Nearly as shocking as the firing of head coach Mario Cristobal was a month ago, was the hiring of his successor, Ron Turner, who was introduced Friday afternoon as Florida International University's third football coach since the program's inception in 2002.
Turner, who still needs to quit his current job as quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs, before deciding to retain or hiring new assistant coaches, last served as a head coach in college when he led Illinois from 1997-2004. He took a struggling program at Illinois to two bowl bids and the Big 10 championship in 2001 when he was named the conference's coach of the year.
Turner, 59, who has also coached hundreds of NFL players on staffs for the Colts (2010-11) and Bears (2005-09), said the happiest times of his 36-year coaching career were his years as head coach, which also included a one-year stint at San Jose State in 1992. Turner signed a five-year deal worth $500,000 per year, according to AP.
"I have been itching to get back to head coaching, especially at college,'' Turner said in a packed FIU Stadium club room. "I love working with the young people, going in their homes visiting with their parents or going to their high schools visiting with their coaches, watch them come in as 17- or 18-year-old freshmen and watching them leave 4-5 years later as men.
"You look at the fast track that FIU has been on since they started the program 10 years ago … it's kind of unbelievable. I see that trend and direction to keep going up.''
All signs pointed to former University of Miami coach Butch Davis returning to South Florida to take over the reins of the 3-9 Golden Panthers as they leave the Sun Belt Conference to join a revamped Conference USA. However, FIU executive director for sports and entertainment Pete Garcia denied offering Davis, his close friend and special assistant to Bucs coach Greg Schiano, the job.
Instead, Garcia took several glowing references of Turner from Davis, as well as Schiano, Colts coach Chuck Pagano and Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to heart.
"We interviewed 5-6 people, but everyone pointed to Ron,'' Garcia said. "With losing 30 seniors who accomplished a lot in this program and 19 starters, we still expect to compete and that's why it was very important to me to hire somebody who had a wealth of experience that could put a really good staff together and also has the ability to teach, one of the things he's known for.''
Garcia said they will hire a coach to strictly coach special teams. Turner, the younger brother of recently fired Chargers coach Norv Turner, seemed to be kidding about the possibility of adding him to his evolving staff during a radio interview on WQAM-560.
Garcia began courting Turner after the 7-9 Bucs lost their season finale 13-3 on Dec. 30 to the Atlanta Falcons. Turner flew to Miami that evening and Garcia drove him directly to the home of FIU President Mark Rosenberg and then onto a tour of the campus. They talked until 2 a.m.
"When we talked about their vision and what they want to do for this program, the passion and energy they had was unbelievable, but the thing that kept coming up from both of them was, 'We got to get better. … what can we do to get better,' '' Turner said.
"And that losing wasn't an option.''
Turner is known for an up-tempo, West Coast offense, which helped Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman achieve franchise records in passing yards and touchdown passes this season. He has also helped mold the skills of NFL quarterbacks Kurt Kittner, John Congemi, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman and Erik Kramer as well as receivers Devin Hester and Reggie Wayne.
He smiled when asked how his career path and the direction of the Miami Dolphins might've changed if he beat out Cam Cameron for the head job in 2007 following the Bears' loss to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI at Sun Life Stadium when he was Chicago's offensive coordinator.
"Things happen for a reason,'' Turner said. "Sometimes you look at it and say what might've happened? If we hadn't gone to the Super Bowl, they could've done something two weeks earlier.''
Despite his California roots, Turner stressed the importance of recruiting, particularly in South Florida, where most of his experience came during vacations with his wife of 30 years, Wendy.
He's learning about social media recruiting tools such as texting and, "face … whatever it's called,'' from his two daughters in college, as well as his sons, Morgan and Cameron, who are assistant coaches at Stanford and with the Minnesota Vikings, respectively.
"There's no reason why they have to leave,'' Turner said. "They have everything they want: great academics, football wise, conference, commitment to winning, facilities, everything they need or want right here at FIU.''Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun