Turner handled hardship in rags-to-Redskins story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- This was a typical weekly menu: turkey on Monday, turkey sandwiches on Tuesday, turkey salad on Wednesday, turkey soup on Thursday, the turkey smorgasbord on Friday.

Hand-me-downs bounced a long way, from Richard to Norval to Ron, three of five children born in four states in seven years. The Turners lived in a two-bedroom project home in Martinez, Calif., a one-time fishing village that later became an oil pit just outside of San Francisco.

Norval Eugene Turner shared a bedroom with two brothers.

"It was no bigger than a closet," Norv Turner said.

Norv was 2 when his father left home, abandoning his wife, Vicki, who was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis.

"My mother was a tough woman who kept our family together. We never missed a meal," said Turner, in his first year as coach of the Washington Redskins. "Some people call it public assistance, but I call it welfare. We were on it until I was 13 or 14.

"She didn't like being on welfare, but she thought being home with her children was very important. That's why she stressed education.

"She gave me a strong work ethic, and I've always had a fear of failure, of not completing what I've started. I've always wanted to be successful. That's been with me as long as I can remember. This team will have the same work ethic."

What you see in Turner, 42, is what you get. The clean-shaven face. The mop hairdo. He's a former college quarterback with the beginnings of a beer belly.

He has studied the running game under John Robinson at Southern California and learned the passing game from Ernie Zampese when both were assistants with the Los Angeles Rams. He's bright, articulate and at times brutally honest. He also reads John Grisham and Robert Ludlum novels.

"If I wasn't coaching, I'd probably be teaching history or sociology," Turner said. "I like reading the mystery stuff, it intrigues me."

How about the 1994 Redskins?

"Too early to tell right now," Turner said, smiling. "The book is

incomplete."

Competitive child

Richard Turner was a Marine who fought in World War II and Korea. The battle he lost was with alcoholism. He left Martinez, Calif., in 1954 on a Greyhound bus bound for an unknown destination. Norv has had no contact with his father since.

That left Vicki Turner, a Tennessee farm girl, with the chore of holding the family together. By the time Norv was 9, his mother had begun long stays in the hospital, and she was getting around with the aid of a walker.

But she seldom missed an event in which her kids were involved, walking from her home to the elementary school around the corner.

The Turners couldn't afford a car.

"We never realized we were poor until we started visiting other kids' houses," said Ron Turner, the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator. "Our mother encouraged us to play sports.

"Even at an early age, Norv didn't like to lose, whether it was one-on-one in basketball, chess or checkers. He was a perfectionist who would not tolerate mental mistakes. You could sense then he would become a leader."

Norv Turner became a self-made athlete.

He was once a paper boy and later worked in a furniture factory. Charlie Tourville, Turner's coach at Alhambra High, recalled that Turner began the team's first weight program in Turner's garage. Scrap metal, cement blocks and empty tin cans were made into weights.

Turner was never exceptionally gifted, but he always wanted to be bigger, faster, stronger and smarter.

The day before a game, Tourville and Turner would walk the field with Tourville calling out situations and Turner calling the right play.

"I thought his mind was ahead of his age," Tourville said.

Turner said: "Athletics gave me a chance to be equal with my peers. When you put on a uniform, it didn't matter how much money you had or the type of jeans you wore. All that mattered was winning."

By his senior year, Turner was an all-area quarterback recruited by Oregon, Oregon State, California and the University of Southern California. He chose Oregon. Two of the assistants there were John Robinson and George Seifert.

Turner never starred at Oregon, playing behind Dan Fouts, who later became an NFL Hall of Famer. Turner's college career consisted of 11 touchdown passes, 22 interceptions and two knee operations.

Simple deception

Ever since Turner signed the five-year, $3.1 million contract with the Redskins last February, he has preached balance. Balance as in a running game behind a huge offensive line, as Robinson engineered at USC, complemented by a Don Coryell-type passing attack.

