LAS CRUCES — Jerry Kill woke up in Las Cruces Monday morning and got out of bed, less than a day after New Mexico State’s newest head football coach flew in to his new city on a Beechcraft King Air 90 with New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia and other NMSU administrators. He peeled back his curtains and saw the New Mexico morning sun shine bright off the Organ Mountains.
“This is a pretty good gig right here,” Kill said.
Less than 12 hours later, Kill took the podium inside NMSU’s Stan Fulton Athletics Center, overlooking Aggie Memorial Stadium, as Moccia and NMSU chancellor Dan Arvizu formally introduced him as the Aggies’ 35th head coach in program history. But Kill’s hiring didn’t happen overnight, and his return to the full-time head coaching ranks was six years in the making.
Football is medicine
The chip Kill said he has on his shoulder has manifested and grown over the years, spurred by claims his coaching days were behind him due to his well-documented history with illnesses and other health issues. He has suffered multiple seizures dating back to at least 2005, when he had a seizure while he was the head coach at Southern Illinois. He was eventually diagnosed with kidney cancer that year.
But it wasn’t enough to keep Kill from coaching, even once his cancer reached Stage IV. He said football is like his medicine, and it keeps him going every day.
“I had Stage IV cancer, and I still believe the game of football and players saved my life, because I had something to look forward to every day,” Kill said.
His past experiences go hand-in-hand with his biggest coaching philosophies: Nobody gets a do-over in life; take it one day at a time; and coaching is all about the players.
If Kill wasn’t coaching football, he said he has no idea what else he would do. The 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year said there’s only so many puzzles to solve. He took a year off from coaching after leaving his head coaching job at Minnesota in 2015 due to health issues and lived in Florida. He would walk the beach regularly, and he wrote a book, “Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time.” He said the money made from book sales goes to his charitable foundations regarding epilepsy and cancer.
High-profile coaches still wanted Kill to join their staffs, he said, even after he stepped down from Minnesota. He said Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh called him “within an hour” and asked him to join his staff in Ann Arbor. Then he said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney did the same shortly after. He said he turned them both down.
But when Kansas State reached out and eventually made him an associate athletic director in 2016, he didn’t pass up the opportunity. And a door opened for him to slowly “work my way back into (coaching).”
Kill bounced through the coaching and administrative ranks at different schools for the next three years. Former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash coaxed him into serving as offensive coordinator in 2017, and he later spent 2018-19 as Southern Illinois’ interim athletic director and eventual permanent athletic director for one year. Then he stepped down to join former Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente as an assistant before being hired by former TCU head coach Gary Patterson in another assistant role.
He was named TCU’s interim head coach for the Horned Frogs’ final four games of the 2021 season after Patterson and the school parted ways midseason. TCU went 2-2 with a win over then-No. 12 Baylor.
Kill said his health has improved, too. He said he began dieting, lost 20 pounds, and went from under three hours of sleep per night to about six hours and now has “no issues whatsoever.” He said he believes he has the best doctor in the country and possibly the world, and it has provided him the opportunity to be a head coach.
“I just love football, being around kids. I didn’t have a plan, ‘I’ve got to be a head coach again,’ or anything like that,” Kill said. “If it came, it came.”
And Moccia and NMSU came calling.
Going for the Kill
Moccia, who was well familiar with Kill dating back to their time at Southern Illinois when Moccia was the athletic director and Kill was the head football coach, kept in contact with Kill over the years after he left for Northern Illinois in 2008. Yet once Moccia said “the die was cast” that former NMSU head coach Doug Martin would not return in 2022, their phone calls became more frequent.
“We had made the decision, ‘Hey, we’re not going to make any in-season changes,’ and I thought, ‘Okay, coach Kill, he’s an analyst, and we’ll have time,’ and then I’m like, ‘Holy crap, (TCU) made him the interim head coach,” Moccia said. “That obviously meant a whole new level of Jerry’s attention being available for discussions and all of that stuff, but we talked all through that interim process.
“Quite frankly, I thought, we’re pretty solid,” Moccia said. “And then he beat Baylor.”
TCU didn’t finish bowl eligible, but Moccia saw enough to convince him that Kill was his guy.
“We made a plan that after (NMSU’s) last game (against UMass), let’s not waste any time,” Moccia said. “(We) picked him up the day after the last football game.”
‘I just like taking on challenges’
Kill draws parallels between NMSU and his first Division I head coaching job at Southern Illinois. When Kill took over the program in 2001, he said the school was considering cutting the program entirely. The Salukis went 3-8 the year before he arrived and 1-10 his first year. They went 10-2 his third year and combined for a 40-12 record his final four seasons at the school.
NMSU has not finished better than 3-9 since 2017.
“I just like taking on challenges. It’s like building a house, and I like to do things. I like that,” Kill said. “I like being the underdog. I like having a chip on my shoulder, and you get in with the players that have the same thing. …I like the process. I love the process.”
Part of that process for Kill will be getting a late start on recruiting, assembling his coaching staff and making a $40,000 donation to the program, joking that he’ll donate more once TCU pays him in full for his time with the Horned Frogs.
But building NMSU into a winning program will take time, especially given that 247Sports does not list an Aggie football commit for the 2022 recruiting class. So Kill said someone he hired will be an expert in the NCAA Transfer Portal, although he added he plans on “being smart” with transfers and ensuring they fit with what he hopes to build at NMSU: “Hard-nosed, tough, blue-collar guys that are going to roll up their sleeves,” Kill said. “I think we called (them) hardhat lunch pail (people) when I was at Southern Illinois.”
It also isn’t yet clear how many years Moccia will give Kill to build his program, although he said Kill’s full contract details will be released once he signs very soon. He said the salary and years of the contract have been agreed upon, but several small items need to be fine-tuned before his contract is made public.
Kill hasn’t yet announced his full staff or which assistants will or won’t be retained from Martin’s staff, although he did say former Pitt State head coach Tim Beck will be his offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. Kill added he wouldn’t have accepted the job if NMSU was not set to join Conference USA in 2023.
“I like challenges,” Kill said. “Around the country, they call me a ‘fix it’ guy. Well, I don’t feel like we have to fix it. We’ve just got to tweak it a little bit.”
Kill knew he would have skeptics given his long history of health issues and his years away from coaching, but he has no doubt he can still do the job.
“You counted the old man out, you’re wrong,” Kill said.