LAWRENCE — On Sunday afternoon, Massachusetts Street was as charming as ever. Families were out Christmas shopping, NFL fans packed sports bars, and there was little parking to be had on Lawrence's signature drag.
To Lawrencians, days like Sunday are what make their town special. So it was odd during the last eight years that they rarely saw the head football coach of the Kansas Jayhawks out enjoying what they had to offer.
"We like it when a coach becomes a part of the community," said Rick Renfro, the longtime owner of Johnny's Tavern.
Renfro said he remembers seeing former KU football coach Mark Mangino somewhere other than the Memorial Stadium sideline maybe a half-dozen times in eight years.
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"I think it's just Mark was so consumed with his job," Renfro said. "I don't think he felt like he had time for anything else. I love for people to be focused on their work, but there's a hell of a lot more to life than just work."
Today, Lawrence will be introduced to its new coach, Turner Gill. Town residents hope that they get to know more about Gill over time than his run-pass tendencies on third down or his preference for blitzing on defense.
Don Gardner, who has kept Lawrence in shape for more than 25 years through his "Dog Days" community workouts, thinks he knows pretty much everybody around town. But he did not know Mangino.
"You never saw him or anything," Gardner said. "I saw him at a Boys & Girls Club once, and that's about it. He could have done a lot of other things. Coach (Bill) Self is out all the time, the soccer coach, the volleyball coaches, they're out all the time. Being a Lawrence guy that's been hanging around KU football since the fourth grade, I think it's important that he cares about Lawrence."
Renfro and Gardner are true townies. Most KU fans will pay more attention to the team's performance on the field and whether Gill can move the Jayhawks forward from where Mangino left them. Fans polled at Buffalo Wild Wings on Mass Street on Sunday expressed a prevailing thought that they were expecting a coach with a bigger name than Gill's after going through the drama of the last month.
"We had better options," said Matt Heidrich, a KU graduate student from Fort Collins, Colo. "I think Turner Gill is probably a good coach. But he's 10 games under .500 at Buffalo. When (former Auburn coach) Tommy Tuberville is out there telling anyone that will listen, 'I want the job. I'm just waiting for the call.'... "
And of course, many KU fans became enamored with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh when his name surfaced as KU athletic director Lew Perkins' top choice late last week. But some have been able to look past the big names Perkins could have brought to Lawrence and look objectively at what Gill accomplished as an assistant coach at Nebraska and a head coach at Buffalo, leading a down program to the 2008 Mid-American Conference championship.
"He's basically like a Mangino," said Adam Goad, a KU freshman from Milwaukee. "What Mangino did for us he did for Buffalo."
But Gill did much more for Buffalo than could be seen on the field, according to Gill's administrative assistant, Julie O'Neill, and Buffalo spokesman Paul Vecchio.
"Very much so," Vecchio said, "as much as a head football coach at this level can do."
Gill stressed to every Buffalo player that they had to be involved with two projects in the community each year, and he backed up his message, devoting time to the City of Buffalo Public Schools, numerous Christian organizations on and off campus, the local boy scouts and the Buffalo-Niagara YMCA.
It was O'Neill's job to make sure Gill had at least one speaking engagement lined up each month and to juggle all of his responsibilities outside of football.
"His passion was talking to 18-year-olds to 24-year-olds," O'Neill said "He would get into the public schools, talk to their kids and let them know that it's a big world out there, visualize success."
O'Neill said Gill put a strong emphasis on family. He wanted his assistant coaches to eat dinner at home as often as possible and made sure that he had dinner with his family at least once a week.
Gill was active at his church and made time to visit with youth groups from other churches. O'Neill remembers Gill going to the First Baptist Church of North Tonawanda on a Friday night after the North Tonawanda High football game to play pool with members of the youth group.
Mangino was involved in charity work, too, while at Kansas. He and his wife, Mary Jane, were consistent contributors to the United Way. Still, folks like Renfro and Gardner are hopeful that Gill will be seen out and about town more frequently.