed newsworthy. But thoughtless comments that have been tossed around will linger in the minds of adults, college students, and children affected by epilepsy. It will reinforce the silence of some. It will initiate that silence in others.

    The competition between ignorance and enlightenment is stiff. We need to push through the line of ignorance; tackle each thoughtless comment; crush each misconception; and pass on facts about epilepsy, the way Coach Kill is doing. With the help of others cheering on, we get closer to the goal of public education and score one more touchdown for public understanding.

    Tracy Gulliver

    Author, Speaker, Instructor, and one of the three million