CARBONDALE, Ill. — Mike Reis has been the play-by-play voice for Southern Illinois football for 37 years. That includes, of course, the years 2001-07 when Jerry Kill was the Salukis head coach.
Kill was a guy who was known a never-take-a-pause work ethic and intensity. He expected the same of everybody else in the program. He was known to rip into anybody who didn’t do things the way he wanted them done. At times, this included Reis.
“Even though I’m a play-by-play guy, I still see myself as a journalist. I’m not a homer. I would be critical if I felt I needed to be and I would ask him questions that he didn’t necessarily think needed to be asked. So we had our moments early on,” Reis said. “But our relationship changed in 2004. I got sick and was in and out of the hospital for six weeks. Outside of my family, he was the person who came to see me most. In fact, I think some people at the hospital thought he was part of my family. That’s when we cemented our relationship.”
Reis became good friends with Kill after that and was torn apart watching Kill’s gut-wrenching press conference earlier this week when he announced he was going to retire as the University of Minnesota football coach because of health concerns related to epileptic seizures.
“I had to close my office door watching that,” Reis said. “He chose to be himself and what you saw was him. He laid it all out there. When he speaks from the heart, he’s pretty damn powerful and I think everybody saw that.”
Reis visited about Kill prior to North Dakota State’s game against Southern Illinois on Saturday. The visit took place in a plush press box, overlooking a wonderful 15,000-seat FCS stadium opened in 2010. Reis maintains it is the Stadium That Jerry Built.
The Salukis had a losing record for nine straight seasons before Kill came. His first team in 2001 went 1-10. The program had 45 scholarships, far below the limit of 63. By 2003, Kill had things rolling. The Salukis won 10 games in ’03 and ’04 and made five straight appearances in the FCS playoffs. Included was a run to the semifinals in 2007.
“His winning saved the program. We were playing in McAndrew Stadium, a place that was about ready to fall down. In fact, if we’d played in that stadium any longer it might’ve fallen down,” Reis said. “Without Jerry, there would’ve been no desire, impetus or reason to build a new stadium. He is the reason for building this stadium, even though it was around to help him.”
A small plaque hangs on the wall of SIU’s basketball arena, across the street from the football stadium. This is the Saluki Hall of Fame, into which Kill was inducted in 2014. His resume included three straight Gateway Conference titles (the predecessor to the Missouri Valley Football Conference), five straight playoff appearances, three 10-win seasons and a 55-32 record. His .632 winning percentage is best in school history.
“He means the world to this place and still casts a long shadow,” Reis said.
There were also, unfortunately, signs of things to come when it came to Kill’s health. It was during a 2005 game at McAndrew Stadium against Illinois State when Kill had his first public epileptic seizure. It came near the end of a 61-35 loss and, Reis said, was a frightening scene. The game was called and Kill went to the hospital, where it was discovered he had kidney cancer.
“In all these stories about Jerry, it’s reported that his first seizure happened in 2005. That was the first big one. He actually had a small one in 2002 that many people don’t know about,” Reis said.
Kill maintains ties to this area. He and his wife started the Coach Kill Cancer Fund to help needy families in southern Illinois fight the disease.
Despite leaving Carbondale in 2007 to take the job at Northern Illinois, Kill owns a lakeside home about 30 miles from Carbondale near the small town of Marion, Ill.
“He always said he was going to retire here. In fact, he spent two weeks there this summer, which is the longest time off I can remember him taking,” Reis said. “I talked to him and he said, ‘See, I’m doing what they tell me. I’m doing what they tell me.’ I think his mindset with this always was going to be, ‘I can still work my ass offand I will beat you.’ But I think he always knew this decision was coming.”
There is one more thing to add. Even though Kill was intensely demanding and would tear into those who weren’t doing things they way he demanded, there was always a kiss-and-makeup moment. A day after ripping somebody apart, Kill would send a handwritten card with a note saying he was sorry and that he just wanted everybody working toward the same goal. Kill would always included a $50 gift card to Applebee’s or Chili’s or some other Carbondale restaurant.
“People here love him. They still love him,” Reis said. “They really do.”