Kansas football: What you see is what you get with Turner Gill

08/28/2010 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 11:28 AM

LAWRENCE — They came from all over the country, from Illinois, Mississippi and California. People talk, and the men had heard stories about their new boss. Each man had his own reasons, but they all agreed that working for Turner Gill was something they had to do.

A band of believers formed. Some made lateral career moves for a chance at being a part of something special. Others were climbing but with a greater purpose. The boss had vetted them, looked deeper than their resumes and liked what he saw. These were coaches who could help boys become men and, most important, do it his way.

But what of the boys? How soon could they drop their notions of what a coach should be? The Kansas Jayhawks had lived in fear of failing their entire careers under Mark Mangino. Make a mistake, and he may never forget it. It wasn't just Mangino. For most of them, it had been that way their entire lives. It was football. It was war. The coach was a general, and you'd damn-well better learn to salute.

Before he could accomplish anything, Gill would have to make the players believe, too. He would start the process by asking them a question, one that said everything.

Recently, after a practice, sophomore Bradley McDougald was leaving the field when Gill pulled him aside.

"How am I doing?" Gill asked him.

McDougald was speechless.

"It was the first time I've ever had a coach ask me how they were doing," McDougald says. "I didn't really know how to answer the question."

Seniors Johnathan Wilson and Phillip Strozier also didn't know when Gill asked them the question in individual meetings. But they realized that wasn't the point.

"I want them to know I'm going to listen," Gill says.

Turner Gill is just different. To Gill, building a culture is equally as important as building an offense, which is why he enlisted the help of Joe Ehrmann, a new-thinking coaches' consultant and an expert on mentoring young men.

Gill brought Ehrmann to Lawrence this summer to meet with his staff. Ehrmann reminded them that they coach human beings, not players, and gave them pointers on how to integrate that philosophy into their coaching. He has done this with 30-or-so programs over the years, he says, but this one stuck out.

"I'm not sure there's anything that I said that was foreign or new to Turner and much of his staff," Ehrmann says. "What he's building there is a very unique culture. His teams will be as character fit as they are physically fit."

Still, the reality of high-stakes college football will apply to Gill. Coaches are counted on to produce morale-boosting bowl trips and revenue that feeds entire athletic departments, not smiles and self esteem. If Gill doesn't win, the feel-good stuff won't matter.

"America needs Turner Gill to be successful at Kansas," Ehrmann says.

Decades ago, before he was paid $2 million a year to win games as the coach at KU, Gill had to decide whether he was going to trust Tom Osborne.

Other coaches had been telling Gill, a talented high school quarterback from Fort Worth, that Osborne would never play a black quarterback at Nebraska. Osborne told Gill that wasn't true, that he intended to let Gill compete for the starting job.

Gill had to ask himself: Who was Tom Osborne? Was he a guy who meant what he said?

Osborne had spent his career, beginning as an unpaid assistant coach at Nebraska, studying people's behavior. He picked up a graduate degree in educational psychology. As part of his coursework, he read the renowned Don Clifton, who studied how being positive in everyday interactions could dramatically change people's lives.

Osborne was intrigued by the idea because he knew football coaches around the country were doing it the opposite way. The boys were coming back from World War II and Korea and playing for coaches who thought Paul "Bear" Bryant's display in Junction, Texas, back in 1954 was the proper example of how to motivate players.

Bryant, then coach of Texas A&M, had taken nearly 100 players to camp and put them through a mental and physical regimen so demanding that he left Junction with a roster of fewer than 40. This became accepted and, eventually, legendary.

"Coaches coached in a boot camp way," Osborne says, "where people were really criticized, denigrated, humiliated. I didn't think that was the best way to do it."

Osborne came to these conclusions in the mid-1960s and began to experiment with Clifton's theory. For a man of faith like Osborne, it wasn't hard to be positive, and the players usually reacted well to his encouragement.

"If you really want the best for them," Osborne says, "they will respond in unbelievable ways."

This was the man sitting in the living room with Gill and his parents. A lot of hard work and perseverance had the Gill family knocking on the door of opportunity.

Gill was 8 when his father, Turner Sr., suffered a dramatic fall while working a second job as a janitor at a bank that left the elder Gill partially paralyzed on his left side. Suddenly, Turner's mom and dad had to switch roles. She was the breadwinner, he took care of things at home, and it would have to stay that way. Young Turner watched his parents closely.

"They did what they had to do," Gill says, "to help their kids have what they needed to be productive in society."

The Gills were positive people, and now their son had everything in front of him. But could they trust Tom Osborne? Their answer was yes.

Years later, after a decorated career playing quarterback at Nebraska, Gill would be a graduate assistant under Osborne. He would study behavioral psychology.

"How can you create the environment you want," Gill says, "and also get the behavior that you want when you have an environment you can control?"

At the time, Gill was thinking more about how the idea related to leading a church congregation. But he was on the path to becoming a football coach.

*

For more than 30 years, Carl Torbush has coached college football. He's done it on sticky afternoons in the South and cool nights in Appalachia, and, for the most part, he's had to do it while working for head coaches who are under an absurd amount of pressure to win. That pressure has done different things to different people.

