I don’t want to overgeneralize, but I think my family’s college football experience in the late 70s and early 80s was typical of many midwesterners. We all pulled for our teams, hoping for the best,* but when late November rolled around we chose sides and watched the Nebraska – Oklahoma game with great interest. I recall the 1979 Orange Bowl especially fondly, as my uncles sat on different couches, split into Husker and Sooner groups, watching the rare bowl-game rematch between the Big 8 powers.
(Most of us were KU fans, but there were a couple K-State fans amongst the extended family.)
I was generally in the Nebraska camp, since OU was supposed to represent all that was wrong with college sports and Nebraska defended all that was right. And the 1983 Nebraska team always stood out as one of the great teams I watched as a kid. They were a machine, trouncing everyone that got in their way until Miami got them in the Orange Bowl. And while the gun-slinging quarterbacks like John Elway, Dan Marino, and Bernie Kosar were the prototypes for a pro quarterback, Turner Gill seemed like the ideal college quarterback. He could run the option to perfection, could toss the ball to Irving Fryer when needed, and generally managed the game the way a QB was supposed to.
And now he’s the new coach at KU. Weird.
I’ll admit, a week ago, I was not high on him at all. Then I read several articles about him over the week, and saw that despite Buffalo’s struggles this year, he was still a man who seemed to have all the tools needed to run a BCS conference team.
So while Jim Harbaugh would have been an A+, home run hire,* I think Gill is a solid B. Of course, the funny thing about hiring a new coach is things don’t always go the way you plan. Perhaps Harbaugh was the better man for the job, but what if he won eight games in 2011 and then took an NFL job? And what if Gill stays for ten years and takes KU to 5-6 bowl games? Then who is the better hire? We’ll see, as they say.
(I have a few sources, one trusted the other unproven, who both sent out messages Friday saying the Harbaugh deal was done. Even though I was still waiting to hear something official, I was pretty excited. I thought the ease of recruiting at a public institution versus a private school with some of the strictest admission standards of any BCS school, plus KU’s proximity to Texas, where he loves to recruit, could pull him away from Stanford. But I always figured it was a long shot.)
Gill does not come without question marks. While he got Buffalo to a bowl game a year ago, taking them from two wins just two seasons earlier, they did fall back this year. Recruiting and competing in the MAC isn’t quite like recruiting and competing in the Big 12. While he’s long been a hot name in coaching, it took a long time for him to get a head coaching job. And even then he had to go to the backwater of Buffalo.
I think some of his struggles getting a job are easily explained. For example, he may well be the coach at Auburn right now if Auburn was located about 500 miles farther to the north.*
(If you know what I’m saying. And I think you do.)
I am excited that an African-American coach from Texas is now running the football program at KU. The health of every Big 12 program relies on scooping up as much talent from Texas as possible. You can argue that Gill will be as effective, if not more so, than Harbaugh would have been getting players out of the Lone Star state.
I’m also impressed with the coordinators he seems to have lined up. He’s clearly putting himself in the CEO position, responsible for setting the tone for the entire program, filling it with talent, and then letting his managers take that talent and mold it into a team.
And let’s be honest: as hot as Harbaugh is right now, it’s not like he’s a sure thing. It’s not like Larry Fedora or Kevin Sumlin were sure things, either. Not even hiring Tommy Tuberville would guarantee ten win seasons and New Year’s Day bowls. It’s a hard job at a school that has never had sustained success in football. Of all those guys, I think Gill might be the best suited to turn KU into a school where the 4-5 win years are the exception, not the norm.
So while Jim Harbaugh might have been the immediate PR home run, I think Gill has a lot going for him that might eventually turn his solid double into a run scored. Same result, different process.
Next year will be a step back, and would have been regardless of who would be coaching the team. It’s in 2011 when we’ll begin to see if Gill was the right hire. I hope Lew Perkins chose wisely.
(Update: Watching the Turner Gill press conference. He dropped the sleeping giant term that all new coaches must reference. I like him already!)