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Turner Gill's friend - one, in fact, that Gill calls his "good luck charm" - will be in Lincoln Saturday night to see the last game in the nation's longest continuous football series ... Nebraska vs. Kansas for an NCAA record 105 consecutive years.
Talk about an ironic farewell to the 117th and last time that these two programs will meet as conference rivals. Who would have envisioned one of Nebraska's most beloved players leading Kansas onto the field for that final chapter in the third most played game in NCAA history?
Jeff Smith, a Kansas native who made the decision to become a Husker shortly after Gill and Irving Fryar made the same choice in the early 1980s, figures this will be the only game in his life when he will not be pulling for his former teammate to win.
"I love Turner, but I'm not crazy. I'll be supporting Nebraska," Smith said, acknowledging that Gill gave him his "good-luck charm" nickname earlier this season when Smith drove from hometown Wichita to Lawrence for KU's 28-25 upset win over then ranked and defending ACC champion Georgia Tech.
That was Gill's first victory as a Big 12 Conference head coach. His only other two wins this season have been a 42-16 cruise past New Mexico State and last Saturday's 35-point fourth-quarter explosion that transformed a 45-17 deficit into a 52-45 triumph over Colorado - the biggest comeback in KU history.
Gill: Saturday's Game is About the Players
Gill downplays Saturday night's Pay-Per-View game against his alma mater. "The game is not about me. It is about the players, and that is the truth of it all," Gill said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "I have tremendous respect for Nebraska and the people, coaches and everything about it. This is about Nebraska playing Kansas, and we are trying to do the best we can to go out and win a football game."
Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne indicated Tuesday that seeing his former quarterback and assistant coach on the other side of the field will be a little different. "But competition is competition," Osborne said. "Fans and people, sometimes even in the media, you realize that you can have competition without animosity. Sometimes, you had the best boxing matches with your brother. You try to beat him, but when it's over, it's over."
Osborne said Gill is very sound philosophically, knows what he wants to do and knows who he is. "I have great admiration for him as a person," Osborne said, adding how difficult it is to coach a group of players you don't know with a staff that's still getting acquainted.
Osborne pointed out that Kansas State's Bill Snyder, a coach that he thinks did the best coaching job in the Big Eight and Big 12 Conference over a long period of time, had a difficult first two or three years. Even Snyder's success "didn't happen overnight," Osborne said, "but he kept getting better, and I think that to judge a person after two or three games is very, very difficult."
Asked if he thought coaches today have some leeway in their first couple of years, Osborne indicated that it depends on their situation and who's calling the shots. "Some places are very antsy and want instant success," he said. "Some places that are wise will wait it out."
Nebraska, no doubt, will give Gill a warm and appreciative welcome, but the first-year Kansas head coach will be oblivious to the surroundings and focusing strictly on the task at hand ... just like Osborne would do. Osborne, after all, recruited Gill, coached him and still mentors him on life issues whenever asked. Osborne said he strongly considered Gill when Nebraska's head coaching job opened up before deciding the program needed a defensive-minded head coach.
Osborne, Brown Remain Positive Role Models
Last year, when Kansas pursued Gill, Osborne was listed as a character reference on Gill's resume.
In a conversation with Gill after KU's lopsided loss to Kansas State, "I just tried to encourage him a little bit," Osborne said. "He's always been fairly positive and upbeat, and I've admired his attitude through the whole thing. He's doing fine."
Gill also talks on a regular basis with Nebraska Tight Ends Coach Ron Brown. "We talk about life. We talk about football. We talk about spiritual things," Gill said.
Some relationships are inextricably linked, and Gill's and Smith's friendship is no different. It goes back a quarter century when they came within inches of celebrating a national championship together.
You might remember Smith coming in for injured Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and rushing for 99 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull unbeaten and top-ranked Nebraska within 31-30 of once-beaten Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
While Nebraska made scoreboards pop like pinball machines on steroids that season, Smith emerged from Rozier's long shadow to play a pivotal role in the stretch drive of the Huskers' biggest game. His fresh legs created 15 minutes of fame that wove Smith into the fabric of the Huskers' most debated football game ever.
Smith scored a short touchdown with 6:55 remaining in the game and then electrified the Orange Bowl crowd, taking a pitch from Gill and sprinting 24 yards for another touchdown.
A Frozen Clock, a Pre-Determined Decision
When Smith scored that second TD, only 48 seconds remained on a clock that will forever be frozen in history. Smith's run meant the only thing standing between Nebraska and Osborne's first national title was an extra point that would enable the highest scoring offense in NCAA history to finish as the nation's only unbeaten team.
