If this was the final chapter of the Turner Gill era at the University at Buffalo, the coach went out with an ending worth treasuring.
UB, college football's laughingstock for years, won a share of the Mid-American Conference East Division championship with a thrilling 30-23 overtime triumph over Kent State on Saturday in front of 2,687 at Dix Stadium.
Although Miami (Ohio) will represent the MAC East in next Saturday's championship game, the Bulls are co-champions of the division after Ohio University defeated Miami, 38-29, on Saturday.
The Bulls completed the season with a 5-7 overall record -- their most wins since elevating the program to Division I-A in 1999 -- as well as a school-best 5-3 mark in the MAC, and a 4-2 record in divisional play.
Speculation now shifts to whether Gill will remain at UB for a third season or become the head coach at Nebraska, where he was a quarterback from 1980-82 and an assistant coach from 1992-2004.
In a move that has been widely anticipated, Nebraska fired Bill Callahan on Saturday morning, one day after the Cornhuskers lost to Colorado, 65-51. Callahan's future was in doubt after Athletics Director Steve Pederson was fired in October and was replaced by legendary Cornhuskers football coach Tom Osborne, who is filling the role on an interim basis.
Gill said after the game that he has not been contacted about the Nebraska job and when asked if he anticipated being contacted he said, "Time will tell." Gill, who has a close relationship with Osborne, declined further comment.
UB Athletics Director Warde Manuel said Saturday that he anticipates speaking with Osborne about Gill but didn't give a timetable. Manuel added that he began talks about a contract extension with Gill on Oct. 13, when the Bulls defeated Toledo for their third win of the season and before speculation began about Gill.
"I don't want to lose him, I don't want that to happen," Manuel said Saturday. "But he deserves it if he's contacted because he's done a remarkable job with his team and his staff and they love him. It would be hard for me to lose him, but he has placed us in a position to go forward."
The Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star reported that LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was contacted Saturday morning by the Atlanta-based search firm of Baker Parker and Associates. Pelini, who also served as defensive coordinator at Nebraska, is considered a front-runner along with Gill. Other candidates, according to sources close to the situation, include Boise State's Chris Petersen, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, TCU's Gary Patterson and Wake Forest's Jim Grobe.
While Gill's two-year career record of 7-17 is not glittering, he energized the most quiescent Division I-A football program in the country and transformed it into a conference title contender. After finishing 2-10 in his first season, Gill went 5-7 in his second year, won a share of a divisional title and stayed in contention for the MAC championship until last week's loss against Bowling Green.
Gill is signed through 2011 at an annual salary of $180,000 plus bonuses but his buyout is only $100,000. He could, nevertheless, be tempted to remain at Buffalo. The Bulls return junior tailback James Starks (Niagara Falls) and senior quarterback Drew Willy along with eight defensive starters in 2008 when UB could enter the season as one of the MAC favorites.
Even if Pelini is hired by the Cornhuskers, there's still the possibility of Gill leaving UB to become the offensive coordinator at Nebraska. There's also the scenario of the Cornhuskers hiring someone like former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, bringing in Gill as the offensive coordinator and grooming him as the eventual successor.
Yet if Saturday was Gill's final bow, he leaves with a memorable legacy.
Down by 13-3 early in the first quarter, the Bulls came back to tie it at 23-23 when Willy hit Brett Hamlin on for a 4-yard pass with 4:54 remaining in regulation. That was plenty of time for the quick-striking Kent State offense to threaten, and the Golden Flashes (3-9, 1-7) moved the ball all the way to the UB 12. That set up a field goal for Nate Reed, but UB's Labinot Hakanjin blocked the potential game-winning field goal with 1:34 left.
"Our defense made a great stop and I knew it was going to come down to a field goal," said the senior from Brooklyn. "I was getting through there all game but I never got to the ball and that last one, I got through there."
The Bulls received the ball to start overtime, and redshirt freshman tailback Brandon Thermilus, in the lineup after Starks hurt his knee, scored from a yard out. Then Kent, which ran up 258 yards rushing for the game, couldn't move the ball in overtime. On fourth-and-9 from the 24, UB defensive coordinator Jimmy Williams called a blitz and sent senior linebacker Larry Hutchinson, who blindsided Anthony Magazu for a sack to end the game.
"I knew I was going to get there," Hutchinson said. "We talked about finishing all week and it was time for me to finish."
But will Gill remain to finish what he started? That remains to be seen.
"I'm very, very excited about the University at Buffalo's football program," Gill said. "To have it established now that everybody knows about our program. Everyone knows that we will be reckoned with and it's great to know now that we can build for the future."