Torbush talks with a Southern twang, sports a mustache befitting of a drill sergeant and comes off as old-school as they come. But at some point he realized there ain't nothin' wrong with being from the new school.

Torbush, the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State last year, had met Gill a few times through the years. And when Gill was the coach for the University at Buffalo, a few of Torbush's former North Carolina players worked under Gill. Torbush liked what he heard so much that he began to think about a future together if Gill, viewed as an up-and-comer in the field, landed at a big program.

"In my heart," Torbush says, "I just felt like if he ever got the right job and asked me to come with him that he's the man I wanted to coach for."

Last year, as Gill tried to sell KU athletic director Lew Perkins, Torbush was one of the centerpieces of Gill's plan, along with Chuck Long, a former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma who was taking a year off after a failed three years as San Diego State's coach. Gill had already gotten assurances from both men that they were ready to come aboard as coordinators if he landed at Kansas.

Gill introduced himself as KU's new coach on Dec. 14, and within days, Torbush was out on the recruiting trail talking up Jayhawks instead of Bulldogs. He didn't know much about Kansas, but he knew enough about Gill.

"What you see in Turner is exactly what you get," Torbush says. "There is no fake or pretentiousness. He's the type of man that, as an assistant coach, you do not want to let him down."

Gill picked assistants who fit his personality, his vision. Veteran assistant Reggie Mitchell coached running backs at Illinois and took the same job under Gill at Kansas. The young and ambitious Darrell Wyatt traded in an offensive coordinator job at Southern Mississippi to be the wide receivers coach at KU. You could call that a wash. Another veteran, J.B. Grimes, became the offensive line coach after holding the same position at Mississippi State.

The flock was coming together.

"There's a lot of different ways to skin a cat," Grimes says. "The way Turner does things appeals to me. It appeals to my sense of being a parent. I tell people, 'Before I'm a coach, I'm a dad.' Obviously, we need to win football games. But you know what? I do believe there is a broader responsibility we have."

A responsibility that perhaps was lost on coaches half a century ago.

"I played the game, and no one has more respect for Coach Bryant and his accomplishments," Grimes says. "But I think he set football back two generations at Junction. Because you don't have to do it that way. I think it's a positive thing, what we're doing right now. You don't have to tear them down to build them up."

It's no wonder that Joe Ehrmann felt like he was preaching to the choir this summer when he met with Gill and his staff. They already understood his message; he was just filling in a few holes.

"The single-greatest crisis in America is the crisis of masculinity," Ehrmann says. "What does it mean to be a man? I don't think there's a better place to bring about change than through sports. It's become the secular religion of America, and the coach is the high priest of that religion."

Ehrmann defines masculinity by two criteria. First, does he have the ability to love and be loved, to pursue sustained relationships? And second, is he trying to make a difference in the world around him?

After decades in what can be a brutal business, Torbush tends to agree.

"After football," Torbush says, "somewhere down the road, you'd like to think players are gonna come back to you, be your friend, say, 'Thank you for the role model you were for me.' I've seen some guys that wouldn't come back to their college after they finished. That's not what this game's all about."

Often, when a coach is fired or resigns from a program, an exodus of his players begins. The greatest indictment of the Mangino era at Kansas may be that not one scholarship player followed him out the door.

Mangino's alleged follies — physically and verbally abusing players — are now old news. Still, he left a roster full of players who couldn't help but doubt themselves.

"Even some of the older guys were scared to mess up because of how quick Coach Mangino might have made a decision about pulling a player," McDougald says.

Gill took over and immediately focused on forging tight bonds with his players. In individual meetings, he asked them about their families, their hobbies. He passed out surveys and asked each player to talk in front of the team about somebody who had influenced them. The message? We're not so different.

During spring practice, players saw that Gill's staff was going to treat them in a new way on the field, too. When a player makes a mistake, the coaches will usually talk to that player off to the side to keep from embarrassing him.

"It lets a lot of players loosen up a little more and be more willing to make a mistake," McDougald says. "A lot of people are playing a lot faster."

Gill has made headlines for outlawing the use of curse words by players and coaches. Players were skeptical that football coaches could avoid salty language.

"I was like, I'm gonna be eager to see this happen," sixth-year senior Angus Quigley says. "And amazingly, it holds true. Exactly what he said is exactly what has happened. When you see that, you can't help but respect a man like Coach Gill."

Players have slipped up occasionally, and when they do, they are asked to watch their language. While no cussing on a football field could be construed as going soft, Gill views it as a form of discipline.

"It's no different than when a player jumps offsides," Gill says. "If you can't discipline yourself as far as what words you say, how can I trust you to do the right coverage? We're teaching people how to behave in our society. I'm preparing them for life."

Today, as much as ever, winning football is still associated with hard-nosed football. It's no different at Kansas, where nice guys like Terry Allen have finished last while Mangino, despite his warts, finished one victory shy of the school's career record for coaching wins.

Gill's tenure at Kansas represents a great experiment. Sure, nice guys have won before, but can it be done with the level of talent Gill can expect to bring to KU? And if Gill's teams fail on the field, what will that ultimately say?

Not much, according to Gill.

"Each person has to go and be who they are," Gill says. "This is who I am."

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