IOWA CITY — Throughout the course of every game, football teaches players how to deal with adversity.
Four games into the season, unbeaten Minnesota is well on its way to mastering that ability as it prepares for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. home game with Iowa.
The Golden Gophers have won without their starting quarterback, their starting running back and even without their head coach.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is among an estimated 2.2 million Americans who according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are affected by epilepsy, the fourth-most common neurological disorder in the United States.
For the third time in his three seasons at Minnesota, Kill suffered an in-game seizure two weeks ago and was carted off the field on a stretcher at halftime of the Golden Gophers’ 29-12 win over Western Illinois.
Following a brief hospital stay, Kill returned to his own home about 2 hours after the game and fewer than 48 hours later, he was in his office preparing for last week’s 43-24 victory over San Jose State.
Kill, who has said he would walk away from his job if he did not believe he could fulfill its responsibilities, continues to wrestle with the conditions and effects of epilepsy. He said Tuesday the way his players and staff dealt with the situation illustrates the strength of the program he is building extends beyond the head coach.
“We spend a lot of time together as a staff and it’s something we’ve talked about a lot over the years, there is no one person more important than the other,’’ Kill said. “There are certainly guys on our staff who are very capable of doing the job I’m doing.’’
Questions about Kill’s ability to do the job were raised. At about the time he returned to the work, Minnesota director of athletics Norwood Teague was erasing any doubt as to whether Kill would remain in charge of the program.
“I support him 100 percent,’’ Teague said. “He’s an epileptic. He has seizures. We deal with it and we move on. If I felt like it was affecting things, it would be different. Jerry’s job is much more than what he does on Saturdays.’’
Kill is not without his supporters.
He acknowledged the cheers of fans chanting his name with a wave following last week’s win and the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota held a rally outside of TCF Bank Stadium before the game which saw supporters wearing T-shirts that read “Jerrysota’’ across the front.
Kill sees his job as a collaborative one, and he is surrounded by one of the most loyal staffs in football.
Of the nine assistants and one strength and conditioning coach in the program, seven have spent at least 13 years working on staffs headed by Kill. They have followed him from Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois and three years ago to Minnesota. Five members of the staff played for Kill-coached teams.
“We work together. It’s always been that way with me,’’ Kill said. “It’s not a dictatorship. We make decisions together. At the end of the day, I’ve got to make the final one, but I think continuity is good for everything.’’
That level of stability has created a level of trust within the Minnesota staff and a plan which kicks into motion in Kill’s absence.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys takes over head-coaching responsibilities and remains in the press box. Players are quickly informed what is taking place and defensive backs assistant Jay Sawvel fills the role of the head coach on the sideline. Offensive plays are called by coordinator Matt Limegrover as they normally are during games.
“Coach Kill is a very tough person and he would want us to keep playing well,’’ Gophers defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman said. “There’s no panic. It’s something we’ve learned to deal with and we trust all of the coaches. We’re all in it together.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sees the situation as similar to what Hawkeye coaches had to deal with as longtime defensive coordinator Norm Parker dealt with complications from diabetes which led to absences prior to his retirement following the 2011 season.
“There’s a bond that goes beyond just what you do. There has to be, because you spend so many hours together,’’ Ferentz said. “We probably spend more time together than we do with our wives and families so you go through the highs and lows together.’’
As was the case in Parker’s absence, Ferentz believes the stability in the Golden Gophers staff has been beneficial in this case.
“Every step they’ve made they’ve made together, and they’ve been well-coached,’’ Ferentz said. “You can see that in their football team right now.’’