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Coach Gill steadies Kansas football team

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | 8:00 p.m. CDT

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The season's only two games old and Turner Gill's Kansas Jayhawks already own the worst loss and the best win in the Big 12.

In between, Gill's boss abruptly retired under heavy fire. All that did was create even more anxiety for a first-year head coach following a shocking 6-3 opening loss to North Dakota State.

Gill suddenly found himself under more criticism than he'd ever known before in what has been a seemingly charmed life of almost unbroken success as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

Believe it or not, a few fatalist fans actually wanted him fired. One game was enough for them.

But seven days later the Jayhawks turned around and beat then-No. 15 Georgia Tech 28-25. It was Kansas' first win in nine games, going back to the debacle of 2009. It was their first home win over a top-15 team in 26 years. People who had denounced Gill as a bum were probably among the thousands who leaped over the railing and ran onto the field to embrace him.

So, what happened? How can the same team, on the same field, lose to an FCS team picked sixth in the Missouri Valley and then knock the defending ACC champs completely out of the Top 25?

It goes back to the head coach. As the horrible week got even worse with the departure of athletic director Lew Perkins, he quietly took stock, talking with a select circle of people who are very close, including his wife and Tom Osborne, his mentor.

Deciding to stick with what he believes in, which includes himself, Gill rallied his team and silenced his critics. He unveiled a true freshman running back, James Sims, who ran for 101 yards after not even playing against North Dakota State. He changed quarterbacks and redshirt freshman Jordan Webb threw three touchdown passes. One receiver, Daymond Patterson, made a spectacular tackle-breaking run to turn a short pass into a score.

Next up is Friday night's trip to Southern Mississippi. While no one knows what might happen, it's safe to say a loss would not trigger another firestorm of condemnation because Gill now carries a lot more respect among Kansas fans than he did two weeks ago.

"Whether we win, lose, or draw I am going to be the same guy as I talk to our players," he said. "In a game, at halftime, whatever."

The players say they stayed calm and focused because they saw their coach do the same.

"After North Dakota State, he came in the locker room and he said the first game is the least important game, you always make the biggest improvement from game one to game two," said tight end Tim Biere, who caught one of Webb's touchdown passes.

"He said, 'Just get ready for this next game.' Everybody bought into it and we had the best week of practice we had all year."

Something else that helped Gill through the crisis was his experience as head coach at Buffalo. The Bulls won only two games his first season, but they had gone only 8-49 under their previous coach so not much was expected.

By the time Perkins came calling and asked him to replace the volatile Mark Mangino, Gill had turned the Bulls into the East Division champions of the MAC.

Perhaps as much as any coach in the country, the 48-year-old Gill knows who he is and likes what he sees.

"The biggest thing is that I understand my purpose. I understand the direction, I understand the vision, I understand the mission," he said. "I understand what my purpose is here and nobody is going to take me off that track. I don't know what the outcome is always going to be, but I do know how I'm always going to be as a teacher."

At Nebraska, he quarterbacked the Cornhuskers through one of their greatest eras. His senior year, the Big Eight champions averaged 52 points and more than 400 yards rushing.

All that's another reason his players lean in close when he speaks to them in a confident, reassuring tone.

"A lot of times you hear a player say, 'Well, the coach has got us out here doing something and they never went through what we're going through and they just don't understand,'" Patterson said.

"But when you know your coach has done the same things and gone through the same things that you're going through, it really helps a lot. We know coach Gill isn't asking us to do anything he's never done himself."


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