Building the bonds: Gill paid to give perspective to Hogs

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, September 13, 2019
Turner Gill is shown at an Arkansas football practice on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Fayetteville. Gill in his first season in a non-coaching role on the Razorbacks' football staff.
Photo by Ben Goff
Turner Gill is shown at an Arkansas football practice on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Fayetteville. Gill in his first season in a non-coaching role on the Razorbacks' football staff.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Turner Gill can relate to today's University of Arkansas football coaches and players.

In fact, that's what he's paid to do.

Gill, a standout quarterback for powerhouse Nebraska teams in the early 1980s, has seen college football -- and life -- from just about every angle.

A professional quarterback and minor league shortstop, national championship winning college assistant coach and head coach, Gill launched the newest phase of his career in May as the Razorback football program's executive director of student-athlete and staff development.

"I'm just here to help our men become better in our society, obviously through the game of football, where I'm experienced," Gill said. "But I love teaching 18- to 22-year-olds. That's how I'm wired."

Gill's experience as a head coach includes taking over struggling programs at the University of Buffalo and Kansas, and helping Liberty University transition from the FCS to the FBS ranks in a seven-year run. During a 13-year stint as an assistant at Nebraska, he helped the Cornhuskers win three national championships and tutored Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch.

All of those experiences lend a deeper perspective to the team and staff about persevering through tough times and celebrating great successes.

The Razorbacks, 3-11 in the second season under Coach Chad Morris, are coming off a 31-17 loss to Ole Miss as they head into Saturday's 3 p.m. game against Colorado State.

Gill, 57, is just getting rolling in the position.

Turner Gill at a glance

Position UA executive director of student-athlete and staff development

Hometown Fort Worth

Age 57 (Birthdate Aug. 13, 1962)

Family Wife Gayle, daughters Jordan and Margaux

College Nebraska QB (1980-83)

Pro Montreal Concordes, CFL (1984-85); Cleveland Indians minor league teams Waterloo (1986) and Williamsport (1987-88)

Coaching Nebraska (GA) 1989, North Texas (GA) 1990, SMU (WRs) 1991, Nebraska (QBs) 1992-2002, Nebraska (asst. head coach) 2003, Nebraska (WRs) 2004, Buffalo (head coach) 2006-09, Kansas (head coach) 2010-11, Liberty (head coach) 2012-18

Noteworthy Went 28-2 as the starting quarterback at Nebraska from 1981-83. … Cornhuskers were 20-0 in Big Eight play with Gill under center. … Nebraska lost the 1983 national championship game to Miami (Fla.) 31-30 at the Orange Bowl on a failed two-point conversion with 48 seconds remaining. … Finished fourth in voting for the 1983 Heisman Trophy behind teammate Mike Rozier, who won the award. … Served as director of player development for the Green Bay in 2005, the year the Packers drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers. … Compiled a 72-84 record in 13 seasons as a head coach at Buffalo, Kansas and Liberty.

A Fort Worth native, Gill stepped down from his head coaching position at Liberty in December, citing his wife Gayle's health. At that point, he and Gayle wanted to relocate closer to their daughters Jordan and Margaux, who live in Dallas and Lincoln, Neb., respectively, while staying true to his calling.

"I chose to get out of coaching to be a little bit more involved with the student-athletes," he said. "More time to be one-on-one, in small groups ... to help them more with their mental and their emotional side of things.

"Someone who can be here for 15, 20, 30 or 45 minutes, whatever it may be, where a coach may not have that time. Then, plus a kid may not totally open up on some things to his position coach or head coach. And they still have access to the coaches."

He understands building relationships with the players and staff will take time, but he's ready for all.

"I'm here if they want to go through me from a social development standpoint, their emotional development and intelligence," he said. "I really just want to help them in all those aspects of life.

"If they want to go from a spiritual perspective, I can go forth from a spiritual perspective. So, kind of who I am, I can help them. I think the biggest thing is just to listen."

Ironically, just about the time Gill was looking to jump into student-athlete development, Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and Morris were looking to create a similar position for the football staff. T. Ray Grandstaff, a Fort Smith native and Arkansas state director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, referred Gill to Yurachek, who then mentioned him to Morris.

"It was just kind of fate that the conversation T. Ray and I had coincided with the conversation that Coach Morris and I had," Yurachek said.

Morris and Gill talked in April and had some meetings before Gill came on board. Morris called the feedback he's gotten on Gill's presence incredible.

"First, he's a fantastic man," Morris said. "What he stands for and his impact on kids everywhere he has coached has been tremendous. But for his ability to step back from football and really dive into these players' lives off the football field and his plan and what we have for him.

