Flip Saunders, who first came to Minnesota from Ohio in 1973 to play college hoops for Bill Musselman's Gophers squad, passed away this past Sunday from Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He was only 60 years old.
One of the best compliments paid to Saunders was the fact that a good number of hoops fans were not aware of he wasn't even a native Minnesotan. After graduating from the U of M 38 years ago, Saunders was employed in Minnesota basketball (whether as an assistant or head coach) for approximately half that time.
I never had the privilege of knowing Saunders but my friend (and frequent radio show guest) Mike McCollow had known him for more than 35 years. Mike's lifelong friend Steve Rushin, a veteran writer for Sports Illustrated, penned an article back in July 2006 about how he and Mike first came to know Saunders. The big takeaway from that story is how Saunders never forgot those friends/acquaintances who knew him at the beginning of his coaching career.
Another personality trait of Saunders' was his willingness to befriend media members (specifically while coaching the Wolves) who covered his team regularly. Media folks can be quite wary of such an arrangement due to the risk that they may not be as impartial when reporting on the team. Former Star Tribune scribes Steve Aschburner and Dan Barreiro both talked about that very dynamic in their respective remembrances. Both essentially indicated that when criticism was levied, Saunders may have not liked it but never held a grudge. As it turns out, Saunders was someone who genuinely enjoyed the company of others and didn't put conditions on friendship.
I received a text from a friend Wednesday morning that merely said "Jerry Kill retiring???" I was genuinely baffled by that inquiry as I had heard no speculation on this. Turns out the University of Minnesota Gophers head football coach was indeed moving on.
Choking back tears, Kill, 54, announced Wednesday morning that he was retiring immediately, shocking fans across the state as he explained that he could no longer coach the way he wants because of his health issues.
With his wife, Rebecca, tearfully watching near the side of a university stage, Kill told a stunned audience that his seizures had returned, he hadn’t slept more than three hours a night in weeks, he had quit taking some of his medication and that he doesn’t “have any more energy.”
“This is not the way I wanted to go out,” Kill said. “But you all know about the struggles, and I did my best to change. But some of those struggles have returned, and I don’t want to cheat the game.”
Beth Goetz, the university’s interim athletic director, named defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys the team’s interim coach for the rest of the season. Goetz said the school will begin the search for Kill’s permanent replacement “in due course.”
“We are grateful for Jerry Kill’s service,” University President Eric Kaler said. “Our program is enormously advanced from where it was when he arrived.”
Kill had said prior to the 2013 season that he would step away if it got to the point where he couldn't give this job the attention he felt it deserved. But within that season, Kill suffered a seizure prior to a game against Michigan, resulting in his taking some time away from the team in an effort to get better. When Kill did return, he performed limited coaching duties from the press box.
With Kill on the sidelines full time in 2014, the Gophers had one of their better seasons in recent memory, culminating with their first New Years Day bowl game in more than 50 years. It appeared Kill had at least managed his health to the degree that allowed him to perform his coaching duties. Sadly, that was not the case this season.
“I went through a bad situation two years ago, and I’m headed right back there,” Kill said. “I haven’t slept. Two nights ago, my wife was up with me all night, and I slept one hour and came to work. The most sleep I’ve gotten over the last three weeks is probably three hours or less.
“She stays there and sits in a chair and watches me,” Kill said, as Rebecca Kill wiped away tears. “That’s what she did last night. Hell, that ain’t no way to live. I’ve taken years off my life and hers. But we both say we’d do it again, wouldn’t we? Damn right.”
I'm not going to lie. I welled up with tears more than a few times while watching Kill's press conference. During said presser, Kill said on more than one occasion that he had no idea what he was going to do now. However, given he's a God fearing man, Kill remarked that he would leave the matter in the "Big Man's hands."
Today's presser also galvanized my respect for Kill the man. Here's a guy who has known nothing else in his adult life but coaching football, yet was willing to walk away from his passion (one that pays quite handsomely) because he genuinely loves his family and thus doesn't want to put his long term well being at risk. It also proves what a man of integrity he is when he equates not having the ability to give all he can to "stealing" his salary.
"....I don’t have any more energy. None. I’ve left it all right here in the great state of Minnesota.”
Speaking personally as a Gophers fan, I appreciate what Kill did for the football program and admire him for his integrity. Godspeed, coach.