A Brand New Game Plan

For Coach Turner Gill, Winning is More Than Gridiron Glory

Story by Dick Hirsch, Photos by Paul Hokanson
Coach Turner Gill

Coach Turner Gill

Remember this: If you are going to play football for UB, whether you’re the starting quarterback or a guy who spends most of his time sitting hopefully at the end of the bench, Turner Gill wants you to be a role model. Gill, preparing for his first season as a head coach, already knows that he is a role model, but he believes every player who wears the blue and white of the Bulls should aspire to that same status.

Gill, 43, attained that lofty rank as a campus gridiron hero more than two decades ago, leading a college team whose exploits are still discussed by football fanatics and occasionally seen on classic game reruns on cable. In subsequent years, he further embraced that status as a person, a husband, a father, a coach and a citizen. Now he insists every player on his teams will be striving for that position.

“This isn’t just about blocking and tackling, this is about believing in yourself and your teammates, believing in your family and your coaches, believing in your university and living up to your potential,” Gill says. “When players adopt the attitude of believing, they will be role models for their teammates and everyone who knows them.”

Turner Gill and his players

Turner Gill is known for exhorting his players to believe in their potential, and to exemplify character

And when he says that, he says it with the kind of conviction, passion and messianic fervor reserved for those who truly believe. He believes it and those who hear him—players, alumni, colleagues—they believe it, too.

Soon after his appointment as the UB coach in December 2005, Gill took a look at the UB logo with the interlocking characters, “U” and “B,” and immediately announced to all within earshot that henceforth, as far as he was concerned, that logo stood for “U Believe.”

Before Gill’s arrival, UB had had 22 head coaches of football since the university fielded its first team in 1894. They came in all shapes and sizes, and from different backgrounds. Gill is the 23rd, the first certified superstar of the group. It didn’t take long for his smiling face to materialize in the ads marketing tickets for the upcoming season, sending a message to alumni and all Buffalonians that a new football era was beginning at UB.

“In building a Bulls football team that Buffalo can believe in, it’s important to have support from fans who share in our vision and passion for the future,” he is quoted in the promotional material mailed this past summer. “I encourage you to join us at UB Stadium this fall as we begin this journey together.”

That may sound like ad copy to you, but to those who have met Gill, if only briefly, it is part of his message.

What can he deliver? What can be expected of a man who just deplaned a few months ago to take a tour of a university that he had heard of, but about which he knew very little. What he did know was that the Bulls had another disastrous season (1-10) in 2005 and a dispiriting overall record (10-69) since moving back to NCAA Division I-A in 1999.

To learn about the Bulls’ new team uniforms and the Turner Gill Sideline Collection, see Sport Form. For alumni comments on the fall football season, see “Repeat the Question.”

For his part, Gill became accustomed to winning at the University of Nebraska, both as the quarterback on those spectacular Cornhusker teams of the early 1980s and as an assistant coach under the legendary Tom Osborne. A native of Fort Worth, Texas, he was recruited after making headlines at Arlington Heights High School. He led the ’Huskers from 1981 to 1983, compiling a winning 28-2 record, was undefeated against Big Eight competition and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1983. After two years as quarterback for the Montreal Concordes of the Canadian Football League, plus time as a shortstop in the farm system of the Cleveland Indians, Gill made a decisive career decision.

“I decided I wanted to go into coaching,” he says. “I believed I could teach and motivate young men, motivate them to dedicate themselves to excellence, balance and growth. I had been so fortunate to have played under Coach Osborne and he believed in me and gave me an opportunity. I was blessed to be on Coach Osborne’s staff.”

Gill had a satisfying coaching career at the University of Nebraska, the campus where he achieved stardom as a player. It lasted 13 seasons under Osborne and the two head coaches who succeeded Osborne when he retired to enter politics, and included national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. In the mad, mercurial, pressurized world of big-time football, 13 seasons on the same staff—while transcending head coaching changes—is a remarkable run.

But there came a time when Gill decided he had to leave the university and his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, and move on. He did that, but he did exactly what you are not supposed to do: He resigned without having another job.

Turner Gill and his players

Bulls players—whose ranks include some notable recruits—say they’re excited about playing for Coach Gill

“I felt it was time,” Gill says. “I believe God has a purpose for me to live, and I felt that God was calling on me to leave my job. I could have stayed. It was a ‘Walk of Faith,’ and I resigned in December 2004, and in February 2005, I was hired by the Green Bay Packers.”

Gill and his wife, Gayle, and two daughters, Jordan, 15, and Margaux, 11, packed up and moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the Packers named Gill director of player development, a position in which he counseled players about their off-field issues, and was also an offensive assistant. The stay at Green Bay was a happy experience, but it turned out to be short, because by the fall of 2005, UB came knocking on his door.

“I always had the feeling he would be a head coach someday,” reflects Ron Brown, a close friend who was an assistant on the Packers staff with Gill and is now state director of the Nebraska Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “He is a patient person and he decided if it was the Lord’s will that he be a head coach, it would work out. He believed that if he excelled at his job, good things would happen. He did excel, as a man and as a coach.”

In Buffalo, soon after beginning work in early January, Gill had to move quickly to appoint a staff and begin recruiting. He built a remarkable reputation as a recruiter at the University of Nebraska, and in the short time available to him this year, he signed some notable prospects for UB. Recruiting can be a tricky assignment, involving athletes, coaches and parents. In making an assessment of a prospect, Gill cites three factors that are most important: speed, athleticism and a desire to obtain a college degree. Not all recruiters would include that last consideration.

“That’s very important to me,” he says. “I am very aware of the statistics about the number of players who never get a degree, but it is my feeling that the quality kids, the kids with character, are the ones who have their sights set on a degree.”

Gill has made an immediate impression on his UB players, who are eager to become winners. “You can just tell that he has that winning spirit and he also cares about us both as players and as people,” says Ramon Guzman, a senior linebacker. Jamey Richard, the starting center who anchors the offensive line, has a similar opinion: “All the guys are excited about playing for him and are looking forward to the season. Coach Gill is both knowledgeable and approachable. I have never had a coach like him, a person whom you can talk to, one who cares about the individuals and their character.”

If character is important to Gill, it was vital in his own selection by UB. Those involved in his hiring keep emphasizing the term “character” when discussing the new coach. That includes UB Director of Athletics Warde Manuel, the professional search firm retained by the university and those who knew him or worked with Gill at the University of Nebraska.

Manuel says that Gill conveyed a plan for football, as well as a plan for exerting a positive influence on the lives of those who play for him. It was a significantly different rationale than that proposed by other coaching aspirants, it resonated with listeners and it convinced the UB administration that Gill had the approach that would make him a winner, both on and off the field.

“Turner Gill is a winner, a man of great integrity, and he has a vision for winning football at UB,” says Manuel. “This will mark an exciting new chapter for football at UB.”

A veteran Buffalo journalist and author, Dick Hirsch writes “BfloTales,” a weekly column in Buffalo Business First.

Related Reading: 2006 UB Bulls Football Schedule