After fallout at Kansas, Turner Gill looks to resurrect career at Liberty
After being fired at Kansas, Turner Gill is hoping to reignite career at FCS Liberty
Gill was a star QB at Nebraska and later served as the team's quarterbacks coach
Once a hot name in coaching, Gill wants to silence critics by proving he still has it
More than a decade ago, back when he was an assistant at Nebraska, Turner Gill walked over to a group of quarterbacks warming up before practice. He loosened his right arm with a few quick shoulder rotations, then picked up a football. His next motion was familiar to anyone who grew up watching Gill play for the Cornhuskers. The former Heisman candidate wound up, fired a tight spiral 60 yards downfield and walked away with a grin. He just wanted to let everyone know: He's still got it.
Now, after being fired from his job as Kansas head coach following two seasons, Gill is once again out of the spotlight, much like he was during his tenure as an assistant in the 1990s. He's been labeled as washed up, much like he was after his playing days finished in the mid-1980s. But as the new head coach at Liberty University, an FCS program located in Lynchburg, Va., Gill is once again determined to prove his doubters wrong. He just wants to let everyone know: He's still got it.
In 1980, when he was choosing which college to attend, Gill narrowed his options to Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. But first he had to decide if he would even play college football; the Chicago White Sox had drafted him in the second round of the MLB draft.
A high school shortstop and an all-district quarterback, Gill wanted to play both sports at the next level. He also wanted to remain close to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. But even though Lincoln, Neb., is three times as far from Fort Worth as Norman, Okla., the Cornhuskers made the dual-sport star a priority. Head coach Tom Osborne even brought his wife to Gill's house when recruiting in Fort Worth, leaving Gill with the impression that Nebraska wanted him more than the Sooners did.
Gill signed with the Cornhuskers, and Osborne turned to him in the fourth game of the 1981 season, an eventual 17-3 win over Auburn. Gill's stats from that game were pedestrian -- 1-of-6 passing, nine yards and one interception along with eight rushes for 20 yards -- but he was the catalyst the Cornhuskers needed. He helped get the most out of junior Roger Craig and sophomore Mike Rozier, the I-Backs, and eventual Outland Trophy winner Dave Rimington at center.
"He had a very good supporting class, but he was the guy who made it all go," Osborne said.
Gill led the Cornhuskers to seven straight wins before a leg injury forced him to miss the final two games of the season. He continued his success as a junior, with his lone blemish coming via a controversial 27-24 loss at Penn State. Gill and the Huskers didn't lose again until the following January, and won 17 of 22 games by a margin of more than 20 points. Another Orange Bowl appearance, this time a 21-20 victory over LSU, capped a sparkling 12-1 junior season.
But Gill's senior campaign was his finest. He set career highs in every major statistical category and helped Nebraska maintain a No. 1 ranking throughout the entire 1983 regular season. Still, the play Osborne remembers most about his former quarterback came on the final offensive snap of the 1984 Orange Bowl.
Nebraska trailed Miami, 31-24. The Huskers faced fourth-and-eight from the Hurricanes' 24-yard line with 48 seconds remaining. He took the snap, saw that receiver Irving Fryar was closely guarded and sprinted right on an option. After a missed block, Gill pitched to backup running back Jeff Smith, who beat Hurricanes' defensive back Kenny Calhoun to the end zone for a touchdown.
Osborne chose to go for two, chasing an outright title instead of playing it safe. Gill's pass fell incomplete. Miami won, 31-30, and was voted national champion.
But it wasn't the loss that stuck with Osborne. It was Gill's confidence -- and brilliance -- during the play that scored the touchdown.
"That was a difficult play to execute where you have to think about passing the ball first," said Osborne. "But he was that kind of player where you could put that on his shoulders."
After a 28-2 record and three All-Big Eight selections, Gill faced the same decision he dealt with four years earlier: football or baseball? He was named an all-conference shortstop for the Huskers during his senior season and was selected by the New York Yankees in the 17th round of the MLB draft. But once again, he went with football. Gill signed a four-year contract worth a reported $2 million to play for the Montreal Concordes in the Canadian Football League. After leading the team to back-to-back playoff appearances, Gill's promising career was cut short. He suffered four concussions during the 1985 season and doesn't remember much about his final play on a football field.
"I just remember getting hit, and the next thing I know I'm laying in a hospital bed by my wife," Gill said. "[The doctors] ran a bunch of tests, and everything was OK, but I could not pass a physical. I had to retire."
Gill tried his hand at baseball and signed a deal with the Cleveland Indians. He played for three seasons in their farm system before leaving in 1989 to complete his degree at North Texas.
One year later, Gill was back on the gridiron as a graduate assistant on Osborne's Nebraska staff.
Eric Crouch was only five years old when Gill led Nebraska to its third straight Orange Bowl. But when Crouch was recruited out of Millard North High in Omaha, Neb., he felt an immediate connection with Gill.
"In Nebraska, you grow up hearing the big names of the past and watching all the highlights, so you feel like you know the person before you've even met him," Crouch said. "He was the guy you wanted to be coached by because of his expertise and knowledge of Nebraska."