"He's got a deal every Thursday with our team. We call it two minutes with Turner. He's got different life skills we talk about constantly. I'm excited. I think that's the next step in our program and the growth."

Gill said he's known of Morris since the UA coach's days at Stephenville (Texas) High.

"I had watched him from afar, and once I kind of got out of coaching ... he was one of the names I had on my list and said 'There's a handful, three or four guys, I would love to work for if the situation were to come up,'" Gill said. "So that's kind of why it took place. It's a good fit, and I'm excited about the opportunity."

Gill called it a bonus that his wife's sister, Karan Staten, and her husband Kevin, are "big-time" Razorback donors who live in Little Rock.

Yurachek called Gill's role critical.

"We touch every aspect of our student's lives, when you talk about we have strength coaches, we have nutritionists, we have academic personnel, we have athletic trainers," Yurachek said. "It's that kind of personal and spiritual development person that these guys can go and talk to with problems that they're having, and somebody that they can trust who has walked in their shoes. I think it's really, really important."

Tyler McMahan, who works with Athletes In Action on the UA campus, lent further perspective.

"What we're seeing with 18- to 22-year olds, which you might have read about, is this epidemic of mental health," McMahan said. "And it sounds strange maybe if you didn't grow up that way. But the anxiety that a D-I athlete has is tremendous.

"It's kind of producing all these negative effects in their personal lives. So he's the type of guy who they can come to and talk to. He's in there day-in and day-out with the guys. He's been a coach, so he knows what they're living through and they know what he's there for.

"From my perspective that's the most important role he plays, but he also teaches them what it's like to be a man outside the locker room. He's not coaching day in and day out positions. He's coaching how to be a man."

Several Razorbacks asked about Gill attested to his personality and paid respect to his credentials as a player.

"We got to see his highlights when he first got here and I didn't know he was that nice," senior defensive tackle McTelvin Agim said.

"I appreciate Turner Gill," senior linebacker De'Jon Harris said. "He helped me take some strides this offseason being a leader off the field."

"I love everything about him," sophomore cornerback Jarques McClellion said. "I can express myself and talk to him just like another father figure.

"He wants us to come in there and just talk about life. We can talk about anything. ... At the end of the day, sometimes people don't understand how stressful it gets coming into fall camp. Especially as a freshman coming in and having so many things thrown at you. Then you add school, so there's a lot you have to adapt to. ... So having him to talk to, it's great. He's a blessing to the team."

Gill doubled as a baseball player for parts of his career at Nebraska and was taken as a second-round pick in 1980 by the Chicago White Sox, behind future Hall of Famer Harold Baines.

Gill was playing quarterback for the Montreal Concordes of the Canadian Football League in 1985 when he suffered concussions in back-to-back games that were not the first of his career. His team doctors would not clear him medically to return to the game and Gill hung up his football cleats.

"I had always stated, whenever I was 18, 19, 20 years old, to mom, dad and all that, if a doctor ever told me it was time to hang it up, I wasn't going to argue with it and that's what happened," Gill said. "They ran some tests after my last one ... and the doctors said they were not going to sign off on me to play again. ... I didn't fight it."

Doctors did clear him medically to return to baseball, and he did for three years in the Cleveland Indians organization before he moved into his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Nebraska in 1989.

The Cornhuskers won national championships with Gill as quarterbacks coach in 1994, '95 and '97. He coached Heisman Trophy runner-up Tommie Frazier in 1995 and Heisman winner Eric Crouch in 2000.

Gill got his first head coaching stint at Buffalo after the Bulls had been 8-49 under their previous coach.

His highlight in Buffalo came in a 42-24 upset of unbeaten and No. 12 ranked Ball State in the 2008 Mid-America Conference Championship Game. But Gill said his favorite moment from that season came in a victory over Bowling Green to clinch the MAC East.

"That game, it was raining, we had thunderstorms, we had three overtimes, we had two delays," Gill said. "People were starving. We had wives and people driving to the grocery store to go get candy bars because they were hungry. They were starving. It was a long, long day.

"Then, after that game, to see joy, because I remember seeing guys, when they're talking to me, they're taking to me like this [with their heads down] and now I see them with their head up and they're talking to me with a great confidence.

"It was really more about seeing their body language, their confidence, and now they can go out in their society and be better today. That's what football does."

Gill said he'd like his job at Arkansas to be long lasting.

"I want to continue to build relationships and teach every person that wants to grow and understand their purpose so that five years from now I can get a phone call or text or something from them and they say, 'Thank you.' " Gill said. "That's what I see. Coaches, players, whomever.

"God has placed me here to help the University of Arkansas football program, and I guess you can say the whole state of Arkansas, because I'm going to be involved with certain people and some people are going to hear me talk."

Sports on 09/13/2019


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