For the most part, the headlines surrounding Southern Illinois University Carbondale remain bleak.
Enrollment continues to decline, as the university reported a nearly 10 percent decline in spring enrollment this week.
Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s plan to realign the university is surrounded by a swirl of controversy. Some corners claim his plan should be implemented quickly in order to pull the university out of its enrollment nosedive.
Others, such as the Faculty Senate, the Graduate and Professional Student Council and the Undergraduate Student Council have adopted resolutions opposing the plan and the elimination of department chairs, citing a lack of data or models showing Montemagno’s plan will be beneficial.
On top of that, it was reported by various media outlets this week that Montemagno’s daughter and her husband were hired after he was named chancellor.
None of those stories could be considered remotely uplifting.
Yes, it was announced that the University Museum will be re-opening soon. That is a real positive, but that nugget of good news is certainly overshadowed by enrollment declines, controversial plans to eliminate department chairs and allegations of nepotism.
But, then along came Jerry Kill.
The university announced this week that Kill will be returning to SIUC as a “goodwill ambassador” and fundraiser. Although the details of Kill’s job description remains nebulous, it’s pretty obvious that a “goodwill ambassador” at SIUC will have a full plate.
To non-football fans, Jerry Kill came to SIU in 2001. He took over a football program that was on life support and many in the community were clamoring for SIU to pull the plug.
By 2003 the Salukis tied for the conference championship and made the postseason. It was the first of seven straight playoff appearances for SIU.
In the meantime, Kill’s success against overwhelming odds led him to a bigger gig at Northern Illinois University. His success at NIU propelled him to the University of Minnesota, where he rebuilt another downtrodden program.
Ah, but this isn’t a true Cinderella story. Kill’s health — he battled cancer and epilepsy — became an issue. Eventually, his health forced him to resign at Minnesota. He gave coaching another shot, becoming the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, but, again, health issues intervened.
Kill’s football success and his “aw shucks” demeanor endeared him to residents of Southern Illinois.
However, he cemented his Pied Piper status in the region when he, along with Southern Illinois Healthcare, founded the Coach Kill Cancer Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to families coping with cancer and childhood diseases.
Suffice it to say Kill has gained virtually universal admiration and respect in the region. If there is anyone who can infuse goodwill into SIU’s current situation, it is Jerry Kill.
Is he the answer to SIU’s problems?
No. The issues are too varied. The problems are too deep for any one person. However, in today’s society, perception often reflects, sometimes overshadows, reality. If nothing else, Kill’s hiring can make people believe that better days are on the horizon.
At the very least, his return feels like a step in the right direction, like this is the beginning of something good.
Kill has a knack for making people feel comfortable. He has the ability to make people believe that insurmountable problems can be managed. In football parlance, you play them “one game at a time.”
If there is anyone that can make donors feel good about the university again, it is probably Jerry Kill.
Kill is fond of referring to himself as an overachiever.
SIU is in dire need of such a person. For the sake of the university, and the region at large, let’s hope he does it again.