Commentary

Gill generates his own buzz at KU

Updated: February 25, 2010, 10:44 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- He lists Jesus and Tom Osborne as his biggest mentors, and if you ask just about anyone from Turner Gill's old stomping grounds up the plains, both of those men could walk on water. But this isn't about Nebraska anymore. It's about leaving and moving forward. Gill is walking into his new office at the University of Kansas, and it's spacious and beautiful aside from the fact that it overlooks a football field currently covered in snow and ice. The locals claim it's usually not like this in late February. He peels off a thick overcoat and sits next to the window.

[+] EnlargeTurner Gill
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerTurner Gill was introduced as the University of Kansas head football coach in December.

At this point, Gill doesn't really care. He has a stack of surveys to contend with first. He gave one to each of his new players, asking everything from the deep, probing question of whom they trust the most to the minutiae of their favorite dessert. Gill wants to know all these things, and not just because of the past and the fact that he's replacing a coach who met his demise after allegations that he was abusive and insensitive. No, Turner Gill is just wired this way. He's the guy who made his starting quarterback in Buffalo well up with tears once during a conversation about life and passion and the future. Seems Gill just wanted to know where the young man's heart was, and found out that day.

Now he's at Kansas, a three-hour jaunt from his beloved alma mater, and he says that nothing, outside of the fancy office and the nameplate, will change. He's a people person, and he learned that from Osborne. He's persistent, which is something that came in handy during his four years reviving a moribund program at the University at Buffalo.

So Gill stares out at this snowy field and a season that seems so far away, and he's asked what his biggest hurdle will be in his first year at Kansas, a proud basketball school that is trying to move on from the Mark Mangino mess. He doesn't hesitate.

"Earning their trust," he says. "And only time is going to do that."

Once a Husker

The story begins in a living room, because that's where it always starts for college football coaches. Gill was a kid, no more than 17, living in Fort Worth, Texas, being salivated over by just about everybody. In walked Osborne, his fatherly smile, his confident gait, and Gill was hooked. Osborne talked about God and family and football. Gill knew that day that Osborne would make him a better man.

Turner Gill
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesGill and the Huskers lost 31-30 to Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.

Gill went to Nebraska, won three Big Eight titles, went 28-2 and came oh-so-close to three national championships. Coach and quarterback became so tight that Gill asked Osborne to be a groomsman in his wedding. They coached together for seven years, and after Osborne retired in 1997, they still talked at least once every two weeks. And in the winter of 2007, when Gill was a finalist to become the Cornhuskers' next football coach, Osborne, now Nebraska's athletic director, called his friend to tell him the decision. Nebraska was going with Bo Pelini, not Gill, to be the head coach.

"He did what he thought was the best for the University of Nebraska," Gill says. "I respect him for that. There's no hard feelings about that."

Still, it was an ending of sorts at a place where he was once so deeply rooted. Gill spent nearly half his life as a player or assistant at Nebraska. Loyalty kept him in Lincoln while some of his contemporaries were landing head-coaching jobs. A lack of loyalty might have driven him away. In 2003, after then-head coach Frank Solich was fired following a 9-3 season, Gill was interviewed for the job that eventually was given to Bill Callahan. Gill stayed on for another season, after being demoted to receivers coach under Callahan, then went to Green Bay to be the Packers' director of player development.

He said his work was finished at Nebraska.

The thing is, Gill was beginning to be known for the jobs he didn't get as much as the ones he was working. He was turned down twice by his home state. He interviewed for the head-coaching job at Auburn in 2008, but the university instead chose Gene Chizik, who had compiled a 5-19 record at Iowa State.

It led to criticism, speculation and whispers that Gill didn't get the job because he is black and his wife, Gayle, is white.

Gill shrugs off the talk, saying he's never been told he didn't get a job because of race or family. He met his wife in college on what he calls a "semiblind date" set up by his best friend. Of course Gayle knew who Gill was. She's from Kearney, Neb., a place that reveres its football heroes. They had one date, and according to Gill's version of events, it was basically love at first sight. He says he didn't care what the outside world thought of interracial couples or how Middle America would handle it in the 1980s.

The only thing they cared about, Gill says, was what their parents thought. They asked their parents to keep open hearts and open minds. The rest, Gill says, is history. They've been married for 25 years and have two daughters.

Gill is one of just 11 African-American head coaches in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, but he doesn't look at the numbers or wonder whether his success could open more doors.