During Gill's tenure as an assistant at Nebraska from 1992-2004, he earned three national championship rings and tutored two All-America quarterbacks, Crouch and Tommie Frazier. Gill moved to the NFL as an assistant with the Green Bay Packers in 2005, and one season later, he was hired as head coach of the Buffalo Bulls, one of the least successful programs in the Division I ranks.
The Bulls had won 10 total games over the previous seven seasons and hadn't finished higher than a tie for fifth in the MAC before Gill arrived in 2006. But he had a plan, albeit one that would take some time to unfold.
Gill's first step was to instill confidence in a group that was accustomed to failure. The staff placed an emphasis on letting the players know each way they improved, no matter how small or incremental the step.
The method worked. The Bulls won five games in 2007, Gill's second season, which at the time was the school's highest total since 1996. Gill was named MAC Coach of the Year.
At the end of the season, an opportunity presented itself for Gill to come full circle. Osborne, then Nebraska's interim AD, fired coach Bill Callahan, and Gill was one of the first coaches on the shortlist of candidates. Gill interviewed for the opening, but Osborne hired former Huskers defensive coordinator Bo Pelini instead.
"Turner was doing well at Buffalo, but he hadn't had his best year yet," Osborne said. "We interviewed him, but we needed more help defensively, so we hired Bo Pelini."
Gill didn't deny his desire to return to Lincoln.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I didn't think about it and dream about it," Gill said. "I think that's a natural thing to do, so yes, I had that in my head. But I wasn't going to be mad about the situation because each place is unique. And in life it's about timing and where you're at."
The timing turned out to be perfect for Gill in 2008. Buffalo went 7-5 and won its first MAC Championship Game, beating then-undefeated No. 12 Ball State, 42-24. The third-year head coach was famously speechless in the postgame interview.
Gill quickly became the hottest name in college coaching. After recruiting high school athletes for the past 16 years, Gill was suddenly the one being recruited.
"It was definitely a different lifestyle," Gill said. "Schools had to decide if I was the best fit for their school, and I had to still recruit and say, 'Come to Buffalo, I'm still going to be the head coach.'"
A few years later, on Dec. 3, 2009, Mark Mangino resigned as the head coach at Kansas. On Dec. 13, the Jayhawks hired Gill.
Gill's joy was short-lived, as an opportunity that took 20 years to materialize vanished after just two.
Under Gill last year, Kansas finished 106th in total offense and 120th in total defense, respectively, and lost each of its final 10 games. Gill went just 5-19 in two years with the Jayhawks, including 10 losses by 30 points or more. That, coupled with a 1-16 Big 12 record, led to his firing at Kansas.
Lew Perkins, the AD who hired Gill, retired one year into Gill's tenure amid a ticket scandal, and new AD Sheahon Zenger fired Gill last November. In a statement to the media after the firing, Zenger said, "I have concluded that new leadership is necessary to place us on the path toward competing for championships. I come to this conclusion reluctantly, because I have the utmost respect for Turner Gill as a quality individual who wants only the best for the young men he coaches."
After the firing, Texas coach Mack Brown told ESPN.com's David Ubben, "Two years isn't long enough to get a program turned around. I am a Turner Gill fan. I hate to see this happen to him and that staff. He's a guy that college football needs."
Osborne agreed. He said Gill wasn't "playing with a full deck" at Kansas.
"He didn't have enough time to develop anything," Osborne said. "When he went there, the talent level had really fallen off. He probably needed at least four years to have time to recruit and build a team. I think he did a reasonably good job of recruiting, but he wasn't given the time."
After a messy contract dispute, Gill parted ways with the program.
Gill summed up the experience simply: "If you're in the business long enough, you get hired and you get fired. [When I got to Kansas] they had lost seven in a row, so I knew it was going to take some time to build [the program] to where it needs to be. I wanted to do things the right way. But things happen, and we didn't get it done fast enough."
On Dec. 15, 2011, Gill was hired as the new head coach at Liberty. But his inaugural season picked up where he left off at Kansas. After opening the season with a narrow road loss to Wake Forest, the Flames dropped three consecutive games against ranked FCS foes.
However, unlike his blowout losses at Kansas, those three defeats came by a combined 12 points. The results also don't hurt Liberty's chances to claim a fifth Big South conference title in six years. League play begins next weekend, when Liberty hosts Gardner-Webb for homecoming.
Osborne, who announced he's retiring as Nebraska AD on Jan. 1, certainly has faith that his former quarterback can resurrect his career.
"I think he could be successful anywhere," Osborne said. "I think he's got some good players returning, so unlike at Kansas, I think he has a good chance to come in and be relatively successful."
The only difference in the logo is one letter. The interlocking "LU" of Liberty even shares the same primary colors, blue and red, of Kansas' "KU" symbol. The programs' similarities end there, but for Liberty's newest coach, he's "only changing addresses."
"You're going to have ups and downs in life, but you have to answer, 'How am I going to respond?'" said Gill. "That's really the next question. Only time will tell, but I'm ready to go."
Once the hottest name in coaching, a Heisman candidate turned quarterback mentor, Gill is restarting at the bottom of the coaching ladder. But he isn't shying away from the challenge. He just wants to once again let everyone know: He's still got it.
SI Now: One-on-one with actor Harry Lennix
SI Now: Will Ford 'Team Leader' Aaron Rodgers' return for a playoff push?