Well, that was different.
It was, indeed, a strange night in Huskerland Saturday.
Yes, it’s been seven years since Turner Gill bid Nebraska a tearful farewell, and Husker fans have known for months that the NU icon would be returning this season as the coach of an opposing team.
But to actually see Gill stroll to the east sideline of Memorial Stadium Saturday, clad in Kansas Jayhawk blue, was a jolt nonetheless.
In all honesty, this just didn’t feel right.
I don’t believe it was an easy night for anyone connected to Husker football. Gill himself termed the return “awkward”. You know, regardless of any politically correct public comments, Tom Osborne had to face this date with trepidation. In fact, any longtime member of the Nebraska athletic department likely felt a swelling in the throat and a tug at the heart.
It wasn’t just that Turner is a Husker legend, one of the school’s greatest performers and a tutor to QBs Eric Crouch, Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost as they earned stardom of their own.
No, this was different. It reflects Turner Gill the man. A human being who is even better off the field than on it. Turner has touched innumerable lives in the Nebraska football program – actually, throughout the entire Husker athletic department and the state it represents. All are better for it.
There was a time when the succession line of NU football coaches appeared quite apparent … Osborne to Solich to Gill. Then there was 7-7 in 2002. Unease in Camelot. Steve Pederson.
It was hard for Gill to leave in 2004. And it was hard for him to return to the opposite sideline from where he spent so many glorious Saturdays of his life. But, Turner Gill, professional and focused, handled it well and will now continue with his difficult task at KU.
As a Husker and Gill fan, I, for one, was perfectly satisfied with Saturday’s result. I certainly wanted to see a Husker victory, but unlike some, I actually dreaded NU delivering a 40 or 50 point beatdown to a struggling Jayhawk team and it’s first-year coach.
Although NU’s offense resembed a rusty old tractor Saturday – churning along proficiently at times; coughing, wheezing and sputtering at others – the Blackshirts were at their nasty best, holding KU to an unfathomable 87 yards of total offense. Turner will have to answer to Jayhawk fans for that. He certainly didn’t need the extra burden of another lopsided score on top of it.
This has been a difficult debut season in Lawrence. There are even rumblings that a new KU athletic director could, even should, dismiss Turner after just one season and bring in a coach of his own choosing to right the Jayhawk ship.
Which just shows how unrealistic those aboard in Kansas really are.
Many Jayhawk fans – and, more importantly, prominent boosters – became deluded after Mark Mangino guided KU to a magical 12-1 record and Orange Bowl triumph in 2007. They actually believed Kansas was ready to join the power ranks of college football, challenge for conference championships regularly and become part of the national championship picture.
What they willingly failed to note was that the ‘07 success was built primarily around a very favorable schedule and the exploits of a special player, QB Todd Reesing. The Jayhawks followed with an uneven 8-5 campaign in 2008, then imploded in ‘09, losing seven straight to end the season, with Mangino ushered out the door amid allegations of player abuse.
Yes, Mangino did a solid job at Kansas resurrecting a moribund program. But KU a college football power? In the same sentence with Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida, Nebraska, Texas? Not hardly.
Think of a comparison between the proud Kansas basketball program and that of Nebraska. The Huskers are not going to be a national top five hoops fixture in the next five years. Or ten. Or twenty. Ditto KU in the world of college football.
Yes, Kansas is capable of gridiron “success”. With proper funding and emphasis, Jayhawk fans should certainly expect a program that wins 7-9 games annually, perhaps springing the occasional “magic” season and accompanying major bowl reward.
And, with patience, I believe Turner Gill can deliver that in Lawrence. It’s about perspective. Something Turner has and the Jayhawks need. Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. Then, when you run, don’t fall down and skin your knee.
Perspective, patience, principles, pride. Qualities Turner Gill learned from a certain mentor named Osborne. In fact, it struck me how much Turner resembled TO on the sideline Saturday night. Calm, cool, collected. You wouldn’t have known by watching him whether his team was 20 points ahead or 40 behind.
Time will tell, of course, but I believe Kansas has the right man if they embrace and support him. I hope he gets that time to prove it.
Successful at KU or not, Turner Gill will always have my respect and admiration. Thankfully, with Nebraska joining the Big Ten next season, there will likely be no more awkward trips to Lincoln for my favorite Husker.
My memories will always be of the dashing QB in scarlet & cream on all those bright Saturday afternoons, not the brief, blue-clad visitor on a cold November night.