Gill engineers Jayhawks’ reversal

Kansas fans surround head coach Turner Gill after the Jayhawks' 28-25 win against Georgia Tech Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010 at Kivisto Field.

The outlook for the Kansas University football team made a gray day in Buffalo seem like a vacation in Cancun. Horrified fans booed. Talk-show callers spit venom, even railing about the players’ white shoes. Fearless forecasters wondered if the Jayhawks could win a game. The dreaded sounds of a season on life support echoed all over town, and 11 games remained on the schedule.

Enter Turner Gill, the chief target of the unrest, the man hired by just-departed athletic director Lew Perkins to the tune of $2 million per for five years.

The same team that looked so disorganized and undisciplined in every way in losing to North Dakota State in Gill’s debut, bubbled over with self-confidence and took it to Georgia Tech, the 15th-ranked team in the nation, 28-25, on a sunny Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

It appears the unconventional Gill has a gift for reaching into the minds of young men and figuring out how to make them believe.

As head coach at University of Buffalo, the most down-trodden of all Div. I programs when he arrived, Gill gained plenty of experience at making kicked dogs learn how to wag their tails.

After such an embarrassing opener, the players felt as if they owed their new coach one, especially considering he didn’t degrade them for playing so poorly.

“A lot of people felt that way,” said tight end Tim Biere, the goat of the Week 1 loss and the recipient of a touchdown pass in the Week 2 stunner. “A lot of us said if he’s willing to go to bat for us every day, we’re going to go to bat for him.”

Steven Johnson, who played alongside the remarkably driven, productive, tough middle linebacker Justin Springer, beamed: “I feel like we’ve got one of the best head coaches in America. Hands down, the best head coach in America.”

After a week of watching the world paint graffiti on their self-esteem and listening to their coach cleanse it the way he did when working in Buffalo, the players responded the way athletes with wounded pride so often do.

“You heard it everywhere,” emerging star receiver Daymond Patterson said. “Social websites, through the media, in the paper, people just talking on campus, people calling you on your phone. You just have to let it go. We knew we played about as bad as we could. The only thing we could do was get better than last week. We really went out there and focused this week. We had really great practices, and it really paid off.”

During his 32-yard touchdown reception, Patterson took so many hits there was no way he could stay on his feet, except he did. Afterward, he was asked how he did it.

“Just because you get hit doesn’t mean you have to go down,” Patterson said of the play and just as easily could have been talking about the aftermath of the shocking Week 1 loss. “You’ve got to run hard with the ball, and good things will happen for you.”

All week, friends became critics. Even the opposing coach, North Dakota State’s Craig Bohl, piled on well after the whistle, blasting the KU effort, physicality and crowd. The amazing free-for-all about the Week 1 free-fall got wilder by the day.

Beyond the X’s and the O’s, the Z’s and the Y’s, the job of a football coach whose team is entering a game as a heavy favorite lies in convincing his players they can lose. For the heavy underdog, the coach’s task becomes making his players believe they can win.

Gill had a particularly difficult task both weeks, and he’s batting .500, wearing the crown as the coach of the most improved team in the nation from Week 1 to Week 2, and just as everyone predicted in the preseason, Kansas started the year with a 1-1 record after participating in two of the biggest handful of upsets of the year.

Gill’s early days at Buffalo, more than anything, gave him a plan to reverse the confidence of his players.

“Things were very bleak,” Gill said. “There was not a lot of confidence, so at least that experience helped me to understand how I need to deal with these young men.”

He dealt with them by giving them a plan. For the defense, that plan involved listening to every word uttered by coordinator Carl Torbush and cornerbacks coach Vic Shealy, both of whom had coached on staffs that played against Georgia Tech’s unconventional, run-oriented offense.

On offense, the plan involved moving to almost all shotgun formation, some no-huddle and a faster pace that felt more like the attack the players knew well under former offensive coordinator Ed Warinner. Gill praised coordinator Chuck Long for communicating the need for the faster tempo to the rapt players.

The negative outside vibes that surrounded the players all week will be replaced by reminders of their greatness. Same voices. Different words. New challenge for the new coach.

“They come in on Monday,” Gill said. “I’m going to read into them and see where they’re at, where’s their focus. I don’t know. It’s my first time now going with this group of guys, knowing how they handle prosperity, how they handle a win. They’ve shown me how they handle a loss.”

Like proud men.