By Jen Bookhout
Cheney native Jerry Kill has a knack for fixing things that are broken. He was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in honor of the football program he rejuvenated as head coach between 2001 and 2007.
“We’re kind of fixer-up guys,” Kill said of his coaching staff. “We take the programs and fix ‘em up.”
Long before Kill became the second winningest coach in SIU history, he played high school football for Coach Ken Diskin at Cheney High School from 1975 until he graduated in 1979.
“You never know what to expect, but you always hope,” Diskin said of Kill’s career. “I knew he was going to be successful at whatever he did because he was so hard-working and so dedicated to whatever he did. His parents brought him up that way.”
His years in Cheney were formative for Kill, and he still has familial ties to the area. His mother and brother still live in town. Diskin and his wife were able to bring Kill’s mother with them for his Hall of Fame induction.
“To have somebody drive up and be there for part of the Hall of Fame was pretty neat,” Kill said.
Kill played football for Southwestern College in Winfield, before working his way up the coaching ladder. He worked two stints at Pittsburg State University, 1985-87 and 1991-93, and a stint at Webb City High School in Missouri, 1988-90, to begin his coaching career.
Saginaw Valley State University, 1994-98, and Emporia State University, 1999-2000, each employed Kill as head coach. But it was at SIU that he truly earned his reputation as a repairman.
“We had a certain period of time to get it going or they probably were gonna drop the program,” Kill said. “So, we rolled the dice on taking the job.”
Kill assembled a strong coaching staff, including some who’d been with him since his early years and some who are still with him today. While there is no guaranteed formula for turning a program around, Kill goes in each time with a basic game plan.
“We always start off with the staff, academics, getting the kids in order, because if they’re not eligible, you’re not going to win,” Kill said.
Recruiting strong players, maintaining a continuity of staff and persistence are among Kill’s main objectives. But there is more to earning a winning record than just strategy, players need a coach they can trust.
Diskin has seen Kill in action with nearly every team he has coached, and believes it’s Kill’s personality that plays the biggest role in his success.
“They all respect him,” Diskin said. “When he talks, they listen. And I think probably one of his strong points is that he’s a very good motivator.”
Kill stresses discipline, education and responsibility to his players, Diskin explained. And it has left an impact in Carbondale.
“The people in Southern Illinois speak very highly of him and they give him a lot of responsibility for facilities they have now,” Diskin said. “He brought a team from way down to way up.”
In his time at SIU, Kill led the program to five straight playoff appearances. Kill’s coaching broke an 11-year losing streak for the team in 2003, when the team went 10-2 and won the first of three consecutive Gateway Conference titles.
Additionally, he racked up a handful of honors for himself including Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year in 2004, Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year in 2007 and Gateway Conference Coach of the Year in 2003 and 2004.
Kill continued his reputation as a fixer in his three years at Northern Illinois University, and is again rebuilding the program at the University of Minnesota. But Carbondale, Ill. is where Kill left his heart.
“My first home was Cheney, Kansas, and this is my second home,” Kill said. “I love the people there, I love what they’ve done for my family, and it’s my second home.”
With new facilities at SIU and the creation of the Coach Kill Cancer Fund he created after a battle with cancer, Kill has left an indelible impact on the people of Southern Illinois.
“He’s just a country boy who’s made a great impression on a lot of people,” Diskin said.