IRVING, Texas — The day's purpose is to address expectations for the upcoming football season, and Kansas coach Turner Gill is willing to cooperate — just not in the way you'd expect.
Traditionally, this task is accomplished by looking at a team's number of returning starters and the perceived difficulty of its schedule, among other factors. The Jayhawks have no proven star power on their roster and their nonconference slate bares some teeth. Kansas football is a July darling no longer, but Gill shows early on during his debut at Big 12 media days on Wednesday morning that he is not going to overanalyze these kinds of topics.
"My expectation is to win every game," Gill says, and he has no choice but to say it. It's what coaches do, and at this moment, Gill is playing the role of big-time college football coach. But when Gill takes that hat off, when he's just Turner Gill from Fort Worth, Texas, who played and coached some ball at Nebraska, things begin to get pretty interesting.
"I don't want to be truly defined by wins and losses," Gill says. "I understand that I'm hired and fired by wins and losses, but I do know that I'm on this earth to help young men, and that's what gratifies me every day. That's why I can go home every day with a smile on my face, because I help at least one person feel better about himself. That's what we're all about at the University of Kansas. We're going to have an impact."
It became about wins and losses at KU after the Jayhawks went 12-1 and won the 2008 Orange Bowl. They started practicing in a $31 million facility, and when they became entrenched in a seven-game losing streak to end last season, the wheels began to turn on sending former coach Mark Mangino — arguably the most successful coach in school history — out the door.
KU athletic director Lew Perkins investigated Mangino's treatment of players, which opened up a media frenzy to find out what Mangino had been doing and, within a few weeks, enough mistreatment had been uncovered that Mangino resigned. He received a $3 million settlement on his way out.
Enter Gill, who had won 20 games and lost 30 in four seasons at the University at Buffalo, where it was not at all about wins and losses.
In the wake of Mangino's shocking exit from Lawrence, it seemed that Gill would need to win immediately to appease a KU fan base that had begun to dream about becoming a consistent force on the gridiron.
Gill wants to win, but he does not sound like he wants to win at all costs. How do you pin expectations on a man who doesn't play by the established set of rules?
With the help of two experienced coordinators who are former head coaches — Carl Torbush on defense and Chuck Long on offense — Gill has tailored the X's and O's and attempted to put his new players in positions where they can succeed. He has hit the road recruiting, reportedly one of his biggest strengths. But beyond the usual football duties, Gill has tried to begin the process of molding his players on a personal level.
Gill asked each player and coach to fill out a survey with eight to 10 questions that dealt with who they are as people. One of the questions asked what person influenced them the most, and Gill had every player and coach read their response in front of the team.
"Everybody has a story," Gill says. "That was the point of doing it all. We're a lot closer than you think. Even though I might be from XYZ town or XYZ state, or I may be white, I may be black, I may play this position or that position, we're gonna have a lot in common."
Gill performed the same exercise at Buffalo, where he took a downtrodden program and turned it into the 2008 Mid-American Conference champion. By that time, Gill had gotten the taste of being a head coach in his blood, but for most of his career, it wasn't a goal.
"I was an assistant coach for 13 years at Nebraska, and it was later in those 13 years that I maybe started thinking about it," Gill says.
"It wasn't really my desire, my push. I just wanted to be in coaching and teaching young men."
He took the Buffalo job despite being told countless times it was a bad career move. Gill, a man of devout Christian faith, saw something on the cold shores of Lake Erie that nobody else could. He believed, so his players believed.
Kansas may play in the Big 12, but Gill still sees a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds staring back at him.
"We're gonna go on to some different things, ask them to get deeper," Gill says, sounding more like a youth minister than a football coach.
"Men gotta talk. I want them to talk about deeper issues more than just 'I like football, I'm this tall, I'm that fast.' If we don't communicate, we're not gonna be successful on the football field."
Gill understands that getting kids to talk is harder than it's ever been because of cell phones, texting and social media.
"Their thumbs are working more than their mouths," Gill says. "I'm trying to show them that we're open. We're willing to communicate. I'm not just talking about football. I'm talking about our whole society.
That's why we are here as college coaches. We're trying to help young men to better our society through football."
But what about wins and losses and bowl games and championships? To Gill, those things will come once his program is built with a certain fiber.
"Coach Gill indoctrinates us with 'If you really believe in something, and you're going to commit yourself wholeheartedly to it, things are going to happen,' " KU guard Brad Thorson says.
With Gill at the podium, KU's media day session didn't approach football details. It was about getting to know the new man in charge, and Gill relayed a story from his time at Buffalo that gets to the heart of why he's here. He was recruiting a player from a broken home, and Gill could sense tension between the boy's mother and his father and stepmother.
"Long story short," Gill says, "we all prayed together. In less than 48 hours, they were talking with each other. They felt good about each other. They thanked me, thanked us, for helping them mend that together. That to me, that's what college football is all about."
Long story short, Gill signed that young man to play at Buffalo.
"We want to win championships," Gill says, "but that helped that young man. That's everlasting."