Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kansas finds a pretty good replacement

My first-ever post on this blog (after the introductory one, anyway) was very column-ish and argued against the institution of a "Rooney Rule" in college football. My belief is that schools should be able to interview and hire whoever they want; if a black candidate is qualified and deserving of consideration, he'll get a shot. No school is going to bypass a potential head coach who could generate a lot of wins and, by proxy, money. This isn't 1952.

Kansas was nice enough to prove my point last week, reaching waaaaay to the northeast and hiring Turner Gill from Buffalo. My first thought: Great hire. The guy is young, has run a successful pro-style offense and just turned Buffalo from a doormat's doormat into a MAC contender. My second thought: Why am I calling a guy with a 20-30 career record at a MAC school a great hire? Considering how decent Buffalo has been the past couple years, I was surprised that Gill's record wasn't at least close to .500. Was I overestimating his success?

The short answer: no. The long answer: no, definitely not (is that long enough to be a long answer? No? Oh well). Here's a number that should give you an idea of just how ridiculously terrible Buffalo was before Gill's arrival: 9-69. That was Buffalo's record from 1999, when the school joined Division I-A, until Gill took over. At no point in that time did the Bulls beat a team with a winning record. Buffalo was arguably the worst program in the country for close to a decade.

In Gill's first year, Buffalo set a school record with 220 points scored despite finishing 2-10. The next year, the Bulls went 5-7 ... and Gill was named MAC Coach of the Year. Read that sentence again. Going 5-7 at Buffalo in 2007 was considered the best coaching job in the conference. The next year, Buffalo went 8-6 -- winning almost as many games as they had in their first seven years combined in I-A -- and beat undefeated Ball State to win the MAC championship and earn a berth in the International Bowl.

The fact that Buffalo's 5-7 record this past season was a disappointment is less of an indictment of Gill's coaching as it is a testament to how far he brought the Bulls in a relatively short period of time. He might not be Brian Kelly, but he's a very good offensive coach and led a three-year turnaround at Buffalo that was almost as impressive as Kelly's at Central Michigan.

As for Gill's offensive acumen, you might notice a trend in Buffalo's national ranking in total offense during his tenure (the Bulls were 112th the year before he arrived):

2006: 109th
2007: 89th
2008: 54th
2009: 43th

He also turned Drew Willy into the school's all-time leading passer (and holder of every meaningful passing record) and James Starks into the school's all-time leading rusher at the same time. To say he pumped life into the Buffalo football program would be an understatement, and if it was possible to find a coach with as impressive of an offensive background as Mark Mangino (who developed Jason White and Josh Heupel during Oklahoma's resurgence), Kansas did it. And it seems safe to say that Gill is a more likable guy who doesn't verbally abuse everyone around him, which should help in recruiting even if the 17-year-old kids are too young to remember him as the awesome QB at Nebraska.

Carl Torbush, the man Gill hired away from Mississippi State to be his defensive coordinator (and who also was head coach at North Carolina and Louisiana Tech and defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M), had this to say:
“Anybody who’s ever been around him, there’s no fake about him,” Torbush said. “He’s the type of man I want to be around each day of my life.”
There probably weren't a lot of comparable comments made about Mangino the past few years.

It also says something about his status within the college football world that despite a relatively short career, Gill was able to reach out and quickly bring in Torbush and offensive coordinator Chuck Long, the former Oklahoma O-coordinator who just a few years ago was recognized as one of the hot young assistants in the sport before struggling as head coach at San Diego State. I've held a long-standing belief that a coach's most important decision is who he hires as coordinators, and Gill did pretty well for himself in that regard.

I really don't know if Gill will be able to improve on Mangino's success at Kansas -- it's easier to go from bad to good than it is to go from good to elite -- but I feel comfortable saying that as long as he sticks around, the Jayhawks will never again be as irrelevant as they were for the 20 years pre-Mangino.

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