Back in his first year as offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, in 1993, Ron Turner publicly took heat from plenty of folks but none worse than from one local sports-radio jockey. During a tough season for the franchise, the guy threw dirt by the shovelful, but Turner didn’t bat an eye – something that confounded the mudslinger.
“Why do you come on [the air] with me every time I ask you when you know that I’m blasting you?” the host wondered aloud during one show, Turner recalls. “I said, Honestly, I come on because you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve never been to our facility. You’ve never sat down and talked to me about my philosophy. You have no idea what you’re talking about.
“A year from now, we’re going to be really good on offense,” Turner continued, “and you’re going to be saying a lot of good things about me, and then you’re still not going to know what you’re talking about.”
And how did that go over?
“He cracked up,” Turner remembers. “He said, ‘I love that answer,’ and from that point on he was like my buddy, and he quit ripping me. And, sure enough, the next year, we were good on offense, and two years later we were really good on offense.”
Here’s the point: While he’s not beyond setting straight the occasional bubba, Ron Turner refuses to take the naysayers too seriously. FIU’s new football head coach has learned during 36 years in college and the NFL to get his reality check from those in the huddle.
“Listen to the people that matter,” he says. “That’s the people you work with every day, people involved in the program, the people that know what you’re doing.”
Not bad advice from someone who has found himself in the hot seat from time to time – the lot of pretty much every coach of every team that’s ever had fans.
So this is what FIU got in January when Turner accepted a position only two others have held before him: a coach whose 2001 Big Ten Championship-winning leadership at the University of Illinois has been called the greatest turnaround in college football. And, at the same time, a coach who – like coaches everywhere – has suffered his ups and downs.
Back at the college level for the first time in eight years, Turner is doing the kind of heavy lifting that outsiders rarely think about and certainly never see.
“I’ve got my work to do, and part of it has to do with getting the guys to understand that if they’re not taking care of business in the classroom, they’re not going to get on the field,” he says about the specter of poor academic performances that could jeopardize some players’ eligibility to suit up on Saturdays.
“Obviously my job here is to win games and that’s very, very important to me, to win a championship and establish a very good program here,” he says. “But,” he tells his players, “more important than that is where you’re going to be when you’re 30 years old.”
Kurt Kittner, the record-setting U of I quarterback who drove home the victories during the program’s championship year, took Turner’s drill to heart back then and agrees that Coach nailed the balancing act scenario. “If you can’t focus off the field, you’re probably not going to be focused on the field,” Kittner says.
With a short-lived pro career behind him and now an executive at a financial firm, Kittner appreciates that Turner showed as much interest in his completing a demanding degree program as in his completing passes. And he gives the man credit for instilling in players the discipline and mental toughness to get the job done on game day.
“We won because we were accountable to each other,” says Kittner, who remains close to Turner and his family. “I think it’s because he taught us all that.”
And while he works to instill accountability in his players, Turner has made that quality a central goal of his own life, both in and out of football. A family man with four grown children and a baby granddaughter—he’s been married three decades—Turner took every opportunity to spend time with and support his youngsters’ during their formative years despite the rigors of a coaching career. The example contrasts sharply with his own upbringing as the youngest of five children abandoned by their father and raised by a single mother. (Turner speculates that his mom pushed the boys into sports in hopes of their finding a father figure in their coaches. He says that experience might be why he and brother Norv, offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, took to coaching professionally.)
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At FIU, challenges on the field abound. In what is clearly a rebuilding year – 30 seniors graduated after last season, among them 19 starters – Turner and company have the added pressure of taking the Panthers into their first season with Conference USA. The coach views playing in the new league, with its tougher competition and opportunities for greater exposure, as a positive for FIU football – a belief shared by Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia.
Says Garcia of what he’s seen so far of the Turner era: “His wealth of knowledge and the experience and the quality of the staff he’s put together jump out. I’m very excited about the new philosophies, both offensively and defensively, and a lot of new schemes and techniques that he and his staff are bringing on board.”
One thing that won’t be a problem for Turner is finding the silver lining in a season not likely to go down in the record books. Instead, he will concentrate on the positives of what should be a learning period on which to build for 2014.
FIU Assistant Coach Cameron Turner, Ron’s son, who cut his coaching chops at the Citadel and with the Minnesota Vikings (brother Morgan is tight ends coach at Stanford), knows that any shortcomings on the field this year won’t easily deflate his dad.
“He always likes to look at the good of things,” Cameron says. “He’s big about focusing on what things our players do well.”
After all – as Turner reminds would-be critics – he should know. ♦