Kansas Coach Turner Gill Sees Opportunities Instead of Obstacles
While some who couldn't say anything positive chose to say little or nothing at all, others tried hard to convince Gill that Buffalo was a place where coaching careers ended, not began.
"They questioned it, there is no question. 'I don't know if that is a good move for you,'" Turner recalled those closest to him saying. "But I said I needed to go somewhere where I could help even more to develop young men. Not saying you can't help develop young men as an assistant coach, but as a head coach you are able to do things a little bit more.
"Plus I knew obviously that college football wasn't there from that standpoint, I knew that this would maybe be my only chance because I had never been a coordinator and I knew it was very slim to get a coordinator job No.1 and ,No.2, to get a head job was probably pretty slim to none."
Most in his position -- coaching in the NFL at the time and with a bright future -- might have turned down the Buffalo job.
Not Gill, who relishes challenges and finds sheer enjoyment in positively affecting the lives of young men. Quite frankly, not any African-American coach, who isn't guaranteed that another similar opportunity -- let alone a better one -- will come his way again.
Gill's gamble paid off big. In four seasons, he successfully changed the culture at Buffalo, lifting the program to a Mid-American Conference championship and to bowl eligibility for the first time in 50 years.
Now, Gill is again being called upon to change the culture of another football program, though the issues are much different and more complex than wins and losses at Kansas. Gill takes over a Jayhawks program that, while successful on the football field, had been in a behind-scenes tailspin that became public last November when Mark Mangino was investigated and then forced to resign over allegations of mistreatment of his players.
Consistent with the positivity he pumps, Gill doesn't see any drawbacks. He sees only opportunities to affect young men in a meaningful way both on the football field and in life.
"I enjoy what I am doing. I enjoy being a coach," said Gill, who was a two-time MAC Coach of the Year. "I enjoy being a college football coach, too. As a coach, you are relying on 18-22 year-old young men controlling your livelihood and some people say that doesn't look right, it doesn't sound right or it should sound right. But it is what it is. I enjoy it because there is so much you see out of it that you don't know that doesn't even get out to the media about so many young men that have bettered their lives from when they were 18 years old and now they are 21, 22 years old. I know they are better people in our society."
That's consistent with the Gill that Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel watched transform his football program from laughingstock to a team to be reckoned with in the MAC. There wasn't any magic about it. Gill went about fixing the mentality and psyche of the players he inherited while using his incredible recruiting skills to lure kids from Texas to northern New York with the promise that they would not only come away as better players, but as better young men.
"He's a consistently loving person who is an excellent coach and gets the best out of players because they know how much he cares about them," Manuel said. "He doesn't do it through scaring them, raising his voice or cursing at them, he does it through love, man.
"He's the only coach I've ever been around that I've seen it done singularly that way."
A former star option quarterback at Nebraska and a long-time assistant coach with the Cornhuskers, Gill has the presence and sound of a man who has long been groomed to be a head football coach of a major program. But there were serious doubts at times whether he would land a big-time job.
Gill swears he didn't even consider being a head coach until three or four years before he got the Buffalo job in 2005. He quickly made up for lost time after leading Buffalo to its first winning season in half a century in 2008, as he made the interview list of coveted jobs like Nebraska, Auburn and Syracuse.
But somehow he always ended up the runner-up. Gill couldn't even get a break with the program where he starred and later coached for 13 years, when the man he played for, worked under and considers his best friend, Tom Osborne, chose defensive guru Bo Pelini over Gill.
The question became what is wrong with Gill? Some speculated that, despite his success at Buffalo, his downfall was that he lacked experience as an offensive coordinator. But after he lost out on the Auburn job to Gene Chizik after a Chizik had a lackluster two years at Iowa State, the ugly part of college football in the deep south began to rear its head.
Many believe Gill lost out on the Tigers job not only because he is African-American, but primarily because his wife is white, which is still frowned upon in certain parts of the country.
Gill, however, refuses to discuss race or his wife's ethnicity as a reason his ascent was delayed. Instead, he prefers to talk about how those setbacks taught him and prepared him for the Big 12 opportunity that is now in front of him.
"I'm a person that really doesn't dwell on the things that are not happening. I really work on the things of where I am at today," said Gill, who will be among an all-time Division I-A high 13 African-American coaches roaming the sidelines this season. "If people see what I'm doing, that's great. If they don't see what I'm doing or they don't appreciate what I'm doing or I'm not doing things well enough ... The people who truly know me, that's all that matters. They know who I am, they know what I'm all about and they know what I'm trying to do."
Manuel was torn about all of this because, on one hand, he wanted to keep Gill, who had become a close friend, in Buffalo. But he also knew Gill deserved and coveted a bigger opportunity. So Manuel hit the TV airwaves to discuss how race may have played in role why Gill was being passed over. Manuel was outspoken and relentless in why major programs were still afraid to give qualified African-Americans head coaching jobs.
It was an argument Gill wouldn't ever make himself.
"He saw it differently than I did, and I truly believe he felt it wasn't about race, it was about fit," said Manuel, who is also African-American. "I think it comes from a deeper understanding of recruiting. You go through these things. You go through times when something you think you are more qualified for doesn't go your way.
"He was consistent. He feels he went in talked about who he was and he wasn't chosen and, for whatever reason, it didn't work out. To a certain degree, I can see why he did it. I can tell you it wasn't political. Turner was being Turner. He didn't speak out out of fear he wasn't going to get another job. It never even came into his mind."
Finally, Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins gave Gill an opportunity in the Big 12 last winter. He picked the former Heisman Trophy runner-up to clean up the mess left behind by Mangino. Manuel said when he talked with Perkins, he simply told him he was going to be amazed.
The players Gill has inherited have also been amazed as they've gone from one extreme in coaching to the other, where the coach doesn't raise his voice let alone curse. From Day One, Gill convinced his players that he was interested in them. He went as far as to put together a 10-question survey in which he asked detailed questions about who they are, where they came from and how they came to where they are today.
Coming from where many of them had been, Gill was the equivalent of a smile when they had become accustomed to a fist.
"Coach Gill really indoctrinates us with the fact if you really believe in something and you are going to commit yourself wholeheartedly, good things are going to happen," said KU senior offensive lineman Brad Thorson. "You are going to hit speed bumps along the way, but he's there to guide us.
"He is there very much as a father figure and mentor for us. That's not typical for Division I coaches, for a guy whose got his own family and he still calls us his sons. That is something that is powerful, it means a lot to us. We're willing to lay it on the line for him."
That seems to cut both ways as Gill talks about his expectation for winning and winning soon at Kansas, a program that is just a couple years removed from a 12-1 Orange Bowl-winning season and one that has just gone through its most successful stretch in 100 years.
"I have high expectations, but I also understand what reasonable expectations are," said Gill, who was 20-30 overall in four years at Buffalo. "We have high expectations to win every single football game. I've told guys if you don't expect to win every good game you need to move on to another place, because this is what it's all about.
"The Big 12 is an outstanding conference, very good competition and we always want to go against the best. So we are going to have that opportunity."
Along the way, Gill will consider the journey that has led him here and, good or bad, trust he will only see the positive.
"I really have enjoyed it from the standpoint I have been exposed to a lot of different people, a lot of different walks of life," Gill said. "I've learned a lot about myself, more importantly. When you know who you are and you understand your purpose, then I think you can do more things for other people.
"For all of the things that have happened to me even before I was a head coach, I think it had helped me prepare other people both young and old to understand who they are so they can be more successful in their life and understand what they need to do and how they need to do it."