Tuesday, at his regularly scheduled news conference, Kansas University football coach Turner Gill found himself in a dogfight, fielding a barrage of questions about his future and the way he would go about fixing the problems that plague the Jayhawks.
Judging by the way the session began, Gill was ready.
Unprompted, Gill, whose Jayhawks will face the University of Texas at 6 p.m. Saturday in Austin, Texas, spent the first couple of minutes of Tuesday’s meeting with reporters emphasizing the areas his team had improved from last year.
“I would like to focus on two phases where we have improved, on offense and special teams,” he began. “On offense, we are scoring 30 points per game, where last year we were at 16. We have improved in rushing touchdowns — we have 15 so far, and at this time last year we had seven. In passing touchdowns, we have 14 right now, and we had seven up to this point last year. Another key thing that we look at is yards per play. Last year we averaged 4.6, and this year we are averaging 5.5 yards per play. Another great stat is that our passing percentage has improved from 57 percent last year to 67 percent this year.”
All true. All worthy of applause. But none of those statistics addresses the team’s two biggest problems. The first is its defense, which, through seven games, is on pace to become the worst in NCAA history and ranks last or second-to-last in total defense, passing defense and rushing defense. The second speaks to Gill’s philosophy. While he continues to push his “Believe” mantra, many outside the program are clamoring for the second-year coach to add “achieve” to his vocabulary. Tuesday, for the first time this season, Gill indicated he understood that.
“It isn’t about saying things or making statements, it’s about doing,” he said. “We’re trying to get our guys to perform. We’re still trying to put it all together.”
With the lid lifted on the accountability questions, media members questioned nearly all aspects of Gill’s program in a search for answers about why the Jayhawks have given up an average of 57 points and 595 yards per game during the current five-game losing streak.
How did he explain the lack of energy in practice during the week leading up the Kansas State game?
“I think that’s the inexperience of our team,” Gill said. “You’re just trying to get consistency. That’s just part of the process of trying to grow a program and trying to get people on the same page.”
How does he discipline players who don’t execute?
“We do some physical things in practice,” he said. “We call them reminders, where you do some up-downs after practice or repeat plays. You talk to them and explain to them what they need to do and how they need to do it. You do all different types of disciplinary actions to try to change that up, then hopefully they get it.”
After Saturday’s 59-21 loss to in-state rival Kansas State, KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger told a couple of reporters he did not expect anyone to accept KU’s recent struggles and vowed to get things fixed. Asked Tuesday for his reaction to Zenger’s comments, Gill stuck to his message.
“He’s the boss,” he said. “He’s gonna say what he has to say. I came here to fix something, and that’s what I’m here to do. I still believe in the plan we have intact.”
After the 27-minute session with reporters wrapped and Gill retired to his office, a handful of KU players spoke to the media about this week’s game and the team’s struggles. Even then, the talk turned to Gill. Unlike their coach, who kept a smile on his face even while answering the toughest questions, the players seemed more bothered by the negativity surrounding their coach.
“It’s amazing,” sophomore cornerback Tyler Patmon said. “I don’t know how many people could take that criticism for that many weeks and still have the same positive attitude as him. We say it in the locker room, other coaches tell us all the time how great of a coach and great of a person he is. It’s amazing that he can do that.”
Added sophomore quarterback Jordan Webb: “We have enough pressure as it is, just for ourselves and for our own pride. But whenever people are saying your coaches’ jobs are on the line, you definitely gotta take that to heart and play a lot harder and I think we’re going to.”
With five games to play and Gill’s seat growing hotter by the week, the Jayhawks appear to be as close as ever and seem content to keep emphasize the L portion of the team’s “Believe” slogan: Learn and press on toward the goal.
“It’s just everything wasn’t hitting and is not hitting at all times,” said senior offensive lineman Jeff Spikes. “But we’re gonna keep going after our goals and we still can surprise people by letting them know we’re not gonna quit.”
Added Patmon: “We still believe in our team 100 percent, and we still believe that we can reach a bowl game this year.”
As for Gill, rather than looking at the final five weeks of the season as a pressure-packed proving ground, he sees a chance to move forward.
“You have to have the mindset to get yourself ready to improve,” he said. “We have five more opportunities to do that and we’re fortunate right now that we have those opportunities. There’s going to come a time where you don’t have any more opportunities.”