Colleague Mike Babcock and I stood next to each other on the sidelines near the end zone, a few yards from the live action. The second Smith scored, we looked at each other and almost simultaneously said: "Coach Osborne will go for two instead of one". Not surprisingly, the team, to a man, felt the same way.
Nebraska, you see, doesn't believe in backing into anything.
Many of you know the rest of the story. Osborne went for two, and at the last second, Miami defender Ken Calhoun deflected Gill's pass intended for Smith and ended Nebraska's furious comeback.
"It was the same play we practiced all week - a play that worked well all week long," Smith said last week. "There's no way you can simulate game speed. Their DB got a finger on the ball, and it brushed my back shoulder pad."
Still, in perhaps the greatest game that Nebraska didn't win, Osborne and the Huskers earned mountains of respect for a courageous effort that fell seconds, and inches, short of succeeding in its final mission.
To this day, Gill remains one of Nebraska's all-time favorite players not only because he chose Osborne and Nebraska over Barry Switzer and Oklahoma, but because he became the quintessential leader that exudes the same class and represents the same values as the Hall-of-Fame coach who recruited him. Osborne served as a groomsman in Gill's wedding, and Gill - in his 1992-to-2004 stint as a fulltime Husker assistant coach - served as the quarterback coach for Osborne's three national championship teams.
Gill is 109-9 All-Time at Memorial Stadium
Counting his days as both a Nebraska player and Husker coach, Gill has been a part of 118 games at Memorial Stadium, which is, coincidentally, one more game than Nebraska and KU will have played against each other after the curtain goes down Saturday night.
As an All-Big Eight quarterback, Gill led Nebraska to three undefeated Big Eight Conference seasons. He was also a second-team All-American and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting as a senior.
Gill was 3-0 against the Jayhawks as a player, 14-0 against KU as a part of Nebraska's coaching staff and 109-9 overall all-time at Memorial Stadium (28-2 as a player and 86-7 as a coach).
Now 48 and in his 18th straight year as a Kansas state probation officer, Smith relishes his friendship with Gill and said his trusted teammate "just needs more time to recruit what he needs, so he can build a team on the kind of character he's always believed in."
Smith knows what goes into the recruiting process because he was a highly recruited athlete himself. As a senior at Wichita Southeast High School, he weighed offers from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and UCLA against the one he valued most - Nebraska's.
"I ran the I-formation at Wichita Southeast and wanted to run the same formation at Nebraska with all of those big blockers in front of me," Smith said, acknowledging that he was able to add 40 pounds to his 5-foot-10 frame and get faster at the same time he got stronger in Lincoln.
He also learned how to be patient, backing up Rozier and eventual multiple Super Bowl champion Roger Craig as a sophomore and then playing behind Rozier again as a junior.
A Victim of the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx?
Perhaps you remember how Smith's senior season started. In his first three weeks that season, he led the nation in rushing and on Oct. 1, 1984, he became the ninth Nebraska-related Sports Illustrated cover after the Huskers gashed UCLA, 42-3, in Pasadena.
The words promoting him were simple and straightforward: "Jeff Smith of No. 1 Nebraska" in the lower left corner to go with a familiar refrain in the upper right corner: "The Big Red Machine".
Unfortunately, Smith sprained his ankle and could not play the following weekend when the top-ranked Huskers traveled to the East Coast and were hijacked by Syracuse, 17-9, in the Carrier Dome.
Although Smith never fully recovered from that ankle injury, he became a consensus All-Big Eight choice and led the conference in all-purpose yardage.
Nebraska finished 10-2 in 1984 and beat LSU, 28-10, in the Sugar Bowl.
Smith then spent two years with the Kansas City Chiefs and two more with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before returning to Wichita.
"I came back to my roots," he said. "Wichita is home to me, but Lincoln is still my football home."
A member of the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame, Smith rushed for 1,992 yards on only 315 carries as a Husker. His 6.32-yard average per rushing attempt ranks fifth on the Huskers' all-time career yards per-carry chart, trailing only Rozier (7.16), Jarvis Redwine (7.11), Calvin Jones (6.84) and Ahman Green (6.76).
Homecoming with Daughter, Coach, Friend
Saturday is a homecoming of sorts for Smith. He will visit his daughter, Jade, 21, who works at a Lincoln hospital, He will say hi to Osborne, and he will find Gill to extend his best to someone he trusts implicitly.
The Smith-Gill handshake will not be awkward because a legendary quarterback understands why a former teammate would side with his alma mater. Words, though, can't describe how much a Husker cares about a certain Jayhawk and how much a relatively new Jayhawk cares about a certain Husker.
