It had been an eventful five weeks. KU had seemed to have turned a corner – not a major corner, but a corner nonetheless. They were just 1-3 in their four previous games, but the win was a 35-point comeback against Colorado. They looked much more competitive, defensively at least, against Nebraska and Iowa State. They went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State before KU's defense hit "E" in the middle of the third quarter against the #3-ranked offense in the country.
Sadly, they were never in it against the Tigers.
After seeing Gill at best and at his worst – and the two are rarely too far apart – I felt like I'd gotten to know a little bit about how he operates.
Now, let me qualify a couple of things. I'm not saying he's not in over his head, as many fans so vociferously point out; he may still be. Hell, I was convinced he was after the 59-7 Kansas State ugliness.
I'm also not claiming that he's a good coach or a lousy coach; I still don't know. With athletic talent as rare on the KU football team this season as a Matt Millen Christmas card in Steve Young's mailbox, this wasn't probably a fair year to pin entirely on Gill's coaching ability or possible lack thereof.
But after watching, listening and talking with the guy the past five months, there are a few things I'm pretty sure about:
He was fully aware all season long just how much his football team stunk. You might have wondered if he had a clue as he stood there after the North Dakota State loss and said, "It's only one game," or after KU got drilled by Baylor, K-State and Texas A&M by a total score of 159-24 and saying, "Some good things happened out there."
In fact, I think he knew how limited this team was about 20 minutes into his first spring practice. I also sense that he wasn't very happy about it.
That's the thing about Gill: he's not oblivious to reality. He's more in tune with reality than about 75% of KU's football fans. He understands the reality he has, and he doesn't whine. Rather, he goes about the business of trying his best to make it better. Turner Gill never focuses on what he doesn't have; he works with what he does.
I'm convinced that he thought that he had far more talent that he really did when he accepted the job. Gill never said so – after all, he doesn't kvetch – but defensive coordinator Carl Torbush became well-known for coming up with new and unique ways to say, "We don't have much talent on this football team," without actually saying it.
I'd also bet my vacation house in the glorious French Antillles that the person who sold him that bill of good was Lew Perkins.
Gill's rose-colored glasses that apparently see nothing but good may make him seem like he's watching a different team than you are, but he's not. Turner Gill has made the choice to be absolutely positive. He never acknowledges negativity. See, it's just not how he works. If you acknowledge the negative rather than trying to improve the positive, you limit your own potential.
He's very self-aware. He knows how he comes across, which is one reason he does it. He chooses to be positive in a sport and an environment riddled with cynics and people who are bitter and just plain pissed off and those who want to see him fail. He knows he might look naïve doing it, but he doesn't care. He can't care. In his situation, he doesn't think he can afford to. He believes he has to stay positive. All. The. Time.
Some coaches say that as long as a player gives 100%, he is always willing to coach that kid. Turner Gill actually does it. He will coach a bad player or a player who lacks skills until both he and the kid drop. Regardless, he will never, ever trash or threaten a kid like some other coaches do.
Gill is a CEO-type head coach, like Mack Brown at Texas or Dr. Tom Osborne, his mentor at Nebraska. He wants to recruit, make personnel and player decisions and plan and manage the big picture. It's up to Torbush and offensive coordinator Chuck Long and the rest of the staff to do the day-to-day coaching.
Frankly, I'm not sure Long did him a lot of favors this season with incredibly predictable, disturbingly conservative play calling.
Turner Gill truly believes deep down in his heart that he will be a very successful football coach at the University of Kansas. He really does. And truth be told, I don't think he's in over his head. I think he knows exactly what it takes to be successful; he learned from watching Dr. Osborne back when Nebraska football meant more than asking whether or not your coach could benefit from 100 mg of Seroquel with a nice Benzodiazepine chaser.
By contrast, former KU coach Terry Allen was in over his head; he had no road map at all.
What I don't know is, while he has the instructions, can Gill actually complete the steps?
Turner Gill will not allow failure or a half-hearted effort. Now, here's the rub that will drive most fans absolutely nuts: he understands that someone can be busting their butt and still not be good enough. That's not about coaching; it's about talent.
Unfortunately for fans – not to mention Gill himself – this season, that's where he found himself with players at several positions. So, he went about the work of trying to make players better, all the while knowing that if your fastest defensive back is doing his dead honest best and runs a 4.7, don't scream at him because he can't cover a receiver who runs a 4.3. It doesn't do anyone any good.
It may sound simplistic, but the key now for Turner Gill and his future at Kansas is, get better players. Now.
He's got some good recruits coming in. He's still in on some good skill position players, like juco QB Zack Stoudt. He has some decent redshirts, including Brandon Bourbon, who could be really, really good. Contrary to popular belief, he has some really good kids on the team now (see DJ Beshears, Bradley McDougald, Tyler Patmon, James Sims, Keeston Terry). Problem is, for every DJ Beshears and Keeston Terry he has, he's also got four Drew Dudleys: a 4.7 player, giving everything he has and then some, trying to play in a 4.3 conference.
Gill's forte is supposed to be recruiting; he's supposed to be money when he gets in a player's living room, especially if the guy's mom is there. We'll see.
I also know that he believes his team will be much better next year. Yes, they'll be young (again) and smallish because they're young and haven't filled out yet, but they'll be markedly more athletic. I'm inclined to agree.
I'd speculate and say that he also knows, deep down in his heart of hearts, that with only three non-conference games (one of those being a return game at Georgia Tech) and a likely win (Colorado) leaving the neighborhood, that improvement may not show in W's and L's.