Written by Christopher Earley
During a football career that has spanned more than four decades, Chargers Head Coach Norv Turner has played the role of both the protégé and mentor. He’s been called a great offensive mind and a master of football strategy. But according to those closest to him, there’s much more to Turner than meets the eye.
John Robinson, who first hired Turner in the 1970’s as a graduate assistant at the University of Southern California, saw him not only as a young man who fostered an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the game, but as someone who seemed confident in his career path without appearing pretentious.
“Norv is a guy without much ego,” said Robinson. “He doesn’t spend a lot of time telling you about himself. He talks about us; about the team. You get the feeling that he’s a guy who’s going to make your team work right now.”
Robinson also admired the fact that Turner never favored or stuck with one group of players over others, unlike many coaches he observed over the years.
“Norv wasn’t like that. If you go out and watch Norv with his team now, he’s as comfortable with a defensive lineman as he is with the offensive backfield.”
Robinson and Turner have maintained a close friendship throughout the years. It’s a recurring theme among Turner’s relationships. Turner owns a home in Del Mar, and the two frequently meet for dinner. Robinson is often a visitor to practices at Chargers Park.
But Robinson isn’t the only one to notice Turner’s uncanny knack for making all of his players feel important and needed. Chargers quarterback
“The guys who have been around him appreciate the way he goes about it,” Rivers said. “The way he pops in the training room; the way he pops in the weight room. You see him. He’s not a head coach who hits the walk-through, or that you just see on the field, just calling the plays. He truly knows guys.”
Even in the midst of a tough 2011 season that was plagued by injuries and other factors beyond his control, Turner never hesitated to take responsibility for what many would call a disappointing year on the field.
“He had plenty reason to blame our record on the plays we were making, and a lot of things that we weren’t doing very well,” Rivers said. “But he didn’t.”
Ernie Zampese, another of Turner’s former colleagues, also visits Chargers Park to visit his long-time friend. It was during Turner’s time with the Los Angeles Rams that he learned the famed “Air Coryell” offense from Zampese.
“We became good friends in Los Angeles and we’ve remained that way ever since,” said Zampese. “Norv’s never changed since I first met him. Being a head football coach changes some people, but it never changed him.”
Turner has also been known to offer advice and help to his players, even when it’s not related to football. When Chargers cornerback
“He knew that there was something a little different about me,” Jammer said. “He has an open-door policy, so I went in and talked to him. If there was anything I needed, he was there, whatever it was. That meant a lot to me.”
In a league where players and coaches move around so much, players-turned-coaches sometimes find themselves facing off against their former mentors. So when Turner and the Chargers squared off against the Dallas Cowboys, as they did in the 2011 and 2012 preseasons, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett found himself in a unique position.
When Turner took over as offensive coordinator in Dallas in 1991, Garrett was a young, third-string quarterback. But Turner made a deep impression on Garrett, who still considers him to be one of his greatest influences.
“He’s always given me great wisdom about things, sometimes unintentionally. There have been times during our conversations when I find myself grabbing a piece of paper and writing things down,” said Garrett, who also has great memories of spending time with Norv and his family. “Norv’s the kind of guy who’s very professional, demanding and all of that, but he’s also the kind of guy who invites you over to his house for Christmas Eve. I played Santa Claus for his kids when they were growing up. And I can recall being at his place at two o’clock in the morning, putting the nuts and bolts on his kids’ training wheels.”
Turner also left a lasting impression with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He describes Norv as not only one of the best coaches at devising game plans and effectively implementing those plans on game days, but also as a man who used his talent for getting to know players personally in order to strengthen his teams.
“Many of the Super Bowl players were in place before he arrived,” said Jones, “but his presence and his understanding of how to put talent in the right places helped accelerate our opportunity to become a championship team. Part of what makes him so dangerous on game days is that he knows and understands the strengths and talents of every player. And he knows the best way to get the most out of each individual.”
Steve Beuerlein was another of Turner’s quarterbacks in Dallas in the early 90’s, but their history can be traced back to 1983. While trying to choose a college, Turner had been trying to recruit the young quarterback for USC. And although Beuerlein eventually chose Notre Dame, Turner had certainly made an impact on him. He appreciated Turner’s approachable, easy-going personality.
“I grew up in a very pro-UCLA family who hates USC,” said Beuerlein. “But we really liked Norv. He was so impressive to me and my parents that we considered USC just because of him.”
Years later, while the Cowboys were on a road trip to Minnesota, Beuerlein introduced Turner to an aunt who was a Catholic nun. After the meeting, it became a running joke that Norv had never stood a chance of steering Beuerlein away from Notre Dame.
“He walked right up to her, froze for a second, then he turned to me and said, ‘I’m mad at you right now. I worked my tail off trying to recruit you for USC, and if I had known you had an aunt who was a nun, I would’ve known I had no chance. I would’ve known that you were Notre Dame all the way!’” said a laughing Beuerlein.
In the face of adversity, a football coach is expected to be composed and have an answer for everything, offering an image of strength and fidelity to his players. And according to Pep Hamilton, who coached quarterbacks with the San Francisco 49ers in 2006 when Turner was the offensive coordinator, Norv is no exception. Hamilton recalled that after a particularly bad losing streak, tension had been building among coaches and players, many of whom were concerned about facing the media.
“Norv never falls in with the high and the low times. He’s always the same,” said Hamilton. “He came in the locker room and said, ‘Hey, what are you guys worried about? They can’t eat you.’ That statement really put things in perspective, and it allowed us to go out and focus on finding a way to win games. That’s why Norv has been in the league for so long. He has the ability to manage success as well as failure.”
Turner’s impact on former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman was one of the main reasons he decided to have Norv present him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. In his enshrinement speech, Aikman credited Turner with most of his career accomplishments, making sure to mention that had Norv not entered his life, he never would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. But for Aikman, it doesn’t end with his accolades on the field.
“Norv is kind of like the big brother I never had,” Aikman said. “Right from the beginning, our relationship transcended coach and player. It was more of a friendship. And we’ve kept in touch all of these years, which is pretty rare, something that Norv deserves more credit for than I do. His relationships and friendships mean a lot to him.”
And while Turner could be described by many fans as mysterious, Aikman feels that there’s another side to the coach, a side he wishes more people could see for themselves.
“I think that Norv is a really tough guy. He’s been through a lot, he watched his mother work a number of jobs battling multiple sclerosis,” said Aikman. “But he’s a much stronger and tougher individual than people realize just watching him on the sidelines. He’s dealt with very tough times and he never complains.”
Wins and losses aside, there is little question that Norv Turner has impacted the game of football. But he’s also made an indelible mark upon those who have worked with him.