By Mike Kaszuba
Jerry Kill’s abrupt exit last fall as the head football coach at the University of Minnesota came as he was lauded for turning the program around, and after he struggled publicly with seizures caused by epilepsy.
His future with the school was again clouded in late February, after he said administrators offered him a role with the school, but no role with the athletic program. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that no longer working with athletics was a “deal breaker” that led to his departure. But Kill’s arrival in Minnesota five years ago was also abrupt, and included a newly-revealed twist, according to documents obtained by Public Record Media, a St. Paul non-profit. It also highlighted what Kill told PRM is “the bad thing about college football.”
Northern Illinois contract amendment signed
Eight days before being officially announced as the new Minnesota coach, Kill signed a contract amendment at Northern Illinois University – his former employer – that seemed to further cement his commitment to the school, and gave no indication he was about to leave. The amendment made only slight changes to his contract, and took effect on, Dec. 1, 2010, the day after Kill signed it.
The three-page contract amendment included a note from Jeffrey Compher, Northern Illinois’ director of athletics at the time. “Jerry, we and the University very much appreciate your leadership and services,” Compher wrote, “and we enthusiastically look forward to growing [Northern Illinois University] Huskie success in the years ahead for our athletes and the reputation of the institution.”
The amendment made only small changes to the compensation package for the team’s staff. The changes, for example, added an extra month’s salary for the team’s director of sports performance should the Huskies go to a bowl game. The amendment did not alter a series of bonuses Kill was eligible for – he would, as an example, be paid $25,000 if he was named Mid-American Conference coach of the year.
Kill hired by University of Minnesota
Five days after the contract amendment took effect, Northern Illinois announced – on a Sunday night – that Kill was being hired in Minnesota. The news came the same day the school said that Kill’s Northern Illinois team had been selected to play in a bowl game that would occur just 13 days later.
Kill’s sudden departure from Northern Illinois University was documented by press reports at the time. Kill ended up not coaching the team in its bowl game, and he told PRM that some of his players learned of his leaving before he made his announcement, and “were hurt.”
In an interview with PRM, Kill said the job opening in Minnesota materialized in the course of a few, whirlwind days, and noted that Northern Illinois officials knew he might one day leave should the right opening occur. He said he did not recall the specifics of the contract amendment, or its timing.
“It was like a brief, three-day deal. I mean, I had to make the decision” regarding Minnesota, Kill said. He noted that during the hurried interview process, he told then-University of Minnesota athletics director Joel Maturi about his health problems. “It didn’t bother” Maturi, Kill said of his health issues. “I actually brought it up.” Kill, who collapsed on the sidelines while coaching at Minnesota, had also been hospitalized while coaching at Northern Illinois.
“The bad thing about college football”
While most at Northern Illinois understood his decision, he said, others were not happy. “A few of those guys [on the team] found out” before there was a chance to inform them personally, he noted. “They were hurt,” he said. “That’s the bad thing about college football.”
“That’s the hardest thing I ever had to do. It’s terrible to tell those kids you’re leaving,” Kill added. But “if everybody’s happy that you left, you didn’t do a very good job.”
“Everything we’re talking about” regarding his departure from Northern Illinois, “none of it’s unusual in college football,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s all right. But it’s the world that we live in. “I’m a part of it,” Kill added.
Kill said he watched Northern Illinois’ bowl game – a 40-17 win over Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl – from his office. He noted that it was University of Minnesota officials who did not want him to coach Northern Illinois in its bowl game, since they were anxious to have him start his job in the Twin Cities.
Kill said he remained on good terms with officials at Northern Illinois, including Compher, after leaving. He said Compher, in fact, invited him to the Orange Bowl when Northern Illinois played there in 2013. “My wife and his wife [are friends],” Kill noted.
Compher, now the athletics director at East Carolina University, took what happened in stride when recently contacted. “I don’t recall the actual timing or the language in the amendment,” he wrote in an email. “I assumed because of the program’s success under his leadership that Coach Kill would be a sought after candidate for high profile coaching jobs.”
Christian Spears, the former associate athletic director at Northern Illinois University, agreed. “Our President, at that time tried to compete to keep Coach Kill at NIU. However, Minnesota was persistent and hired him away from the Huskies,” Spears said via email.
Earlier contracts contained penalties, restrictions
But in an earlier contract amendment in 2009 – one year before Kill left for Minnesota – Northern Illinois University made changes that sharpened the language as to what would happen should Kill leave before his contract expired. “If you resign your position as Head Football Coach at Northern Illinois University to assume a coaching position at another institution, you must inform that institution of this provision and your one time amount payable to NIU would be as follows: a) if prior to the conclusion of the 2009-10 or 2010-11 academic year: $500,000,” the new language in the 2009 amendment stated.
The 2009 amendment also included the following language from Kill’s original 2007 contract: “If you choose to resign for any reason before completion of your agreed term of service, the University would sustain losses or incur expenses including, but not limited to, the cost of a search for your replacement, a loss to the continuity and/or success of the program, and a loss to the program’s reputation.”
In addition, Kill’s original 2007 contract featured this clause, which likewise remained in effect at the time of his departure: “Should another coaching opportunity be presented to you or should you be interested in another coaching position during this agreement, you must notify the University’s Associate Vice President/Director of Intercollegiate Athletics of such opportunity or interest in writing before any discussions can be held by you with the anticipated coaching-position principals.”
At the University of Minnesota, the circumstances surrounding Kill’s quick departure from Northern Illinois University were not seen as particularly unusual. “We can’t comment on negotiations or an agreement at another school, but speaking personally it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for staff to be improving their positioning one place while also considering other opportunities,” said Evan Lapiska, a University of Minnesota spokesman.
When Kill was announced as Minnesota’s new coach, Northern Illinois University wished him the best in its public statements. Dr. John Peters, the school’s president at the time, said in a press release that “Coach Kill did a remarkable job with taking the Huskie football program to a high level of success. “We wish Coach Kill well, and we know that he will be as successful at Minnesota and in the Big Ten as he has been here at NIU and in the MAC,” Peters said. The press release added that “Kill will not coach Northern Illinois in the [upcoming] bowl game; the decision of who will lead the Huskies in the bowl game will be announced at a later date.”
The press release – dated Dec. 5, 2010, five days after Kill’s contract amendment took effect — quoted Compher as saying that “at this point, we are trying to determine which of our staff will be here to lead our team into the bowl game. There are certainly some things we are going to work through.”