"I'm a man, and I happen to coach football," he says. "And my skin is a little darker than yours. That's it.

"The only thing with race, for me, that is an issue is that it helps young people from the standpoint of them seeing someone with the color of their skin at a certain position. It gives them a little hope. It gives them hope that because he looks like me, maybe I can do that someday."

Building at Buffalo

Gill's biggest break almost didn't happen. When Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel asked him to fly up for an interview in late 2005, Gill promptly said no. He had no interest in taking over what was widely considered one of the worst jobs Division I football, and he didn't even know the school competed in Division I. The Bulls had won just 10 games in a seven-year stretch since 1999 and had virtually no fan base and no indoor practice facility. If the weather was inclement -- it's western New York -- the team drove 30 minutes to work out at the Bills' facility.

[+] EnlargeTurner Gill
Byron Hetzler/US PresswireTurner Gill led Buffalo to its first Mid-American Conference title in 2008.

"It was pretty much rock bottom," says Bulls sports information director Jon Fuller. "He said no right out of the gate. Our athletic director did a great job of saying, 'Hey, just do me a favor, come down to campus and let me talk to you for a little bit.' He came down, and he loved it.

"The guy was … I don't want to say miracle worker. But he just pushed the right buttons and got guys to believe."

In Gill's second season, the Bulls went 5-7, a huge accomplishment considering the program hadn't won more than two games in a season since entering Division I. In 2008, Buffalo won its first Mid-American Conference title.

Gill says he never had a bad day at Buffalo because he never strayed from his purpose: to help young men grow in a positive environment. It's a mantra he takes to Kansas, although he knows the expectations are much higher. Under Mangino, the Jayhawks went to the Orange Bowl two years ago and, for a stretch of time, were considered contenders in the Big 12 North.

Gill believes that if he accomplishes his purpose of building trust and mentoring minds, the wins will follow. They did at Buffalo. Four years ago, the Bulls struggled to find any qualified applicants interested in the job. But after Gill left, "the phone was ringing off the hook," Fuller says.

"He not only made the players believe in that program," he says, "but he kind of changed the whole culture of Buffalo football from ticket sales just to [perception] in general. We were kind of a punch line before he got here. Now you see people walking around town with UB gear."

Early recruiting success

Keeston Terry was torn. His dad played for the Kansas City Chiefs; his heart beat loudly for the Jayhawks. Last year, Terry, a blue-chip star from Blue Springs, Mo., committed to Mangino, who had an affinity for gutty receivers.

When the internal investigation started and the coach finally left, Terry decided to do the unthinkable: He scheduled a recruiting trip for Missouri.

"I was confused," Terry says. "I didn't know what to do."

A couple of nights before he left for Columbia, the phone rang. It was Gill. He wanted to stop by for a visit. He told the Terrys that Keeston still had a scholarship at Kansas, and he wanted him not just because he could catch passes. He saw that Terry had good grades and stayed out of trouble. He said Terry was exactly the kind of person Gill was looking for help to rebuild a program.

Terry took the trip to Missouri but knew by the time he got there what he wanted to do. He kept his pledge to Kansas and is part of a solid recruiting class that Gill scrambled to put together in the roughly six weeks before signing day.

"You can tell the differences between Coach Mangino and Coach Gill," Terry says. "Coach Gill seems to be more of a players' coach. He's already making strides in the program, and he hasn't even played a game yet. The electricity in Kansas is different now. Everyone seems excited. He just seems like a good guy and a good coach who's going to get the best out of his players."

The buzz at KU

Osborne
US PresswireGill says he knew during a recruiting visit that then-Nebraska coach Tom Osborne would help make him a better person.

It is almost 5 p.m., and the KU campus is buzzing over a Big Monday basketball game against Oklahoma, a game the Jayhawks would win with ease and preserve their No. 1 national ranking. Gill asks a woman in his office whether she's going.

When he isn't out recruiting, he's a regular in the stands. But his priority on this Monday night sits right outside his office. It's a player who has come by to talk. Gill is ready to spend 15 minutes or however long it takes.

"I think he's a guy who genuinely cares about the well-being of his players," Osborne says. "He's well grounded. Very strong spiritually. I think he'll do a great job."

And once a year, he'll play his former team, and Gill no doubt will flash back to what was and might never have been had he not chosen to finally leave. Osborne says he talked to Gill before he took the KU job but didn't offer any advice. "He knows what to do," Osborne says.

"It would be presumptuous of me to tell him what to do at this point."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.