LAWRENCE, Kan. — One can only imagine how emotional Turner Gill's return to Nebraska will be.
Seriously — one can only imagine. Gill won't say.
The Kansas coach and former Nebraska quarterback insists the spotlight should shine only on the players Saturday when he leads his Jayhawks onto the hallowed field in Lincoln where he starred for three of the greatest years in Husker history.
"The game is not about me," said the first-year Kansas coach. "It's about the players. That's the truth of it all. I have tremendous respect for Nebraska and the people and coaches, everything about it. But this is about Nebraska playing Kansas and we're trying to do the best we can to go out and win a football game."
People who know the cool, reserved Gill are not surprised at this approach to what ought to be one of the most memorable days of his career. As a player in the early 1980s, he was always stoic and composed while helping his coach and close friend Tom Osborne win three straight Big Eight championships.
With Gill at the control of a high-powered offense that included Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, Nebraska went 28-2 in three seasons, including 20-0 in conference play. He is still immensely popular throughout the state.
"I'm sure he's going to have some emotions going into this game," said Chuck Long, Gill's offensive coordinator. "We'll never see them. But I'm sure there'll be maybe an extra jump in his step going into the game. I'm sure it's going to hit him when he walks on the field in front of those fans."
Gill later served as an assistant coach at Nebraska, and even asked his old coach to be best man at his wedding. The two have remained close. Osborne, who now oversees Nebraska as athletic director, called him this week. He agrees that seeing Gill as an enemy instead of an ally is going to feel odd.
"It will be a little different, but competition is competition," Osborne said. "You can have competition without animosity. Sometimes you have the best boxing matches with your brother. You try to beat them, but when it's over, it's over."
Something Gill is willing to discuss is his admiration for Osborne and the Nebraska football tradition. Both as a player and assistant coach, he wrote notes to himself about what he observed, what made the program click. He still has those notes.
"That's part of the plan and makeup I have, from coach Osborne, what I saw, what I witnessed, what I played with, being a part of what he did," Gill said. "I think that's the reason why Nebraska consistently won over many, many years is how you go about developing relationships with people. The continuity with the staff. Keeping the same plan and believing in what you really believe in. Be yourself."Comment on this story
The Jayhawks will be coming to Lincoln on the heels of a 35-point fourth quarter against Colorado that led to the greatest comeback win in school history. But the No. 9 Huskers will be heavily favored to rout their former quarterback's team. Adding to the interest, this will be the final game as conference foes between Kansas and Nebraska, which is going to the Big Ten next season.
"We will always be good friends no matter what happens, but, naturally, we would like to see Nebraska play very well on Saturday because that's the school I represent," said Osborne. "So that will be an interesting circumstance, and I am certainly glad that we won't be playing him after this, at least for a long time, because it is a little bit of an awkward situation."
Gill's players know that no matter how he tries to downplay it all, Saturday has to be a special day for him.
"That's a great atmosphere in college football," said offensive lineman Brad Thorson. "I'm glad I get to go into battle with him and he's on our sideline, not theirs. It will probably be emotional, but he does a great job of approaching the game, at least to this point, very much under control. And I think he'll have that same mentality in Lincoln. I expect him to be the same guy he always is."