Thursday November 13th, 2008

Head-coaching headhunter Chuck Neinas does a fine job, but I'm about to undercut him. Neinas charges schools thousands to help find a coach. I'm charging nothing. To the folks at Clemson, Kansas State, Tennessee, Washington and everywhere else where a coach's seat has turned white-hot, I have two words for you.

Turner Gill.

I've never met the Buffalo coach and former Nebraska quarterback. Never even spoken to him. But I've covered enough college sports to know that a coach who can improve a program with another coach's players and continue that improvement by performing recruiting miracles can win anywhere. What's that? You don't believe Gill is a miracle worker on the recruiting trail? Then try to do what he's done. Fly to Houston or Miami or Nashville, go into a player's living room, and convince that player that he will serve himself best by spending the next four years in Buffalo, N.Y., playing for a program that -- for the first half of this decade -- was considered the worst in Division I-A.

Gill's Bulls face Akron tonight on ESPNU, and the winner will take command of the race for the MAC East division title. Buffalo is 5-4, but two of those losses came to potential Big East champ Pittsburgh and likely Big 12 north champ Missouri. In 2007, Gill's second season, he led Buffalo to a 5-7 record, 5-3 in the MAC. If that doesn't sound so great, consider what he faced when he took over the program prior to the 2006 season. In Buffalo's first seven years in Division I-A, the program won 10 games.

Gill has done a fine job coaching the players he inherited -- senior quarterback Drew Willy is a semifinalist for the Johnny Unitas Award -- but he has worked the real magic on the recruiting trail. Unlike most of the coaches who now find themselves jobless, Gill understands the two most important maxims in recruiting: 1) Protect your back yard; 2) If you don't have enough players in your back yard, import them from somewhere else.

Gill doesn't exactly have a fertile recruiting ground in upstate New York, but he has done well finding players there. The best is safety Domonic Cook, a sophomore cornerback from Buffalo who is second on the team in tackles this season. For the rest, Gill has had to scour the country. For instance, while all the major powers were in Jeannette, Pa., scouting junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Gill found Pryor's older teammate, Davonte Shannon. Shannon, a safety, was named first-team All-MAC as a freshman in 2007 and currently leads the Bulls in tackles. This past offseason, Gill went to Franklin, Tenn., where he found linebacker Scott Pettigrew. Pettigrew, whose only other offers came from Arkansas State, Furman and Wofford, is starting at linebacker as a freshman.

Few of Gill's signees are heavily recruited by I-A schools. On Rivals.com, Gill's signing classes feature more two-star ratings than an Adam Sandler film festival. So Gill is either better at evaluating players or better at coaching them than his peers.

"He realizes that college football is recruiting," Missouri City (Texas) Marshall High coach Darryl Phipps said of Gill. "What's that saying? It's not the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmies and Joes. And he knows that only certain Jimmies and Joes will work."

Last year, when Phipps coached at Eisenhower High in Aldine, Texas, Gill convinced 6-foot-2, 234-pounder Darius Willis to sign with the Bulls. Willis, who didn't qualify academically for this season but expects to enroll at Buffalo in January, could have signed to play linebacker in the Big 12. But Gill, a former wishbone quarterback, told Willis he would get a look under center. Gill didn't promise anything but a chance, Phipps said, but Willis signed anyway.

Phipps was amazed at Gill's ability to find players who he thought would fit well in the program and in the town. No offense to Buffalo, which by most accounts is a quality burg, but it's quite a leap of faith for an 18-year-old from Florida, Maryland, Tennessee or Texas to move to a town with an average high temperature in January of 31 degrees. Gill has convinced players to take that leap. "You know the man's got to be fairly charismatic to even get the kids down here to listen," Phipps said.

If Gill can convince players to come to Buffalo, he can convince them to come to Seattle, Clemson, S.C., Knoxville, Tenn. or Manhattan, Kan. And save the argument that he's only succeeding in the MAC and needs to prove himself on a bigger stage. College football conferences are economies of scale. If Gill can win at Buffalo, he certainly can win at Washington or Tennessee or Clemson. If the players he gets at Buffalo are better than that program typically could recruit, just imagine the wealth of talent Gill could accumulate in the Pac-10, SEC or ACC, where his recruiting pitch would not include the phrase, "Yes, you might get frostbite, but the wings are spectacular."

Hiring a head coach isn't rocket science. Once-proud programs in need of resurrection must find coaches who can make chicken salad out of chicken something else. So why not hire the guy who has spent the past three seasons making chicken salad in the land of chicken wings?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.