So Turner Gill's at a small airfield in Pittsburg, Kan., recruiting some kid. This is years ago when he still coached quarterbacks at Nebraska. He's about to board a plane when a car drives out on the runway. A couple of guys pop the hood on the car, fish out some jumper cables and attach one end to the vehicle's engine. The other end is being extended out to the plane.
“They start the car — and that starts the plane,” Gill said. “That's how I got home. Jumper cables. On a car.”
The joke takes the second-year head coach at Kansas less than 30 seconds to tell, but it lands perfectly on this middle-aged Omaha audience, which laughs on cue at the punchline. This kind of deadpan humor is one of the better pages out of the public speaking playbook of Gill's mentor, Tom Osborne.
Here in a Catholic school gymnasium, standing on a stage framed by blue theater curtains, the eternally upbeat Gill doesn't take note of the dual meaning inside his story.
That he lived four years of it at Buffalo, a proverbial plane sitting on a runway with a dead engine, waiting for life, where players were too ashamed to wear the uniform or even look him in the eye.
That Gill jump-started the Bulls, parlaying their newfound belief in themselves into a conference title and a $2 million job at Kansas.
That the Jayhawks' proverbial plane not only has engine troubles of its own in the new Big 12, but has to annually play twin-turbo Red River jets Texas and Oklahoma. And Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri. And Baylor, which beat Kansas 55-7 last year. And Kansas State, which dumped KU 59-7.
UT and OU's football budgets dwarf that of Kansas. The round-robin, nine-game league schedule guarantees that Gill will never escape playing those titans, as former Kansas coach Mark Mangino did in 2007 when he led the Jayhawks to a 12-1 season.
In his 3-9 inaugural campaign in 2010, Gill won a single Big 12 game — and that was a miracle 35-point comeback over a Colorado team coached by the lamest duck to waddle around in college football last season. Year after year after year — until it proves otherwise — KU will be Sisyphus, doggedly pushing a boulder up the hill, with conference observers fully expecting that rock to roll back down.
“We're going to be completely disrespected by other teams in the Big 12,” Jayhawk junior defensive end Toben Opurum said. “We're going to be disrespected by the media. We're going to be disrespected by our fans who don't have any faith in us.”
In an interview with the World-Herald, Gill smiles and shrugs a little when presented with the daunting odds in a league dominated by the Longhorns and Sooners.
“That's just the name of the schools,” he says. “History says they've done well. History may have stated that Kansas football has been inconsistent. But that's why you play every year. And there's a lot of proof that institutions change, programs change. That's why I took the job.”
Seconds later: “Kansas can win on a consistent basis. And it can happen right now.”
Gill makes this point expressively with his hands describing a program trending upward, buoyed by belief. He orchestrates his weekly coaching regimen around the word “believe,” in fact, with each letter standing for a day of the week. On Fridays before games, it's “V” day. Visualize.
At Buffalo, he told his players to visualize success.
At Kansas, he's dropped the word “success.” He's replaced it with “excellence.”
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Is there a workable pigskin blueprint behind the buzzwords? Gill says yes. It's taken a full year for Kansas players to buy in. It didn't happen during the moribund 2010 season, but later, in winter conditioning, and the outset of spring practice.
“That's why you hear the term: ‘Transition,'” Gill said. “Football. Baseball. Basketball. Whatever. There's always a transition period. Our guys got past that part of it. And now they're trusting — and believing — what we're teaching.”
In January, Gill and his staff held a roundtable and threw out ideas on how to fix problems from 2010. A lack of communication on the field. Inconsistent effort. An inability to finish plays. A greater inability to make big plays.
They chose two catchphrases for KU: Explosiveness. Passion. Gill instructed his weight room staff to grade players daily on those two metrics.
Gill also taped his players running the 40-yard dash. Now we know how fast you are when you want to run your top speed, he told them. That's how fast Gill wanted them running on every play in practice. When they didn't, Gill would call in players and compare the practice tape to the 40-yard dash tape.
He added a “Play of the Day” contest for spring practice, picking one moment from each workout and promoting it on the team's website.
“It was really big,” linebacker Huldon Tharp said. “Everybody wants to make that play. It'd made it a lot more fun.”
Practices, in turn, were crisper and focused on playmaking. St. Thomas Aquinas High School coach Mike Thomas — who dropped by for a few workouts — said they operated like “clockwork.”
“Everything was so smooth,” said Thomas, whose program produced current NU tight end Kyler Reed. “Guys didn't waste time cussing out players or stopping practice. Everybody was just getting after it.”
But chemistry isn't enough. KU had a deficit of speed, strength and athleticism on the field in 2010, the product of middling recruiting classes by Mangino, a sharp, well-respected offensive mind who resigned in late 2009 after allegations that he was abusive to players.
“What Turner Gill inherited was not the same team that won the Orange Bowl in 2007,” said Nate Bukaty, radio pregame host and sideline reporter for KU football games. “He had a lot to do in terms of restocking the talent. I didn't see a whole lot of NFL talent. If there was, it was young underclassmen.”
