Turner takes long road to Vikings
Miniaturize the Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker from the 1983 movie “War Games” and you have Norv Turner’s windowless Winter Park office.
A pair of 45-inch whiteboards bracket the sidewalls, with formations and code scribbled top to bottom in red and blue ink.
Two laptops are cracked open revealing diagrams and depth charts. An iPad is propped on a desk, the electronic playbook every Minnesota Vikings player carries. A flat-screen television above the door has NFL Network on mute.
“The beauty of this work and technology is you can coach the 42 guys on your side of the ball all day, every day, and keep them improving,” Turner explains.
A click here, a tap there, and Minnesota’s 62-year-old offensive coordinator brings four decades of coaching to life, from which Turner is scheming this fall to build an ensemble of playmakers to complement the Adrian Peterson Show.
Every pass Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater attempt can be split-screened with Jim Everett throwing to Henry Ellard in the late 1980s with the Los Angeles Rams.
Cordarrelle Patterson can catch a ball in stride just like Michael Irvin did from Troy Aikman in the 1990s during Dallas’ dynasty.
Watch Emmitt Smith power through Cowboys blockers the way Peterson is expected to hit the same hole.
That’s Kyle Rudolph running down the same seam as Jay Novacek.
“This offense worked before I was even born,” said Rudolph, the Vikings’ 24-year-old tight end.
It is the coaching heritage of a man who can connect Don “Air” Coryell and John Robinson to Jimmy Johnson and his own son, Vikings quarterbacks coach Scott Turner.
It’s a career that has earned Turner millions of dollars and enriched a lifestyle he never dreamed possible growing up on welfare with his disabled mother and four siblings in a housing project in northern California.
It’s an unfinished job with a new challenge in Minnesota, where he is working for an untested head coach inheriting a 5-10-1 team with a quarterback dilemma.
“It’s a privilege to coach in this league and be involved with the people I’ve been involved with,” Turner said. “I like coaching. I like being around the players. At some point I’m going to take more than a year off, so why not do (this) while I’m healthy and comfortable and enjoy doing it?”
Over the past seven NFL seasons, Turner’s offenses have ranked among the top five in points three times. His 2010 San Diego Chargers were the league’s No. 1 offense, averaging 396 yards per game — credentials that allow Turner to demand excellence from his players as the Vikings have quickly learned.
Coach Mike Zimmer personified the gruff, foul-mouthed field general when HBO’s “Hard Knocks” chronicled his antics as Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator.
However, during most team drills Turner can be heard barking orders and dropping louder F-bombs than his boss.
“He’s an outstanding offensive football coach that is demanding on the players,” Zimmer said.
The longtime defensive guru was secure enough not only to hire Turner but give him carte blanche authority on offensive game planning and play-calling.
“I trust Norv’s judgment,” Zimmer said. “The biggest input for me will be, ‘All right, it’s this situation, Norv, we need to run the ball here, OK? We’ve been running it down their throats. Let’s not throw it three times, let’s get another run in there. Give the ball to Adrian.’ Things like that.”
A FAMILY MAN
On a sparsely decorated shelf behind Turner’s chair are two framed photographs, one of him throwing a pass to his toddler son, Drew, in the Redskins’ locker room when he coached Washington during the mid-1990s. The other shows Turner in a tuxedo with his daughter, television actress Stephanie Turner.
Family is bedrock to Norval Eugene Turner, whose perseverance was shaped by the woman who would not surrender to fate’s cruelty.
Vicky Turner gave birth to five children in four states over seven years. Norv arrived May 17, 1952, at Camp LeJeune, N.C., the Marine Corps base where his father was stationed.
Richard Turner was a World War II and Korean War veteran, an alcoholic who walked out on his family when Norv was 2. Father and son never saw each other again.
Vicky Turner settled her family in Martinez, Calif., a blue-collar oil town about 30 miles east of San Francisco. They rented a two-bedroom duplex.
She had grown up on a Tennessee farm and knew the value of a day’s work. A single mother with five children, the only way to survive was for her to collect welfare.
Then, in 1960, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and remained in a wheelchair until her death in 1989.
“I don’t care how difficult her situation was. I can honestly say I was not privy to her complaining or feeling sorry for herself,” Norv Turner recalled. “I know there were times it was very hard for her. But she never expressed that to us.
“She made things normal. She never moped around. She made the most out of her situation. That’s a lesson everyone should learn and understand. It’s easy to get down and say, ‘Woe is me, why is this happening to me?’ It’s just the way I was brought up. That wasn’t part of her deal.”
The Turners closed ranks and made it work with leftover dinners and hand-me-down clothes. The family never had a car. But athletics became the great social equalizer for Norv and his younger brother, Ron.
“Our mother wanted to keep us busy and out of trouble so she directed us into sports from a very early age,” recalled Ron Turner, a former NFL assistant and current head coach at Florida International University. “Norval was a different big brother than most who usually want nothing to do with their punk younger brother. He wanted me around whether he was playing basketball or working out or just hanging out with friends. We were very competitive, but he was more like a mentor to me.”
Norv Turner also became the family’s breadwinner, manning two routes as a 10-year-old delivering the now-defunct Richmond Independent newspaper before working high school summers at a furniture factory.
LEARNING ON SIDELINE
A standout quarterback for the Alhambra High Bulldogs, Norv Turner went to college at Oregon, where he was buried on the depth chart behind future NFL Hall of Famer Dan Fouts.