Turner installed the system in Dallas as the Cowboys' offensive coordinator in 1991. The year before, the Cowboys had the worst offense in the NFL and young players such as quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin were on the verge of becoming big busts.

Aikman, Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith became the heart of an offense that has led the Cowboys to two consecutive Super Bowl titles.

"What Norv did was come here and see that we had a lot of talent, but there wasn't a lot of confidence," Aikman said. "He never gave myself, Emmitt or Michael anything we couldn't handle. He was very patient."

Turner is one of the NFL's latest geniuses, but his game plans are simple. Put 15 plays in the playbook, and disguise them with formations and motion. Run them again and again in practice. Throw quickly, with five- to seven-step drop-backs.

And never become predictable.

"Norv's a real nice guy, but he won't tolerate mistakes," Aikman said. "He's straightforward, so he doesn't have problems with the egos. He's intense in his own way, so the players won't mistake his kindness for a weakness."

Few are on the same wavelength as Turner on the field. Irvin said Turner surprised him in the 1993 NFC championship game against the 49ers. Instead of running out the clock with the Cowboys ahead 24-20, Turner called a slant-in pass that resulted in a 70-yard completion from Aikman to Alvin Harper.

Three plays later, Aikman threw 6 yards to Kelvin Martin for the clinching touchdown with 3:43 left. Final: Dallas 30, San Francisco 20.

"I remember last year against Green Bay we were ahead by seven late in the game and it was third down and we were driving," guard Nate Newton said.

"We just knew Norv was going for the big pass. Instead, he calls a trap on third-and-12. We thought he lost his nerve.

"Well, Emmitt busts it for a first down, and we almost scored. Later we did, to go up by 14 instead of 10 if we had to go for a field goal. That's the way his mind works."

But this is a different team. Turner had fullback Daryl Johnston in front of Smith on the "lead draw," and Aikman throwing to Harper, Irvin and Jay Novacek behind the game's best offensive line.

The Redskins don't have a pound-ahead fullback, and Reggie Brooks is no Smith. Instead of Irvin and Harper, the Redskins have Desmond Howard and Henry Ellard. Aikman is All-Pro; Heath Shuler is a rookie. Dallas' offensive line is great; the Redskins' line is old.

Will Turner be another Mike Shanahan, a great offensive mind who was a bust as a head coach? Or can he last as long and be as creative as a Dan Reeves?

"If you look at Norv's record, he is great working with quarterbacks," Fouts said. "When Aikman got hurt, Steve Beuerlein stepped in and did well one year, and then it was Bernie Kosar. He's worked with some of the greatest offensive minds in the game."

Aikman said: "Norv is just comfortable in any position. He's a company man who never got all the credit he deserved. He was always the guy behind the scenes, putting in the long days. I once gave him a whole lot of credit for our success in a story, and the next day he tells me to give it to my teammates. That's the kind of guy he is."

Early starter

Turner arrives at practice almost every day at 5 a.m.

"Not because this job consumes me, but the earlier I get here, the earlier I get back home to be with my family before the children go to bed," Turner said.

Everything seems so simple with Turner.

He is personable and friendly, a family man who enjoys golf and Little League games. While coaching at USC, Turner married Nancy Marpe. The Turners have three children.

"The move here has been great," Turner said. "I've been to Camden Yards, been downtown to Washington a couple of times for dinner."

The road from Dallas to Washington was a long one, and it may get longer if Turner doesn't turn the Redskins around quickly.

Turner seems optimistic. He even has been caught smiling on the sidelines during the preseason.

He often flashes back to Vicki, who died from cancer in 1989.

"Emotion doesn't help, work does," Turner said. "I am here today because my mother did an amazing job of keeping us together. By all accounts, my father was a nice person, but he had a problem he couldn't control.

"A successful team is like a successful family. We all depend on each other. We all have to respect one another. Come Monday mornings, if I have done my job, I can look everyone in the eye. Looking people in the eye has been important to me all my life."

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