Thus, Gill's 2011 recruiting class was a big one: 27 players from 10 states. Eight players from Texas. A whopping seven offensive linemen for a team that's finished 96th, 100th and 112th nationally in sacks allowed over the past three years. One of the top players from the St. Louis metro (athlete Anthony Pierson) and Kansas City metro (running back Darien Miller, who enrolled early and could be KU's starting running back as a true freshman). Pure speed demons like otherwise-lightly recruited Adonis Saunders, who recently ran a 10.6-second 100-meter dash at the KU Relays.
Several recruiting services ranked KU's class well ahead of rivals Missouri and Kansas State. Recruiting websites Rivals and Scout ranked the group among the nation's top 40 classes.
That's a sharp change from last fall, when Gill's policy against players hanging out with women after 10 p.m. prompted critics to suggest that it would hurt his recruiting.
“But you're not trying to sign 3,000 kids,” said Bobby Burton, founder of the 24/7 Sports recruiting website. “You're trying to sign 25 kids. You're looking for 25 moms and dads who appreciate that sort of thing. A straight-and-narrow approach — in a day when college football players are getting accused of anything and everything — can be refreshing to certain people.”
Said Gill: “Everybody has their own opinion. I didn't get into all of that.”
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Close to Nebraska
He's surprisingly open — at least for a question or two — to discussing Nebraska, where he starred at quarterback from 1981 to 1983 and coached the position for more than a decade. Gill's return to Memorial Stadium last year in KU's 20-3 loss to the Huskers was awkward on a variety of levels, especially considering that he was a finalist for the NU job before Bo Pelini accepted an offer from Osborne — who counts Gill among his closest friends.
Kansas will not be reigniting its football series with the Huskers anytime soon — “It best benefits us not to play Nebraska from a football standpoint,” Gill said. That could be an added benefit for Gill, who knows quite well some members of Pelini's staff, like close friend Ron Brown.
“The big plus is that you can make more phone calls and talk about more football stuff because you're not going to play them,” Gill said. “We all kind of know what we're doing anyway, but it's good you can talk to people. We all know each other to a certain extent.
“We're not that far away — a three-hour drive — if we wanted to come up and spend time with some of those coaches. And if they want to come down and do something like that too, it's all good.”
During his dinner and speaking engagement at the St. Pius X/St. Leo's Sports Night in Omaha, Gill signs Husker helmets and takes pictures with fans. He relays stories about playing and coaching at Nebraska. He shows his usual affinity for Osborne, who won three national titles late in his legendary career with Gill coaching Tommie Frazier (1994, 1995) and Scott Frost (1997) during that era.
A plain-spoken patriarch, Osborne looms large in Gill's coaching philosophies. Bukaty, who also co-hosts “The Border Patrol” on Kansas City radio giant WHB, recalled questioning Gill about whether he could motivate players without the usual tools of rage, swearing and spittle.
Gill's response: Tom Osborne did it.
“I don't think anybody would ever accuse the teams that played for Tom Osborne of being soft,” Bukaty said.
Said Opurum: “There's no soft in Coach Gill. We're actually working harder than we were before.”
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Tightening the screws
But a 3-9 season creates suspicion that something's missing. An ugly 6-3 loss to North Dakota State in the opener didn't help, even when the Jayhawks bounced back the next week for an upset win over Georgia Tech. Those woodshed beatings at the hands of Baylor and Kansas State were worse. The Bears hadn't ever won a Big 12 game by more than 30 points. Until they devoured KU.
So even if Mangino's practices were so full of “f-bombs,” one source said, “that if they weren't flying, then nobody was talking,” he won a BCS bowl game and helped Kansas significantly upgrade its facilities. Kansas had a toughness under Mangino that KU fans respected. Players — whether coaxed, convinced or coerced — bought into it, too.
With his talk of unity and role models and challenging kids “in a loving way,” Gill might have been channeling Osborne. But he was also pitching such a radical change that KU players might have had a substitute teacher mentality about the guy.
“The big, bad, mean coach was gone,” as Bukaty described it. “Now we can do whatever we want.”
Said Tharp: “Coming out of a smaller conference, maybe we weren't too sure how successful he was going to be, or what kind of coach he was going to be.”
Gill said he stayed the course and stayed patient. He had to learn his team. And his team had to learn him. And then he tightened the screws.
“I'm holding our players more accountable,” Gill said. “I'm holding our coaches more accountable.”
But it must translate to wins. The athletic director who hired him, Lew Perkins, is gone. His replacement, Sheahon Zenger, is a football guy, a former recruiting coordinator for Bill Snyder at Kansas State and former assistant coach at Wyoming. The Big 12 slate is a gulag.
Gill can sell hope for a few recruiting cycles. And he'll need to do more than that, or run the risk of winning plenty of respect for his principles — but not nearly enough games.
On this night in Omaha, Gill even preaches the bottom line nature of the game.
What was Nebraska's biggest selling point, he is asked, out on the recruiting trail?
“That you're going to win a lot of football games,” he said.
Even believers have their pragmatic sides.
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