LAWRENCE — Turner Gill is not a reflective man, so maybe he was telling the truth after Kansas' 31-30 loss to Baylor on Saturday when he said his mind didn't wander back to that heartbreaking New Year's night in Miami nearly three decades ago.
Then, on Jan. 1, 1984, the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers trailed Miami in the Orange Bowl 31-30 but had just scored a touchdown on a 24-yard option pitch by Gill to Jeff Smith. Only seconds remained on the clock, and, instead of kicking an extra point and settling for a tie, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne chose to go for a two-point conversion. Didn't hesitate.
"This is for a national championship for Nebraska!" the television commentator screamed as Gill lined up under center. Gill took the snap, rolled right and threw to Smith, who was breaking that direction. A Miami defender got his hand on Gill's pass, and the game was over.
The cruel scenario that defined Gill as a player confronted him again on Saturday under an entirely different set of circumstances. Gill was now 49 years old and the coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, a team he used to routinely pound at Nebraska.
A man of devout faith, he had come to Lawrence preaching about building boys into productive young men in society. He promised championships and wins over Missouri too, but, through almost two seasons, his teams had been overmatched in every way imaginable. The great experiment — can a nice guy actually win at Kansas? —was failing so miserably that Gill was suddenly fighting for his job.
Gill had continued to ask his players and his new fan base to believe in things not yet seen, and it appeared the Jayhawks were still listening. They entered the Baylor game coming off a tough 13-10 loss at Iowa State, but that competitive showing didn't convince the fans. At kickoff Saturday, Memorial Stadium was about half full. The announced attendance was just over 35,000.
Those who showed up for KU's Senior Day were welcomed with an early treat. The Kansas defense, ranked last in the country, was squeezing the Baylor offense, ranked second nationally in total offense. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Bears' Superman, looked to have left his cape in Waco. Entering the fourth quarter, Baylor trailed KU 24-3, and the Bears had compiled just 190 yards.
The Jayhawks, sparked by freshman tailback Darrian Miller, had ground out 242 rushing yards to that point, and it seemed they'd be able to run out enough clock to hold onto an impressive upset victory. But after Griffin broke a 49-yard touchdown run with 11:45 left, doubt enveloped the stadium.
Griffin then hit touchdown passes of 36 and 67 yards. With 3:32 left, the score was tied at 24-24. Kansas' potential game-winning drive faltered when Jordan Webb's pass to D.J. Beshears was intercepted. Gill stormed onto the field demanding a pass interference — showing rare in-game emotion — but the call never came.
In overtime, Griffin hit Tevin Reese for a 14-yard score and Baylor led 31-24. Kansas answered on its first play with a 25-yard strike from Webb to Tim Biere, and Gill was confronted with a situation that should have hit close to home: Down 31-30 after a huge touchdown play, do you go for two and the win?
Like Osborne, Gill answered yes
"I just felt the momentum," Gill said. "We hit that first-down call there real quick, and I thought it would be the right time to go for it. I had an instinct."
Gill called a timeout to get the right play in. Then Baylor called timeout. The tension built, and Gill's gutsy call had his offense fired up.
"I commend him," KU tackle Jeff Spikes said, "and I appreciate that he gave us the opportunity to go out and take that victory."
Senior offensive lineman Jeremiah Hatch said, "He has faith in his team and his players. It tells us that he has confidence in us."
The play called for outside receiver Kale Pick to slant inside and inside receiver Biere to run to the corner. Webb's read was to Biere, who was covered well by two Bears. The pass was knocked down, and the game was over.
If this was Gill's last time to walk the west sideline at Memorial Stadium, he had certainly gone out on his terms. Players said Gill was so hurt by the loss that in the locker room he could barely talk to the Jayhawks (2-8, 0-7 Big 12).
"He just said he was proud of us," KU linebacker Steven Johnson said, "that we played hard and with a lot of passion. Sometimes, it feels like we're cursed or something."