LAWRENCE — Turner Gill believes. He made that very clear on Monday as he made his first public appearance as the University of Kansas' 37th football coach.
He believes in building deep relationships with his players that stretch in both directions. He believes in empowering young men through encouragement, not derision. Most importantly for Kansas, Gill believes that he won't have to go out of his way in the least to repair any fracture within the KU program that remains from the controversial resignation of former head coach Mark Mangino.
"I'm just who I am," Gill said. "I hope that people that know me and spend time with me would tell you, what you see is what you get."
It was easy to see on Monday why KU athletic director Lew Perkins decided on Gill, who will be paid $10 million over five years, to be his instrument of change. Perkins did not come out and say that Gill would be different than Mangino, but then again, he didn't have to.
To start his introduction of Gill, Perkins asked KU offensive lineman Brad Thorson to read a Facebook message he received from a University at Buffalo senior who had been coached by Gill the past four seasons. The Buffalo player, Dane Robinson, wanted to inform Thorson of the kind of man his new coach would be.
"He's transformed everything we do here at Buffalo," Robinson wrote. "How we carry ourselves, how we view the game of football and how we view ourselves as football players. If he's taught me anything at UB, it is to believe, to believe in ourselves, believe in this program and believe in each other. His philosophy and style will always be to treat each one of you guys as people first and players second."
Since the news broke Saturday that Gill would be Mangino's replacement, some Kansas fans have questioned the hire because of his 20-30 record at Buffalo. Perkins, who has built a friendship with Gill over the past four years, said "there is no question that we found the person who we needed to coach our football team at this particular time."
At this moment, KU is in need of an image overhaul. In late September, members of the football team were involved in brawls with members of the basketball team that broke out in the middle of campus.
Then, on Nov. 16, Perkins assembled the entire football team and told them he was going to investigate Mangino's conduct after allegations surfaced that he poked a player in the chest; a look at Mangino's contract showed that was the first step in a process to fire Mangino for cause.
In the weeks that followed, some former players detailed how Mangino physically and verbally abused his players. Others said that Mangino was tough but that his style made them better men. On Dec. 3, after the Jayhawks finished 5-7 with a seven-game losing streak to end the season, Mangino reached a monetary settlement with Perkins for him to resign.
So yes, at this particular time, Gill, a man of devout faith, appears to be the man Perkins and Kansas need.
"He's a players' coach," Perkins said. "I thought that was very important."
It was so important that Perkins started Gill, 47, with a contract that will pay him around five times his $400,000 salary at Buffalo. Putting Gill's $2 million per year deal in perspective, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini started at $1.1 million two years ago at Nebraska (Pelini was chosen over Gill, a former Nebraska quarterback and assistant coach).
Mangino made $1.5 million before winning the Orange Bowl after the 2007 season and receiving a bump to $2.3 million.
The best evidence that Gill could be worth every penny for KU comes from the Bulls' run to the 2008 Mid-American Conference championship. Buffalo, a school with no football tradition, played in its first bowl game that season.
When Gill jumped to the forefront of coaching searches last season at Iowa State and Auburn, Perkins was already well aware of Gill, a Fort Worth, Texas, native. Perkins and Gill met around four years ago at a national football gathering and had dinner with their wives. Perkins left that meeting impressed and kept in touch with Gill.
A few years ago, when Gill's daughter, Jordan, was trying to choose between attending Buffalo or Nebraska for college, Gill called Perkins and asked him about Kansas. Of course, Perkins put in a good word for KU, and Jordan is now a sophomore there.
Perkins said Gill consulted him again last season when his name was popping up as a hot candidate for head coaching jobs.
"We became very good friends," Perkins said.
So when it became time for Perkins to make his first big coaching hire at Kansas, Gill was the first person he contacted. Perkins would not address his interest in Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, other than to say that Gill was the only candidate who received an offer. Gill didn't have to think long.
"That's always been on my radar screen, so to speak," Gill said. "If Kansas ever became an opportunity to interview for, I'd be very excited. It's a special place. I really feel great that I am the best fit."
Gill already has his offensive and defensive coordinators lined up. Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long, a former head coach at San Diego State, will coach the offense, and longtime defensive guru Carl Torbush, who had success at North Carolina and Alabama, will coach the defense.
With experienced coaches to handle much of the X's and O's, Gill will be able to focus on recruiting, which may be his greatest strength. Again, it goes back to relationships.
"Here are our top priorities," Gill said. "Recruit, beat Missouri, recruit, win the (Big 12) North, recruit, win the Big 12 — as we all know, in most cases, you win the Big 12, you're playing for a national championship — then we're gonna recruit."
Gill has recruited Texas so well that he convinced 11 current Buffalo players to come to the shores of Lake Erie all the way from the Lone Star State. But Perkins expects Gill's recruiting prowess to have no limits.
"I really believe personally that Turner Gill can go into any home and have an opportunity to recruit any player in the country," Perkins said.
Certainly, Gill was convincing on Monday. It appeared there was no place he'd rather be than Kansas at this crucial juncture in the program's direction.
"I have been asked if I am taking this job as a step to get to another program," Gill said. "The answer to that is a very decisive no. I did not come here to use it as a stepping stone to a football dynasty, but rather to create a football dynasty here at KU."