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Manuel makes impact with quality hire

It was about four years ago when Turner Gill began to harbor thoughts of being a head football coach. He was an assistant at Nebraska back then, and as time went on the itch to run his own program got stronger.

He got a few interviews, including one at Nebraska, where he was an All-American quarterback in the early 1980s. But after every interview, the job went to someone else.

That's a common occurrence for African-American Division I-A coaching candidates. They get to knock on the door of opportunity only to have it opened and shut in their faces.

But in University at Buffalo Athletics Director Warde Manuel, Gill found someone willing to give him a chance to fulfill his dream.

Gill's hiring is a historical moment in UB athletics. As the only Division I-A school with an African-American in the AD's chair and leading its football and men's basketball programs, UB has broken new ground in its hiring practices. Buffalo has shattered the glass ceiling that has limited the advancement of so many.

"Buffalo should be proud of that distinction," said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association in Indianapolis. "That's a rare combination."

But like Reggie Witherspoon, Gill wasn't hired because he's African-American. The search for Jim Hofher's replacement was a color-blind process. After looking at all the candidates, both black and white, Manuel determined that Gill was the best choice to lead the football program.

"Turner was the best fit coming out of it all," Manuel said following Friday's news conference announcing the hire. "I don't want anybody to couch this as this gentleman hasn't prepared himself to be a head coach. Nothing in his background differentiates him from many of the coaches that have the opportunity to go at it in the Division I-A level."

It's unfortunate race is still an issue when it comes to coaching hires. But how can it not be when there are so few African-American head coaches in major college football?

Gill is one of just five African-American coaches among the 119 Division I-A programs. There were only three (Tyrone Willingham of Washington, Karl Dorrell of UCLA and Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State) before Gill and Kansas State's Ron Price joined the list.

"It doesn't matter if you're black or white," Gill said. "You just need an opportunity, and the same opportunity that you give other people."

The number of head coaches hardly matches the nearly 50 percent of African-American players on the field, but as Keith said, "Every time a small step is made it's progress."

Manuel embraces the chance to have a role in that progress.

"This has nothing to do with his outward appearance in terms of hiring a coach," he said. "But I can tell you that I'm proud that Turner was prepared. And as an African-American, I am proud that I was able to hire him to be the coach here because he is absolutely prepared."

During his introduction speech, Gill told Manuel that they are linked together. How true that is.

Manuel's first major hire as AD is also his most important. His legacy is directly tied to Gill's success or failure.

Beyond the historical significance, all that really matters is, can Gill coach? He has the pedigree, having played and coached under Nebraska legend Tom Osborne. But Craig Cirbus and Hofher also came in with solid credentials. Didn't help them too much, did it?

Gill has a difficult task trying to transform a mediocre, talent-depleted program mired in a losing culture. And if we're back here three or four years from now talking about another new coach, then maybe UB should seriously look at whether having Division I-A football is worthwhile. But if Gill somehow manages to bring UB to a competitive level, he'll be hailed as a program builder, if not a miracle worker.

A guy named Turner did wonders for UB men's basketball. We'll see if this Turner can do the same for football.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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