Jerry Kill's 25-year coaching career has included stops at nearly every level of football. From high school to NAIA, NCAA Division II, Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and over the past two years at Northern Illinois, NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), Kill has seen the players get bigger, faster and multiply in number at his various stops. The crowds have grown, media interest is higher and the coach's obligations have increased along the way.
Talk to Kill, though, and the direct, plain-spoken and proud native of Cheney, Kansas (pop. 2,000), will tell you that "football is football."
With Kill at the helm, no matter the level "winning is winning."
At each of his five head coaching stops, the common denominator among Kill-coached teams is wins. His 16 previous collegiate teams have won at a 62.3 percent clip and he enters his 17th year as a collegiate head coach with a 117-70 record. At Northern Illinois, Kill's first two teams have played in bowl games, the first time in the school's 42-year history as an FBS institution that the Huskies have made back-to-back bowl appearances.
Kill's first Northern Illinois team made a four-game improvement in victories and played in the 2008 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Behind two-time MAC MVP Larry English, who went on to become the highest NFL draft choice in school history when he was selected as the No. 16 choice in the first round by the San Diego Chargers, Northern Illinois was one of the top five teams in the Mid-American Conference in victories.
Last year's Huskie team went one better. Not only did Northern Illinois finish 2009 with a winning record, five MAC wins and a spot in the International Bowl in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, NIU also claimed the school's second-ever win over a Big Ten opponent when the Huskies knocked off Purdue in West Lafayette, 28-21.
At every stop along his coaching journey, Kill has relied on three qualities to build his winning programs - loyalty, honesty, and hard work.
The loyalty is exemplified by his coaching staff. Eight of Kill's 10 full-time assistants - including director of sports performance Eric Klein - have been with the head coach for at least nine years, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, running backs coach Rob Reeves and Klein have accompanied Kill at each of his collegiate head coaching stops.
"I think the real key to my success is the people that I have surrounded myself with," he said. "I have always been able to surround myself with good people that are loyal and that can recruit."
The "hard work" portion of Kill's equation for success was instilled in the Huskies' head coach at an early age. As a youth, his jobs included working on the farm, in a factory and at a grocery store. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college when he left Southwestern College in Winfield, Kans. in 1985 with a degree in education. Since becoming a coach, Kill has preached hard work to every one of his teams,
"I believe in hard work and the harder you work, the better your chances of success," Kill says. "I will push [our players] to the limit. My job is to get the best out of them."
Kill and his staff not only talk to their players about hard work, they are everyday examples of that mentality.
"I will give you every single thing that I have," Kill said back in December 2007 when he was hired to replace Joe Novak. "I will work endless hours and do whatever it takes to do great things and make you all even more proud of the football program."
He has followed through on that promise, not only through coaching, recruiting and leading the Huskies, but also by reaching out to the DeKalb community, speaking to numerous groups and making appearances at meetings and charity events. In 2010, he personally called every fan who renewed their season tickets to thank them.
On the field, Kill's teams are characterized by discipline and toughness.
"I want our kids to play smart," he said. "I want them to be mentally and physically tough so they can win in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, if you don't have great players, you aren't going to win many games."
Winning games has become routine for Kill's teams. In his first stint as a collegiate head coach at Saginaw Valley State (Mich.) from 1994-98, his teams posted five consecutive winning season and a 38-14 overall record. The Cardinals finished 9-2 and were nationally-ranked in each of his final two seasons. After two seasons at Emporia State in his home state of Kansas, he moved on to Southern Illinois, and turned around the program in just three seasons, achieving a 10-2 record in his third year and advancing to the playoffs for the first time.
He led the Salukis to the FCS playoffs in each of the next four years as well, and his 2007 Southern Illinois team advanced to the FCS Semifinals. Southern Illinois went 55-32 during Kill's seven seasons at the helm. He was named the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year in 2004 following a 10-2 campaign, and won the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award in 2007 while leading SIU to a 12-2 record. Southern Illinois spent 64 straight weeks in the Top 20 between 2003 and 2007 and was ranked in the Top 10 for 12 consecutive weeks in 2007. While NIU's win over Purdue last year was the second ever for the Huskies, and first since 1988, it was also the second Big Ten win for Kill as he led Southern Illinois to an upset of Indiana in 2006.
