Southern Illinois will try to keep Kill after loss in semis

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Stinging from the playoff loss, Jerry Kill didn't care much for the question about whether it was his last game coaching Southern Illinois.

The reporter's query could have been the ultimate compliment for Kill, who in seven seasons on the Saluki sidelines has sculpted the program from a doormat in disarray to, this season, within a game of playing for a national championship.

But on Saturday, after falling 20-17 to Delaware at home in the semifinal of what used to be Division I-AA, Kill bristled at the suggestion that his artful turnaround here could make him a top recruit for a struggling program elsewhere.

Perhaps Colorado State, where athletics director Paul Kowalczyk -- the guy who brought Kill to Carbondale -- is in the market for a coach after ousting Sonny Lubick last month. Or Northern Illinois, who the Salukis beat 34-31 in September.

"I've laid my tail end on the line for the program, and I love these kids," Kill said in addressing what he called the "inappropriate question" about whether he's moving on to bigger things.

Still, the folksy 46-year-old coach with a sharp drawl -- a guy who's been a winner anywhere he's been -- made one thing clear: "I walk out here today a very proud human being."

Southern's 56-32 record under his watch gives him plenty of cause for that.

Before Kowalczyk hired Kill here in 2001, five Saluki coaches had mustered just two winning seasons in the previous 17. The program had won the national title in 1983, but little else over much of the next couple of decades, leaving many viewing college football here a financial drain worth ditching.

A losing mentality permeated the locker room when a friend suggested Kowalczyk give Kill a look.

"He described Jerry as a Pied Piper -- that if you get the guy there, he would get the fans sold on the team," Kowalczyk has told The Associated Press. "His track record of winning speaks for itself, and I heard that student-athletes would go to the ends of the earth for him.

"Certainly no story is more remarkable than the football turnaround and the job Jerry's done."

Fixing things took baby steps. The Salukis floundered to 1-10 in Kill's first season, then 4-8 the next before the first of two consecutive 10-2 seasons in 2003, when Southern ended its playoff drought. Two 9-2 seasons followed.

Along the way, Southern won three consecutive conference titles. Picked to finish fourth in the Gateway this year, the Salukis rolled into this year's playoffs -- its fifth-straight appearance -- ranked fourth in the country. One season, Southern spent some time atop the polls.

The Salukis lost in the playoff quarterfinals the previous two seasons but broke through that barrier this year before falling to Delaware in the semifinal televised nationally on ESPN -- Southern's first ever football appearance on that network.

Such national coverage is hardly rarified for the Salukis on the hardwood. The basketball team is the unanimous pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference a season after a school-record 29 wins, the Salukis' highest seed ever (fourth) in the NCAA tournament and an ascent to No. 11 in The Associated Press poll, Southern's loftiest ranking ever.

Still, Kill has built enough of a buzz about football here that there's a push to replace 69-year-old McAndrew Stadium, the rickety venue Kowalczyk once called "really an embarrassment to the institution."

More than 11,000 fans flocked to McAndrew for Saturday's game, braving freezing temperatures made even more miserable by misty conditions, at times drizzle. It's a far cry from the 500 or so Kill says he recalls his first year here.

Saturday's crowd included Saluki alum Bob Schulhof, a 69-year-old thrilled that the "school's getting attention" for its football.

"It's a good feeling," said the Saluki football season ticket holder for four decades. "We've had great teams and some not-so-great teams. But I'm really happy with what they did this year. The kids played a heck of a game, and I'm proud of them.

"We didn't win it this year, but maybe next year."

Saluki fan Jim Howell echoed that.

"Coach Kill has just done an excellent job," the 45-year-old said while lingering on the bleachers after Saturday's loss, his glasses fogged by the rain and chill. "They've come back from some rough years, and they're gonna get back."

The question now: Will Kill?

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