Next year - and every other year that Gill coaches at KU - will be better for Smith because he says he will never have to root against Turner's team again.
Smith catches himself, knowing that "never" is too strong a word. What if Nebraska and Kansas schedule a non-conference game with each other? What if the two schools end up meeting in a bowl game someday?
If and when either possibility becomes reality, Jeff Smith just might decide to vacation in Tahiti.
And really, who would blame him?
Voices from Husker Nation
I vividly remember the first time Jeff Smith touched the ball for Wichita Southeast in its 1970 season opener against Kapaun-Mt. Carmel (it might have been called just Kapaun in those days). Anyway, Jeff fielded a punt after the Crusaders' first possession and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. I was broadcasting high school games for KFH (in Wichita) back then, and it was that Friday night high school broadcast that kept me from traveling with the Wichita State team on 10/2/70. I hope to get a chance to meet Jeff on Saturday. Ken Softley, Topeka, Kansas Editor's note: On Friday, Oct. 2, 1970, a twin-engine plane that was carrying Wichita State football players, staff members and fans to a game in Utah struck treetops and crashed near Loveland Pass in Colorado, resulting in the deaths of 31 of the 40 passengers.
Thanks for the great story on Gill. In 1984, I lived on Harper 9 with Jeff Smith and Neil Smith, so I remember that Sports Illustrated cover very well. I also remember we'd climbed back up to No. 1 in the national polls before our last home game against No. 4 Oklahoma that year. About 2:30 on the Friday afternoon before the '84 Oklahoma game, I was walking down 14th street. The only one else around was a stocky figure in front of me and walking very deliberately. As I approached him and started to walk around him, I looked over and noticed it was Jeff Smith. I said something like, "Hey Jeff, you guys ready?" And he said something like, "Oh yeh, we'll get 'em." Given the national rankings going into that game, I asked if we were going to be able to run against OU, and if he felt good about the plan. He said he did and that Nebraska would absolutely run against OU. I was a little surprised and said something like "Wow, sounds like you know the plays before the game even starts." Jeff looked at me, grinned, and said something like "I know the third play in the third quarter" or something like that. I said "Huh? Are you telling me that you know the first play Nebraska will run on Saturday?" He grinned, kept his deliberate pace and said: "42 trap, right side." After all these years, I still believe that's what he said. I wished him good luck on Saturday and walked on. More than 25 years later, it's time for me to fess up. What Jeff doesn't know is I won a case of beer in the stands predicting that first play. I should also point out that Jeff scored our only touchdown that day, but Oklahoma scored 10 in the fourth quarter and beat us, 17-7. Loved the way that team came back in the Sugar Bowl, though. Great memories. Great fun. Paul Savastano, Overland Park, Kansas
Thank you again for a great article. Turner Gill is my all-time favorite Husker! I was in high school when that 1984 Orange Bowl occurred. Everyone else in my house had fallen asleep and given up on a comeback. I remember after the unsuccessful two-point conversion, I sat on the couch in disbelief and cried my eyes out. It seems as if it was yesterday. I have followed Turner Gill throughout his coaching career and wish him success. Like Jeff Smith, I, too, will be cheering Saturday night for the Big Red --- and hope this is the last time I won't be cheering for my favorite Husker. Best wishes to Turner Gill. I hope KU gives him the time. He deserves it. Kelly Enck, Grand Island, Nebraska
Really enjoyed the update on Jeff Smith, a player I always felt labored in the shadows of so many great running backs that were at Nebraska at the same time he was. I remember Smith as an extremely quiet, somewhat reserved individual whose speed and physical abilities were every bit as good as some of our other backs who went on to play in the pros. Isn't it interesting how injuries affect seasons and careers like they do? I don't think Smith was ever quite the same after that badly sprained ankle, but he kept trying to do what he could for the team. Also enjoyed reading about his continued support of Turner Gill, who was and still is my favorite Husker player of all time. I honestly don't know one Nebraska fan anywhere who doesn't cheer for Kansas every week now. We all know what Turner is made of and what he can do. I encourage KU fans to give Gill time to show how well he can recruit, develop, encourage and help student-athletes become men. He has the knowledge, the blueprint, the faith and the resolve to build something from the ground up, and from what I see at Kansas right now, it's not going to be an overnight project. The Jayhawks need someone with patience and a plan, and I believe they have the right head coach right now. Next year, I hope we can all say Go Big Red in the Big Ten, and Go Big Blue in the Big 12. Good luck, Turner, Saturday night and always. Steve Jacobson, Chicago, Illinois