Coaching Peers Laud Jerry Kill at New Mexico State
Coaching Peers Laud Jerry Kill at New Mexico State
A career spanning Div. II, FCS, Group of Five and Power Five has earned New Mexico State coach Jerry Kill the respect of the coaching community.
Jerry Kill built quite a reputation through his travels in football.
Broaching the subject with those in coaching of New Mexico State's new leader — he makes his debut with Aggies on Aug. 27 against Nevada — invokes a common response. But Wyoming coach Craig Bohl's may have been the most telling.
Bohl let out a belly laugh when asked about his connection to Kill, describing it as "a really close relationship."
"He is an unbelievable competitor," Bohl said. "And I can tell you, if he gets an answer he doesn’t like, he just feels like he asked it the wrong way."
Bohl and Kill are products of the same region of the U.S.: Bohl graduated from Nebraska in 1979, the same year Kill finished his freshman year 280 miles away at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.
When Bohl arrived at North Dakota State in 2003 after coordinating his alma mater's Blackshirt defense, tabbed to guide the Bison's transition from Div. II powerhouse to Div. I, nearby Southern Illinois was taking a big step in its ascension under Kill.
The 2003 Salukis were the first of five straight SIU teams to reach the Div. I-AA/FCS Playoffs in Kill's tenure, five in a row to finish ranked in the top 10 of the national polls, and the first of three to win at least 10 games. Kills' run of success in Carbondale included a 9-0 win over a Bohl-coached North Dakota State squad in 2005.
Southern Illinois' 55-32 record in seven seasons under Kill's charge — 50-13 in the final five seasons after the program started rolling — proved the successful Div. II coach could flourish in Div. I. Kill went 38-14 in four seasons at Saginaw Valley State before a brief spin at Emporia State.
And at Northern Illinois, Kill's style proved successful against at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. The Huskies won at least 10 games five straight seasons in a run that began under Kill in 2010, and grew from Kill's foundation.
Northern Illinois reached the Orange Bowl at the conclusion of the 2012 season, and in 2013, quarterback Jordan Lynch joined an exclusive club of Heisman Trophy finalists from outside of the power conferences. Lynch's unforgettable college career was a result of Kill recruiting him to play quarterback out of Mount Carmel High School, the coach showing faith in Lynch others lacked.
Lynch called Kill "the best" in an interview after his 2013 Heisman nomination and detailed the process of ending up in DeKalb.
“I ran a triple option, not a lot of people took me serious,” Lynch said. “I always kept working, I always believed I was a quarterback. I kept working at it, kept working at it. As soon as I got my chance I knew I’d run away with it."
Kill knew, too. That recruiting home run is reflective of the approach that's made the coach a winner everywhere.
He hasn't always operated with the biggest budgets or the deepest histories of success where he's taken the helm. The common denominator he brings to New Mexico State is old fashioned legwork to find gems on the recruiting landscape.
"He does a great job evaluating kids," said University of New Mexico coach Danny Gonzales. "He takes a similar model to his success that we do: out-evaluate, outwork people."
At Northern Illinois and the Mid-American Conference is the first of two stops in which current San Diego State coach Brady Hoke and Kill crossed paths. Hoke led Ball State to a Top 25 ranking in 2008, Kill's first season at NIU. Hoke left for the first of two stints at San Diego State before the 2009 season, and in turning around the Aztecs, landed the Michigan vacancy in 2011.
It was there in the Big Ten Conference Hoke and Kill were again competitors, with Kill taking over at Minnesota the same year. In the 2014 installment of the rivalry series for the Little Brown Jug, the Kill-led Golden Gophers claimed the "trophy" for the first time in almost a decade.
But while they were engaged in a rivalry dating back to 1892 — one that was so hostile, its award exists because a coach feared the opponents would try to poison him if he drank from their containers — Hoke and Kill are friendly.
"When we were in the MAC together, then we were in the Big Ten together, we always spent time at [events like media days], talking, all that," Hoke said. "He’s a good man."
A good man, and according to Hoke, "a helluva football coach.
"He is a football guy," Hoke said. "He’s a teacher. He’s in it for all the right reasons. Not just the physical development, but the mental development of men."
Hoke isn't speaking just from an outsider perspective, either. His nephew, Quinn Thomas, is on Kill's New Mexico State staff as a graduate assistant.
"'I'm glad my nephew's with him. I told Jerry to kick his ass," Hoke said with a smile. "Jerry will teach him how to be a football coach."
That won't be a problem, if Kill's coaching tree is indicative.
Current Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck coached wide receivers and coordinated recruiting under Kill at Northern Illinois. Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley broke in as a graduate assistant at NIU. And before his retirement in 2021, Tracy Claeys had coordinated some outstanding defenses both with Kill and elsewhere, including at Washington State.
In 2018, the Cougars had their best season since reaching the 2003 Rose Bowl. Claeys' defense held opponents to a 12-year program-low of 23.3 points per game, thanks in part to a staff that included Ken Wilson overseeing linebackers.
Wilson is now the head coach at Nevada, where his tenure begins against Jerry Kill and New Mexico State.
"That first game is going to be a heckuva game," said Wilson, who added:
"He’s one of the coaches in college football who’s been successful at multiple places with multiple staffs at multiple levels," he said. "His program works everywhere he goes. He’s going to do great things at New Mexico State."
Kill's track record for success is only a fraction of what makes his first season at NMSU special, however. The 2022 campaign marks his first on the sidelines as a head coach since epilepsy forced his departure from Minnesota in 2015.
Regardless how the Aggies finish on the scoreboard, '22 is a win for a coach who has made a profound and universally celebrated impact on the game.
"I’m happy for him — I’m not happy for where he’s at. But that’s OK.," said Gonzales with a laugh. His Lobos face Kill's Aggies in the annual Rio Grande Rivalry matchup on Oct. 15.
And just as he did with his initial reaction upon hearing Jerry Kill's name, Craig Bohl summed up the feelings of his peers best.
"He’s a really good person and a really good coach, and I’m glad he’s a head coach again."
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