Kill began his collegiate coaching career at Kansas small-school powerhouse Pittsburg State, beginning in 1985 with three seasons as the defensive coordinator for the NAIA's Gorillas. After spending the 1988 and '89 campaigns as the head coach at Webb City High School and winning the 1989 state championship, he returned to PSU, this time as offensive coordinator for the then NCAA Division II team under legendary coach Chuck Boyles. He picked up another championship as the Gorillas won the title in 1991 with a 13-1-1 record and advanced to the championship game the next season.
Kill's high expectations for his student-athletes extend from the football field to the classroom, the community and beyond.
The Northern Illinois football program has achieved academically under Kill, as the team has compiled the highest cumulative grade point averages in school history during his tenure. In Kill's two seasons at NIU, 50 football student-athletes have earned their bachelor's degrees to help NIU rank among the top three teams in the Mid-American Conference in Graduation Success Rate (GSR). Even more impressively, the football team's most recent Academic Progress Rate of 975 ranks the Huskies 10th of all Division I schools in the country in eligibility, retention and graduation of student-athletes.
In the community, Kill's team earned the NIU athletic department's Challenge of Champions Award for 2008-09, which includes community service hours, involvement in Northern Illinois CHAMPS/Life Skills program and attendance at athletic department events. After home games, the Huskies come out of the locker room and sign autographs for children.
"I expect our student-athletes to represent our school and our community on and off the field," Kill said. "One of the most important things to me is how they do in life after they leave. I firmly believe that what we do here and how we drive kids over the four or five years will help them down the road."
Kill brings in a wide variety of speakers throughout the year, from successful business alumni to cancer survivors to local law enforcement officials. During camp in August 2009, the Huskies collectively read Tony Dungy's book "Uncommon." Each of these is an effort to teach teamwork, build leadership and impart skills that have life-long benefits.
"Football is such a challenge because you have to get everybody on the same page," Kill said. "Then to get everybody to execute on a given play is difficult. Most college athletes are playing for four or five years and they are very competitive, and you had better be (competitive) when you go out into the real world or you can get swallowed. Competing in athletics gives you an edge."
That competitive edge developed through a life in athletics has helped Kill face the challenges life has thrown at him, including the day in 2005 when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. With the support of his family - especially wife Rebecca, whom he met and married while in college, and daughters Krystal and Tasha - his friends, the Carbondale community and colleagues throughout college football, Kill underwent successful treatment and the disease remains in remission.
It was during their trips to St. Louis for cancer treatments that the Kills decided to start the Coach Kill Cancer Fund, a foundation to assist needy families in the southern Illinois area facing similar challenges. The Fund was the recipient of $50,000 as part of the 2007 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award and is supported through other events throughout the year, including a golf tournament and a poker run.
His experiences and the relationships formed along the way, have helped Kill keep the game in perspective and his focus on the people around him.
"I don't think they put your wins and losses on your tombstone, but you do get judged on how you treat people," he said. "I've learned to appreciate life. I'm a positive person. Every day I get up is a great day. It's made me a better person. Sometimes you have some tough things happen in life. It can make you better or worse. It has made me better and I'm proud to say that. The Lord has blessed me."
In February 2009, Kill earned another honor as he was presented with the National Football Foundation Courage Award by the Chicago Metro Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. He accepted the award in a ceremony at Halas Hall, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears.
Two coach of the year awards, the NFF Courage Award, 117 wins and a 62.3 percent winning percentage. Pretty impressive credentials for a guy who never intended to become a college head coach. After graduating from college, Kill was set to embark on a career as a high school biology teacher and coach.
But a call from a man who would become one of his mentors, former TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M head coach Dennis Franchione, persuaded him to embark on a career in college football. His passion for the game, and the job, was ignited and has never waned. It is that passion that Kill believes is his greatest attribute.
"I think what makes me a good coach is my passion - for the kids who play the game and respect the game," Kill said. "I like dealing with the players. I enjoy seeing young people get better everyday, and when they leave you have helped them become a better person."
First coach to lead Northern Illinois to back-to-back bowl games in the modern era.
National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Courage Award (2009)
ABOUT COACH KILL
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