Gill’s New Energy Puts UB Football On A Hopeful Road

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By Jim Mandelaro
Updated: January 19, 2006

— At first, the very idea made Turner Gill laugh.

Coach football at the University at Buffalo? Where it snows 365 days a year and the Bulls seemingly lose 365 days a year?

No thanks, said the man who grew up in Texas and found fame in Nebraska.

“I didn’t see a connection,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about Buffalo. I’d never been to Buffalo. My wife’s from Nebraska, and she didn’t see any ties there, either.’

“My perception of Buffalo was like anyone else’s from the outside: ‘Snow and cold, you never go outside and it’s not a great place to live.”’ Yet for some reason, the former Nebraska quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist interviewed for the job. And when UB athletic director Warde Manuel called in December, he interviewed again.

“People said, ‘Go take a look,”’ he says. “So I did. And I grew to really love this place, and the administration.”

He took the job, signing a five-year contract and becoming just one of five African-American head coaches out of 119 Division I-A football teams.

“I feel God placed me here,” says Gill, 44. “This is what God wants me to do: teach young men about football and life.” To say that Gill was taking on a challenge is like saying Paris Hilton flirts. The Bulls haven’t won more than three games in a season since 1998 and are 10-69 since joining Division I-A and the Mid-American Conference in 1999. The new season begins Aug.31, when the Bulls host Temple at UB Stadium. UB is rated 113th in this week’s Sports Illustrated, and Temple is dead last at 119.

“My biggest challenge is redefining the mentality of this football team,” Gill says. “We expect to play at a high level.” Gill replaces Jim Hofher, fired in November after going 8-49 in five seasons. Last year’s Bulls went 1-10. Their only win was a 10-6 decision at Kent State.

Beyond Xs and Os Gill worked last season as director of player development and offensive assistant for the Green Bay Packers after spending the previous 13 years as an assistant coach at Nebraska, where he was starting quarterback from 1981-83 and led the Cornhuskers to a 28-2 record and No. 2 and 3 overall poll finishes. “Turner impressed me as someone who not only is a very bright football mind, but who also has the ability to see the big picture in putting together a program,” says Packers executive vice president/general manager Ted Thompson.

“He is an excellent coach, though I believe even more impressive is how he touches the lives of those around him.” While struggling to make a decision on taking the job, Gill spoke with everyone from Tom Osborne, his former coach at Nebraska, to current UB basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon and — believe it or not — former Buffalo Bills president Tom Donahoe.

“Tom and I sat down early on,” he says. “He was involved in choosing our president (John B. Simpson) and our AD (Manuel), and in the search for a new coach. He lived here in Buffalo and was involved with the selection of people I’m going to work with.”

Osborne told Gill to “make sure you can trust someone at the administrative level.” Because he had never met Simpson or Manuel before, this was a pure leap of faith.

Gill is easygoing, charismatic and likable. He entered his news conference on media day last week by praising his questioners with an upbeat “Great-looking group. I like it!”

He already has made major changes at UB, including a new offensive and defensive scheme. The Bulls will switch from a power-I philosophy that produced a scant 10 points per game last year to the more versatile West Coast offense. On defense, UB will switch from a 4-2-5 to a more traditional 4-3.

Gill plans to have major input on the play-calling (offensive coordinator Gerald Carr will be upstairs in a booth) but leave much of the defensive decisions to new coordinator Jimmy Williams.

“I’m an offensive guy and I’ll be involved on every play,” he says. “On defense, I might say every once in awhile, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to call a blitz.”’

Reputation preceeds him Gill has moved freshman Naaman Roosevelt, last year’s New York state large-schools Player of the Year at Buffalo’s St. Joseph’s High, from quarterback to wide receiver, though he says Roosevelt might move back to quarterback next spring.

“Right now, we want our best athletes on the field,” Gill says.

Gill’s name preceded him at UB, where many of the players knew of his college stardom through their parents or reruns on ESPN Classic. He was the quarterback in the 1984 Orange Bowl, ranked the greatest college game ever by, though the ending was something he’d like to forget.

Unbeaten and top-ranked Nebraska scored a touchdown in the final minute to pull within 31-30. A game-tying extra point (no overtime back then) almost certainly would have secured the No. 1 spot and Osborne’s first national championship. But Osborne opted to go for the 2-point conversion.

Gill’s pass to Jeff Smith (not Irving Fryar, as widely believed) was tipped away by Miami safety Ken Calhoun, giving the Hurricanes the win and the program’s first national title.

“We had worked on this for a whole month,” says Gill, who has only watched the game once in the past two decades. “I thought it was the right decision then, and I think so today. The goal was to go 13-0, not have a tie.”

After college, Gill spent two seasons as quarterback of the Montreal Concordes of the Canadian Football League, leading his team to playoff berths in 1984-85. A series of concussions forced him to turn his attention to baseball, where he had been a second-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1980.

The middle infielder spent three seasons in the minor-league systems of the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers before turning his focus back to coaching football. He was head coach at North Texas in 1990 and the wide receivers coach at Southern Methodist in 1991. He ultimately would be part of three Nebraska national titles as quarterbacks coach from 1992-2002, mentoring quarterbacks Tommie Frazier, Jamaal Lord and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch.

He was rated one of the top 10 recruiters in I-A by in 2000 and 2001. His first recruiting class at UB has been ranked the fourth-best in the MAC by, the first time since 1999 the Bulls have been ranked in the top 5.

“When I heard he was coming here I was psyched,” says UB starting quarterback Drew Willy. “You know about his own past, and all the quarterbacks he’s made great, and you can’t help but be excited.”

Ernest Jackson was. The sophomore receiver from Gates Chili heard about Gill’s past from his dad.

“He said he was a great player and a great coach,” Jackson says. “The effort and attitude this year are already different. We’re ready to turn this thing around.”

A new energy Gill actually grew up in Fort Worth dreaming of playing two hours away at Oklahoma, Nebraska’s arch rival. But the father of one of his teammates sent a tape of Gill to Osborne, and after meeting the coaching legend, Gill was sold.

“Lots of people wanted me to play at Oklahoma,” he says. “I said, ‘You know, one day there will be a black quarterback at Nebraska. Why can’t it be me?”’

Gill believes in treating practices with the same intensity as game day.

“We want you to run to the football whether you’re on offense or defense,” he says. “We want our linemen to finish 10, 20, 30 yards down field. Defensively, we want every single guy to touch off the running back as he’s going down the field.

“Then, when we get into a game, we’ve already been in a high-level atmosphere.” Gerry Weissinger, a senior offensive tackle from Webster Schroeder, says the Bulls’ attitude has undergone a 180 since the arrival of Gill.

“People want to be here and give it their all,” he says. “We had that before, but there was less motivation. There was a more lethargic atmosphere.”

Gill, he says, has taken a keen interest in getting to know each player.

“I’ve sat down and eaten lunch with him,” Weissinger says. “You need something, you go in there and talk to him. It’s one big happy family, like when I was playing in high school for Coach (Anthony) Bianchi.”

Whether the Bulls turn out to be one winning family remains to be seen.

Gill is not trying to convince anyone that UB will go from laughingstocks to MAC power overnight.

“We’re not starting totally from scratch,” he says. “In terms of wins and losses, we are. But not in terms of resources.” Gill and his wife, Gayle, are building a home in Amherst, just minutes from the UB campus. The construction is expected to take a few months. Building the Bulls into a MAC contender may take longer, but Gill is fine with that.

“This place is ready to explode,” he says.