Jerry Kill vs. P.J. Fleck? It could happen next fall
If Kill takes the New Mexico State job, as reported, he will face the coach he maligned during a 2017 radio interview
The Minnesota Golden Gophers football team’s season opener in 2022 didn’t have much sizzle until Tuesday.
After facing powerhouse Ohio State to open this season, Minnesota’s game against New Mexico State on Sept. 1 looked like it would be a status-quo start against lower-level competition. Then a report from FootballScoop.com said former Gophers coach Jerry Kill is expected to be named the Aggies’ head coach starting next season.
The website said Kill is the top target and pointed out that NMSU athletics director Mario Moccia was in that same position at Southern Illinois when Kill was the head coach there.
Kill, 60, was Minnesota’s head coach for four-plus seasons before he was forced to retire by complications from epilepsy in October 2015. At that time, Kill said he was following doctors’ recommendations to step aside to improve his health, and that he wouldn’t be a head coach again. He also said he could return in college sports in another capacity, and he wasn’t away long. In 2017, Kill was the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, and a year later interim AD at Southern Illinois. In 2019 he was an assistant to the head coach at Virginia Tech and starting in 2020 he was assistant head coach Gary Patterson at Texas Christian.
When his good friend Patterson stepped down as TCU’s head coach in late October, Kill became the Horned Frogs’ interim head coach.
If Kill takes the Aggies’ job, it would make for an awkward season opener at Huntington Bank Stadium. In February 2019, Kill sounded off about current head coach P.J. Fleck, who was an assistant under Kill at Northern Illinois in 2008-09, telling Sirius XM that a phone call to Fleck after he Fleck replaced Tracy Claeys in January 2017 did not go well. Claeys was Kill’s long-time defensive coordinator before succeeding Kill in the second half of 2015 and 2016. Fallout from a sexual misconduct case in 2016 led to Claeys’ firing after the season.
“When (Fleck) went to Minnesota and treated the people the way he treated my guys and telling them he had to go in and completely change the culture,” Kill said on Sirius XM. “… He made it sound like we didn’t know what we were doing, and I took it personal.”
Kill, who was 29-29 at Minnesota and Big Ten coach of the year in 2014, also told KSTP-AM in 2017: “I won’t be stepping foot back in the stadium.”
In the Sirius interview, Kill also took shots at Fleck as a person. “I just think sometimes ego gets carried away,” he said, adding later in the interview: “Do I still root for the Gophers? I do. Do I enjoy him running up and down the sidelines? No. Do I think he’s about the players? No. He’s about himself.”
Fleck responded to Kill’s comments a few days later. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Jerry Kill; I always will,” Fleck said on KTLK-AM 1130. “I’ve learned so much from him, especially working for him and knowing him a lot of years. I’m really sorry he feels that way. I’m not sure where that came from.”
On the accusation that he doesn’t care about his players, Fleck responded: “That saddens me. It saddened (wife) Heather. It saddens our entire family. But this isn’t a profession about feelings. One thing that is really, really important to me is our players. It always has been and always will be.”
If Kill’s Aggies face Fleck’s Gophers next September, it won’t be another forgettable nonconference game. The pregame comments could be dicey and uncomfortable, the postgame handshake icy and brief.