After years as a doormat, Bulls stomp to the top of the MAC

Fact: It takes money and muscle to build a respectable Division I-A football program.

Recruiting budgets must be increased and facilities must be constructed or expanded. Falling behind other schools is competitive suicide.

Buffalo dutifully followed the blueprint, increasing its recruiting budget by $75,000 and using a $500,000 donation to build the Morris Sports Performance Center, which doubled the school's training space from 6,000 to 12,000 square feet and allowed the football team to train as one group rather than lifting in shifts and sharing space with other teams. The school made similar financial commitments to its other sports.

But fostering success isn't solely about dollars and cents, bigger biceps and faster 40 times. Sometimes, it begins with improving the most basic component, like the starting quarterback's voice.

That was Turner Gill's mission with Drew Willy.

"Your voice is so important in the huddle, how you say that play," Gill told the junior quarterback. "How you enunciate a play can draw about success. You need to always speak in a way where you're confident that this play is gonna work.
"The way you talk, you can see a person is in control of what's happening."

The way Gill talks, it's clear who's in control at Buffalo. In just his second season as Bulls coach, Gill has given voice to a program that made barely any noise during its first eight seasons in Division I-A.

Brace yourselves, Buffalo fans.

Your team sits atop the MAC East division (3-0 MAC East, 4-1 MAC, 4-5 overall). In October alone, the Bulls matched their victory total from the last two seasons (three). The Bulls' four total wins, all in league play, mark their best since moving up to Division I-A in 1999. Buffalo has claimed its first three division games after winning no more than one in its previous eight seasons in the league.

"As a senior, I always wanted something like this," said defensive end Trevor Scott, who experienced six wins in his first four seasons. "We've seen what
we've done in the past, only winning one game in a season, two games last year. Ever since coach Gill got here, he's been really pushing us to believe. We haven't won a lot, so we really don't have a tradition. He's trying to change that."

The unanimous praise for Gill takes on a similar pattern.

First, homage is paid to his pedigree as a Nebraska quarterback who never lost a Big Eight game as a starter. Gill finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1983 (his teammate Mike Rozier took home the hardware). Many cite the quarterbacks -- Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch among them -- who Gill coached as a Nebraska assistant from 1992-2004, a stretch in which the Cornhuskers won three national championships.

But eventually, everyone talks about Gill's presence.

"Turner's got excellent demeanor," said Ohio coach Frank Solich, who had Gill on his staff when he coached Nebraska from 1998-2003. "He's always showing composure. That rubs off on his players."

Added Gill: "Being a former quarterback and being around some pretty good players, I know that people are going to look up to you."

Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel needed somebody whom players could look up to when he hunted for a new coach in December 2005. His problem: Who would take the job?

Not another Division I-A head coach, Manuel admits.

He looked at several Division I-AA coaches, but given Buffalo's history, he wanted a leader who had experienced success on college football's highest level. As a former defensive tackle at Michigan, Manuel knew the type.

Buffalo's search ended with a Michigan man extending his hand to a former Nebraska star. College football sacrilege? Perhaps. But the partnership has worked.

"It almost goes unspoken, but it's a connection we had and a connection we understood," Manuel said. "We know what it takes to be very successful at this level."

Despite Buffalo's pitiable past, Gill jumped at the chance to turn things around.

"In a worldly standpoint, people look at this as the worst job ever," Gill said. "But I didn't look at it that way. I had a purpose here. I'd been blessed to be at Nebraska, where they'd already established a program, but I was excited to have an opportunity to build one."

The process went slowly as Buffalo posted an all-too familiar 2-10 record last season, finishing last in the East Division for the fourth time in eight years. A 38-3 whipping by Rutgers in the opener this fall suggested more misery was on the way, but Buffalo bounced back with a 42-7 thumping of Temple.

After losses to Penn State, Baylor and Ball State, Buffalo beat MAC East favorite Ohio 31-10 and followed a week later with its first MAC victory against Toledo. Last Saturday, the Bulls notched their first MAC win against Akron.

Another MAC milestone would be reached Saturday if the Bulls beat Miami (Ohio) (2-1, 3-1, 4-5) for the first time in 10 tries.

In a worldly standpoint, people look at this as the worst job ever. But I didn't look at it that way. I had a purpose here. I'd been blessed to be at Nebraska, where they'd already established a program, but I was excited to have an opportunity to build one.

Buffalo coach Turner Gill

"We don't worry about the history, but at the same time, we have to know where we come from," Scott said. "We can't make the same mistakes we have in the past or we're going to get the same outcome."

For Willy, the outcome had been unremarkable before this fall. His first season working with Gill brought decent precision, as he became the last Division I-A starting quarterback to throw an interception (133 attempts). But Willy still finished the 2006 season with as many picks (six) as touchdown passes.

This season, Gill has shaped Willy's pocket presence. They meet several times a week to study film and work on voice, posture, body language and managing emotions.

"Coach has brought a mental toughness into my game," Willy said. "Guys look to me in the huddle. He's definitely helped me with having that voice so they know you're their leader."

Willy leads the MAC in completion percentage (67.2) and ranks third in passing efficiency (134.8 rating). Along with standout running back James Starks (84.9 rushing ypg, 10 TDs rushing, 12 TDs overall), Willy has helped Buffalo become the league's best red-zone offense (90 percent).

Scott (eight sacks) anchors a defense that has allowed 10 points or fewer in three of its five MAC games.

"From day one during camp, we got our scouting binders and on the front of them, it just said, 'Attack,'" Scott said. "We want to come out and punch the other team."

It's a departure from recent years, when the Bulls were slapped around on and off the field. Scott remembers getting skewered in the student newspaper and having to explain the team's poor play to his friends back home.

Now he shows up to home games and is greeted by a line of fans at UB Stadium.

"In the past, we'd get off the bus and there'd just be some security guys," Scott said.

Manuel's inbox has filled with positive e-mails in recent weeks.

"You walk around campus, you walk around town, people are excited and impressed with Turner," Manuel said.

Gill's rapid success combined with Nebraska's rapid decline has made him a hot candidate for the anticipated coaching vacancy at his alma mater. Both Buffalo and Nebraska are 4-5, but the mood around the two programs couldn't be more different.

Tom Osborne, who coached Gill and recently returned as interim athletic director at Nebraska, was a groomsman in Gill's wedding. The two men talk regularly.

"That relationship always has continued," Gill said.

Could it continue in closer quarters?

"I have a job to do here," Gill said. "My heart and soul is to bring excellence to the University at Buffalo's football program. That's where my heart and soul is."

Manuel hasn't discussed the rumors with the 45-year-old Gill, who has three years left on his contract.

"We both know it's being bantered about," Manuel said. "I think very highly of him and think he can be successful at Nebraska if he were to go there. But Turner's not a person who we want to lose. He is absolutely valuable to what we're doing. But if we lost a coach to Nebraska, we should all be proud that he was here and proud of what he was able to do."

Gill is aware of Nebraska's record and hopes the Huskers can turn things around, but his focus remains on his own team. A win Saturday at Miami puts the Bulls in prime position to reach the MAC championship game and qualify for a once-unthinkable bowl game.

That would be something to shout about.

"You see a lot of programs that get to their first bowl game and then the program gets going from there," Willy said. "That's definitely our ultimate goal."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.