Injuries required two knee surgeries, and Turner finished his Ducks career with 11 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions.
Still, he learned the intricacies of every position, traits that served him from the day Turner became an Oregon graduate assistant in 1975 to today with the Vikings, his 40th season on the sidelines.
“A lot of coaches learn the game from their position out,” John Robinson said. “I could ask Norv about a problem and he could give me an answer for what was best for the team as opposed to what’s best for his guys. I always thought he was different in that regard.”
Robinson was running the Southern California Trojans in 1976 when he hired Turner to coach his wide receivers, quarterbacks and defensive backs. Turner, who married Robinson’s secretary, Nancy Marpe, in 1981, ascended to offensive coordinator in 1984.
A year later, Robinson was head coach of the Rams when he recruited Turner to the NFL. Now he was in charge of L.A’s wide receivers and tight ends under inventive offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, who helped give Turner his street cred.
Zampese teamed with Coryell and Fouts in San Diego in the late 1970s to create the NFL’s most dynamic passing attack.
Spread formations, multiple receiver and tight end sets, and constant movement were the hallmarks of Zampese’s schemes with the Chargers and, later, with the Rams, one of the league’s highest-scoring teams of the late 1980s.
Zampese also was a fanatical worker.
“He was a 5 a.m. guy,” Turner said. “I used to pull in at the Rams parking lot and I’d feel the hood of his car at 5:30 in the morning and it was cold. I could never get there early enough to feel his engine hot.”
Fear of failure consumed Turner after Johnson hired him in 1991 to command the Cowboys’ offense. Dallas was a hothouse of supremely talented players, outsized egos, demanding expectations and off-field turmoil.
Turner thrived amidst the Valley Ranch reality show.
In his first two seasons as Dallas’ offensive coordinator, Irvin posted the best receiving seasons in franchise history, Smith won a pair of rushing titles and Aikman became the highest-rated playoff quarterback in history.
Turner paired a power running attack with a multi-dimensional passing game that helped the Cowboys win consecutive Super Bowls, both blowout victories over the Buffalo Bills.
Their success made Turner a coveted head coaching commodity — and eventually a pariah — in three NFL cities.
TROUBLE AT THE TOP
To reconcile Turner’s success as an offensive innovator, one has to examine his failures as a head coach.
Fired three times by the Redskins, Raiders and Chargers, Turner’s 114-122-1 record distinguishes him as the NFL coach with the lowest winning percentage (.483) for so many games (237).
Turner was 9-23 during two disastrous seasons in Oakland. He won three straight AFC West championships with San Diego from 2007-09. However, slow starts plunged the Chargers into perennial crisis mode and he was just 3-3 in the postseason.
“No matter what was going on around the team, Norv never changed his demeanor with the players or threw anyone under the bus,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “You always knew exactly where things stood with him. He was demanding, but he cared enough to check in with you time and again whether on the practice field or a meeting room.
“I’ll always cherish the time we spent together when no one else was in the building, because that was our time.”
Turner accepts the poor decision that led him to Al Davis’ lair and the overall record that makes it unlikely he will be a head coach again.
“I enjoyed being a head coach. I enjoyed the success we had in different spots,” he said. “You learn as much from the tough situations as you do the good situations.”
Last year was a prime example, a drama in Cleveland that left scars.
Turner helped get Rod Chudzinski hired as the Browns’ head coach. He became his offensive coordinator and guided wide receiver Josh Gordon to an NFL-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns on 87 catches in just 14 games.
But the perennially dysfunctional franchise purged the front office and Chudzinski’s staff after one season, leaving Turner a hired gun once again.
A POTENT MIX?
Minnesota was an unlikely destination. The Vikings were a mess at quarterback and starting over after firing coach Leslie Frazier. But plenty intrigued Turner.
He was familiar with general manager Rick Spielman and his assistant, George Paton, having worked with them when the trio was in Miami from 2002-03.
The Vikings were willing to hire Scott Turner, who began his coaching career with his father in Cleveland.
Rudolph, Patterson, Peterson and veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings comprise a potentially potent mix of offensive weapons.
And there was the chance to scout, draft and develop a potential franchise quarterback in Bridgewater, whom Turner described as “as natural passer as I’ve been around.”
“I’m at a point where I will retire,” Turner said, unwilling to reveal a timetable. “It was going to be something that was unique and something I really felt good about. It starts with who you work for, and that’s Mike. I’ve got great respect for him. I think he and I are more alike than people on the outside realize.”
Publicly, Turner has been adamant “this is Mike Zimmer’s offense” and that the scheme is a collaborative effort of seven coaches trying to outpace evolving defenses men like Zimmer have invented.
However, it is incumbent upon Turner to solve the quarterback riddle that has confounded the Vikings for most of the past decade. He must prepare veteran Matt Cassel, develop Bridgewater and keep Christian Ponder engaged.
Moreover, Turner is expected to leverage more out of Peterson than the off-tackle runs that made him the most explosive ball carrier in a predictable offense.
That unrelenting drive is all part of the game.
“You don’t want to be the guy that keeps it from being good,” Turner said. “I love the competition at this level. It is so great. People don’t appreciate how competitive it is. The difference between winning nine games and winning 13 can be four of five plays.
“We’ve given this thing a tune-up. We’re modernizing it. It’s been a true group thing. It’s fun when you can do that.”