Nebraska assistant coach Turner Gill announced his resignation Friday with all of the grace he once used to bedazzle defenses as a Husker quarterback.
The 42-year-old Gill, one of the last ties to the Tom Osborne era at Nebraska, said he wants to pursue head coaching jobs and thanked a long list of people who supported him during his tenure at NU. He spoke with pride and poise, the way Big Red fans remember him performing on the gridiron.
Gill, though, succumbed to emotion as he arrived at the part of his prepared speech that addressed the players he coached.
"Leaving the players "
Gill started the sentence, paused and turned from the podium. His eyes welled with tears. He looked toward the ceiling. He twice cleared his throat. Nearly a minute passed before he returned to the podium.
"Leaving the players is definitely the hardest part," Gill said. "I would like for them and the rest of the team to know that I love them, and that I'll always believe in them."
Gill becomes the last of Osborne's assistants to exit the Husker program. Several friends said Gill has no job awaiting him.
"I have been called to take a leap of faith, and I plan to pursue full time my career goal of being a head football coach," said Gill, a Husker quarterback coach for 12 years before taking over as receivers coach last January. "For the past few years, I have been working on my vision of what I believe coaching should be about, and where I believe our responsibility and passion should lie.
"While I have always remained true to my vision, it is now time I give it wings and see where it takes me."
Gill said he decided to make the move now as a courtesy to Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan, saying he was mindful that the staff is in a crucial recruiting period. Gill was one of two NU assistants Callahan retained when he became head coach last January.
The other tight ends coach Scott Downing had been hired by Frank Solich before the 2003 season.
Callahan declined comment Friday when asked whether any programs had made overtures about pursuing Gill. Callahan did say that Gill possesses "all the attributes you look for in a head coaching candidate."
Callahan said he and Gill discussed Gill's future in a meeting last Saturday, a day after Nebraska completed a 5-6 season with a home loss to Colorado.
Although Callahan said he hoped Gill would ultimately decide to remain at Nebraska, "he was very adamant and expressed to me that this wasn't just a one-year thing, that this has been several years in the making," Callahan said.
Callahan seemed to recognize the historical ramifications of Gill's resignation.
"When I hired Turner a year ago, it was important for us as a staff to have that link," Callahan said. "This is disappointing for all of us not only as a staff, but more for the fans."
To be sure, most Nebraska fans regard Gill as the final link to a program that became known for its coaching staff's continuity in the years after Bob Devaney became head coach in 1962.
"Well, Nebraska's been unusual in that you had roughly 42 years where you always had a strain of continuity, and that's pretty well gone now," Osborne said Friday. "Basically from 1962 on, a player could come back to campus and always find somebody they could relate to.
"When that changes, it's always kind of painful."
Steve Glenn of Lincoln, a former Nebraska offensive tackle (1977-78), agreed.
"It's one more piece of the puzzle that's gone away," he said. "What do we have left? Would some people say the Nebraska tradition is dead? You have to wonder. What is Nebraska tradition now?"
Glenn has been instrumental in forming the Cornhusker Tradition Coalition, a group that he says features "several hundred" Husker fans and former players pushing for NU to maintain its football traditions.
Coalition members still reeling from Nebraska's loss to Colorado which capped the Huskers' first losing season since 1961 were hit hard by Gill's announcement, Glenn said.
"I can't tell you some of the emotion that's come from ex-players the last few days," he said. "It's a feeling of loss."
Said former Nebraska All-America center Mark Traynowicz: "(Gill's) another link to the past, and maybe some of us old guys are trying to hold on to something that's no longer there."
Meanwhile, Solich said he hadn't heard of Gill's resignation until a few hours before Friday afternoon's press conference.
"My feeling is that it's a huge loss not only to the program, but to the entire state because he's been such a great ambassador," Solich said. "Plus, the thing about Turner is, he cares about those players on and off the field, and his caring is genuine."
Solich said Gill's departure represents another chapter in what's been a difficult year for the program.
"I still have a tough time turning on the TV and watching those guys run around in those uniforms," Solich said.
Former Nebraska receivers coach Ron Brown said he wasn't surprised Gill resigned without a job awaiting him. Brown said Gill had been thinking and praying about his future and by Wednesday, "You could sense an unmistakable confidence in Turner."
"You look through biblical history, and sometimes the most sensible decision is to do something that doesn't necessarily fit the flow of the majority," Brown said.
Gill's lineage in the Nebraska program runs deep. As a sophomore in 1981, he took over for struggling starter Mark Mauer in the fourth week, and under Gill's direction the Huskers rolled to their first outright Big Eight Conference crown under Osborne.
In 1983, Gill led one of the most explosive offensive attacks in college football history, as Nebraska averaged 52 points and 546.7 yards per game. The Huskers' national title hopes ended with a failed two-point conversion attempt against Miami.
Callahan said Gill, a gifted option quarterback, thrived this season in Nebraska's pass-oriented West Coast system, and Gill said he felt comfortable teaching it to receivers.
"Bill has a reputation for being one of the best teachers of the offense, and I can certainly attest to that," Gill said.
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Gill said he originally came to Nebraska because of "the vision of an outstanding leader, coach and Christian man named Tom Osborne. I came back to coach under him because of the same vision."
Gill thanked others, including God, "for the future that only he can see." He expressed love for his wife and two daughters. He thanked the "entire state of Nebraska for its support and love."
The news conference was held in a room beneath the South Stadium stands. The melting snow on stadium seats produced drips that fell like rain on those departing the media session.
Someone remarked that the drips seemed like tears.
Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or email@example.com.