LYNCHBURG, Va. – Turner Gill has endured plenty of challenges in his life. But this current test is a real humdinger.
The 50-year-old Gill, who is still a legend on the Nebraskan plains for his exploits as a Cornhusker, is now trying to rewrite history some 1,200 miles east of Lincoln in Lynchburg, Va. As Liberty University’s first-year head football coach, he has assumed the vanguard of the school’s five-decade quest for national football relevancy.
“We’re here to teach people about glorifying Christ and be conference champions and national champions,” said Gill, whose team is off to a rocky 1-4 start as it prepares to host Presbyterian College on Oct. 13. Its one win has come against Gardner-Webb University on Oct. 6. “The vision is clear. That’s why it fit me. I’m excited about that.”
Last May, Liberty, with 12,500 on-campus students, announced its intentions to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of NCAA competition, after a sports consulting firm contracted by the school finished an expansive feasibility study. The football team, currently a member of the Big South Conference like the rest of Liberty’s athletic teams, competes in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly called Division I-AA). Liberty’s other 19 athletic programs compete at the top NCAA Division I level.
The Flames drew an average home game attendance of 16,419 fans in 2011 and 16,216 in 2010, meeting the NCAA’s FBS eligibility requirements of at least 15,000 fans every other year. And the program is ready to increase its NCAA-mandated scholarship amount from 63 to 85, according to athletic director Jeff Barber. In addition, Barber said plans are in place to increase Williams Stadium’s current seating capacity of 19,200 to 25,000 soon, with the ultimate goal being 70,000.
All that remains for Liberty to reach the FBS level, school officials say, is an invitation from a member conference. Liberty has been linked most closely in published reports to Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Sun Belt Conference and even the Western Athletic Conference.
“We’ve been calling around,” Barber said. “We’re willing and able to go into any conference. Obviously, there are some we know we can’t go to. But there are two or three that are possibilities. We’re keeping communication lines open with them and letting them know our interest.”
Turner Gill, whose college experience stretches from quarterbacking Nebraska to the collegiate coaching ranks, is steadied by his faith despite a 1-4 start in his first year at Liberty and the death of his mother.
Becoming an FBS competitor would fulfill a longstanding objective at Liberty, which fielded its first football team in 1973, two years after the school’s inception as tiny Lynchburg Baptist College. The school’s iconic founder, the late Jerry Falwell Sr., often proclaimed his vision for Liberty to become for Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons, both academically and athletically.
But the school’s football history has been mostly nondescript. At the outset, Lynchburg Baptist practiced eight miles from campus on Treasure Island, an actual islet owned by Falwell on the James River. The team hosted home games five miles away at Lynchburg City Stadium and often played opponents’ junior varsity squads.
Even since jumping to Division I-AA in 1988, the Flames have struggled to produce a consistent winner. Only Danny Rocco, Liberty’s head coach from 2006-11, enjoyed regular success, with a 47-20 overall record, four Big South titles and three straight season-ending FCS Top 25 rankings in 2009-11. Rocco’s six straight winning seasons overall marked the first time since 1992-93 that Liberty posted above-.500 marks in consecutive years.
Now it’s Gill’s turn to make his mark. Hired in December 2011, eight days after Rocco took the head job at Richmond, Gill brings his own significant history to Lynchburg, having quarterbacked Nebraska to a 28-2 cumulative record and three straight Orange Bowls from 1981-83 during the Tom Osborne dynasty. After becoming a three-time Big Eight all-conference selection and a 1983 Heisman Trophy finalist, the Fort Worth, Texas, native played two seasons in the Canadian Football League and three years in the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers’ baseball farm systems before joining the college coaching ranks.
He served as a Nebraska assistant coach from 1992 to 2004, a span that included 13 straight bowl appearances and three national championships (1994, 1995 and 1997) and then spent one year as the Green Bay Packers’ director of player development. In 2006, he accepted his first head coaching position at the University of Buffalo, one of the worst programs in college football. Before Gill’s arrival, Buffalo had gone 16-85 in its previous nine seasons and only enjoyed one above-.500 season (1996) in 20 years.
Under Gill’s guidance, Buffalo won 20 games in four seasons. In 2008, the Bulls went 8-6, won the Mid-American Conference championship and secured the program’s first-ever postseason bowl game appearance. The remarkable turnaround earned Gill his second MAC Coach of the Year Award and, a year later, a five-year contract from Kansas to replace former head coach Mark Mangino, who resigned amidst allegations of player mistreatment.
The good vibes quickly dissipated in Lawrence, though. In two seasons, Gill went 5-19 overall and recorded only one win over a ranked opponent (then-No. 15 Georgia Tech) and one win over a Big 12 Conference foe (Colorado, which fired its head coach immediately after the loss). One day after the 2011 season ended, Kansas fired Gill, opting to buy out his contract rather than retain him.
It was a trying time for Gill, whose longtime Christian faith steadied him.
“Scripture always gives you great insight that God has a plan and hope for a future,” said Gill, who put his faith in Christ in December 1985 after his final CFL season. “I knew each and every day that God was placing things in my life to give Him the glory and let people see Him through adversity. That’s when true character gets revealed. I hope they saw a glimpse of Christ in me during that time. Galatians 6:9 says, ‘Let us not grow weary while doing good.’ I never lost heart because I knew that over time, you reap what you sow. Scripture kept me excited about going to work every day.”
Less than three weeks later, Gill landed at Liberty, which attracted his interest, he said, because “there’s no question about the vision, the Christian values. ‘Training champions for Christ’ [the school’s longtime tagline] – that says it all. As I look back at all the things God has placed me in, there’s no doubt He placed me here at the right time in my life. So I say hallelujah and praise Jesus. I’m just a little piece of the puzzle to help Dr. Falwell’s vision.”
Said Barber: “He’s the one God chose to be here. He’s got tremendous experience. He gets FBS and major college football, and he’s been in those arenas. He’s seen what it takes. … And he’s a great man of faith. He’s a guy who is here for the right reasons. He’s got all the things we were looking for.”
Life’s cold reality, however, quickly set in. One day after the Flames’ season-opening 20-17 loss to Wake Forest, Gill’s 75-year-old mother Hattie died. Liberty then dropped its next three games to Norfolk State, Montana and Lehigh, all top-25 FCS opponents, marking Liberty’s first 0-4 start since 1982.
Through all the recent personal and professional trials, Gill has leaned on the truth of Proverbs 3:5-6.
“I believe it and I love it,” he said of the well-known passage on trusting the Lord. “I believe everything that happens is for God to get the glory. I know I’ll see my mom again. I know that the football team will proceed where God gets the glory, not Turner Gill, not [current school chancellor] Jerry Falwell Jr. or [Falwell] Sr. It’s comforting what Scripture says: We’re here to be servants and to obey. I want to honor Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Joshua Cooley is a freelance writer in Germantown, Md., and author of Playing With Purpose: Inside the Lives and Faith of Major League Baseball Stars [Barbour Publishing, 2012] and The One Year Sports Devotions for Kids [Tyndale House Publishers, 2011].)