DALLAS — What does success mean for the Kansas football program as it enters this new season? Turner Gill knew that question was coming because it's the most essential question asked of a coach at Big 12 media days, where scribes from around the region and the country attempt to pin down expectations and set some type of order before the annual chaos of fall begins.
A year ago, Gill, then KU's first-year coach who had walked into a highly-fragile situation, wanted nothing to do with the question. He said he wanted to "win every game," which is the hope of every coach but was simply not possible for the Jayhawks, who returned no star power and were working under an entirely new staff and philosophy. Gill stressed that he didn't want to be defined by wins and losses and that he was a coach because he could mold young men.
Without a barometer for the success of the on-field product, KU skidded fast and hard to a 3-9 record and lost much of the momentum that had been built during Mark Mangino's eight years atop the program.
So, on Tuesday afternoon at the Westin Galleria when the same question was asked of Gill, it was anybody's guess what the man would say. But, with a fan base looking for a reason to follow his mantra and B-E-L-I-E-V-E, Gill plunged into the risky business of setting the bar for his program in the long term and the short.
"Obviously, the facts are we're here to win a championship," Gill said. "Every single year we're gonna have a chance to win a championship."
Gill was talking big picture here. The Jayhawks, who are a consensus pick to finish last in the new 10-team Big 12 with the round-robin schedule, do not appear to have a very good chance of winning a championship this season. But, unlike last year, Gill was willing to give the people outside of his program who don't believe a championship is possible a more tangible, reachable goal for the coming campaign.
"To say what is probably a true reality, more than likely of being successful, is being bowl eligible," Gill said. "That's what I expect for us to have every year. If you're talking in reality, I'd be disappointed if we don't get this done here fairly quickly of being bowl eligible. Whether that's going to happen this year, I don't know."
To the average fan of the average program, this seems like pretty basic stuff. But Gill's admission that going to a bowl game equals success means that any other result will not be considered a success to him. He has now set a standard, and it will be up to the Jayhawks to live up to it.
They say they're ready to meet the challenge. It's been an active summer in Lawrence. While Gill and his wife, Gayle, were taking a rare vacation to London and Paris, KU's players were busy grunting their way through a ramped-up training regimen in sometimes unbearable heat.
One of the new additions to the voluntary workouts — of course, there are no voluntary workouts for a 3-9 team — by KU strength coach John Williams was running the famed Campanile Hill. One day at the hill, Williams gathered the team and told them that they were "going to Mass," meaning Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence.
"We thought we were gonna run to Mass Street," KU linebacker Steven Johnson said. "Everybody was excited because we thought it was something different."
Williams had other ideas.
"Actually," Johnson said, "we just went up and down the hill, and everybody was like, 'When are we goin' to Mass?' He was like, 'How many games does it take to become bowl eligible?' We said six. He said, 'How many games does it take to guarantee a bowl?' We said seven."
Williams, who figured a bowl trip would be celebrated on Massachusetts Street like a basketball Final Four berth or national championship win, then said that they'd better run seven more hills if they wanted their own celebration at season's end.
KU center Jeremiah Hatch lost 35 pounds in the last three months with help from those hill runs, and he'll never forget it.
"I'll live to tell my children and their children," Hatch said. "It was a good experience. The best part of it? We all did it together."
The goal is now clear for KU football under Gill: Make a bowl game. All day Tuesday, Hatch took it further: Win a bowl game.
"That 3-9 is always in the back of your mind," Hatch said. "When you experience something like that, you never forget it. You never forget the feeling of being a loser. Nobody wants to be a loser. That's in the back of our mind. Gotta win."
As last season spiraled out of control, and the Jayhawks were in pain, they didn't see much emotion coming from their coach. But Gill wants to win just as badly as they do, and he began to show it on Tuesday.
"Getting upset, how does that better your football team?" Gill said. "Overall, I gotta show that we still believe in what we're doing. We've just gotta continue to refine things. We gotta be problem solvers, not emotional solvers.
"We talk to them about focus. I gotta let them see me being focused, that I have everything in the right perspective. I have a plan, and here's the plan for this week. That's how I think, and that's how I talk to them."