All eyes on Turner Gill: Jayhawks’ coach looking to build relationships, trust

KU athletic director Lew Perkins presents KU's new head football coach Turner Gill a Jayhawk hat and jersey during a press conference.

More than anything, his former players will attest, the secret to Turner Gill’s coaching success has been predicated on his ability to forge and maintain relationships.

That was certainly the case at Buffalo, where he led the Bulls to a Mid-American Conference championship and their first bowl game in 50 years. Same with Nebraska, where as an assistant he helped quarterback Eric Crouch win a Heisman Trophy and was part of three national championship teams.

So while Gill’s laundry list of duties heading into his first job as a BCS-caliber football coach is considerable — implementing a new staff, familiarizing himself with the town, hitting the recruiting trail running — his priority, he said, is to get to know his existing players as soon as possible.

“They’re going to get to know me in a deep way,” said Gill, who was introduced as the new head coach at Kansas University on Monday. “We’re going to build relationships. As you begin to build relationships, you begin to build trust. And it’s going to take time. It’s not going to be overnight. But we’re going to have to spend time together.”

And the quicker Gill is able to build that trust, meanwhile, the better things figure to be for a program that has endured a rough go lately.

Since KU athletic director Lew Perkins announced last month that he had launched an internal investigation into Mark Mangino’s treatment of players, the perception — accurate or not — has been that the player-head coach relationship at Kansas has been less than stellar.

Multiple former players, for instance, insisted they had no real relationship with the 2007 national coach of the year, and while no one mentioned Mangino by name Monday — not Perkins or Gill, anyway — the former coach’s reign as head coach of the Jayhawks, as well as his recent departure from the university under not-so-pleasant circumstances, was still fresh in the minds of those in attendance.

Already in Gill’s short time at the program’s helm, however, he has made clear that things will be different at Kansas — “I want to create an environment that’s productive, where people enjoy coming to work every day,” he said. “That’s just how I’m wired” –and the general consensus among players is that a more personable touch will act as a welcome development.

“That’s what a lot of coaches want to be in the long run — they want to actually connect with their players in a one-on-one personal level as well as an athletic level,” KU freshman receiver/safety Bradley McDougald said. “I think that will definitely help.”

What also will help is that Gill arrives in Lawrence with a vaunted pedigree.

A former Heisman Trophy finalist at Nebraska who has twice been named one of the nation’s top-10 recruiters, Gill’s resume, both as a player and coach, is enough to impress even the staunchest skeptic.

As a quarterback at Nebraska, he led the Huskers to three Orange Bowls, had a three-season minor-league baseball career with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, coached a Heisman-winning quarterback (Crouch) and was named a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, annually given to the nation’s top assistant coach.

Oh, and for good measure, he led a laughingstock Buffalo program to a conference title in just his third season at the school.

“Just to hear him, see him, talk to him, he’s so engaging,” Perkins said. “So positive, and obviously his football knowledge is great. I just felt that he was a special person.”

News this week that Perkins had tapped Gill for his first BCS coaching job, meanwhile, came as welcome news to members of the Gill family, including daughter Jordan, a sophomore at KU who decided to attend the school only after Gill called Perkins — a longtime friend — to discuss the university.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Jordan, who recently began working for the Kansas athletic department. “I’ve always talked about Jayhawk football with him since the very beginning; I was just as excited as he was (about KU) at the beginning of the season. Now for him to be here and change the program, its going to be a really, really great thing for the Lawrence community and the school, as well.”

Although details of the contract were not available Monday, Gill is set to make $2 million annually through 2014, up from his $401,300 salary at Buffalo.

On Monday, Gill announced three members of his staff — offensive coordinator Chuck Long, defensive coordinator Carl Torbush and tight ends/special-teams coach Aaron Stamn — and has plans to interview at least some of the assistants that remain from the Mangino regime, though he didn’t indicate whether any would return to Lawrence next season.

Perkins said the terms of the new coordinators’ contracts had yet to be finalized.

Gill indicated, meanwhile, that Kansas’ offense will maintain its spread attack, though fans shouldn’t be surprised to see the occasional two-back set, either.

Defensively, he said, the Jayhawks will work out of a 4-3 formation with a focus on aggressive play and forcing turnovers.

He talked about other things, too.

He talked about his injury policy (more like NFL teams, less like the undisclosed policy carried by Mangino) and becoming a consistent power in the Big 12. He talked about his excitement and how his previous job prepared him for the struggles he’ll surely face in his first season transitioning to the BCS ranks.

He talked about Big 12 titles, but he didn’t talk about rebuilding.

“We’re here to win today,” he said. “This is not a one-year, two-year, five-year process. I’m a competitor. I love to win, and I’ve been blessed and had opportunities where I’ve been successful just about everywhere I’ve been.”

In the end, however, everything circled back to relationships: the need to build them, the need to maintain them.

“You have to come in and build a relationship with these players,” said former KU and NFL running back Gale Sayers, now a director of fundraising for the university’s athletic department. “You have to come in and talk to these players one-on-one. What did you like about coach Mangino? What didn’t you like about him? Once he gets that behind him, he can get out and start recruiting.”