Charlie Tourville was the football coach at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., about 25 miles east of San Francisco. Norv Turner is the Washington Redskins' new coach but first he was Norval Turner, the Alhambra quarterback. And being the quarterback always makes you different.
It was the fall of 1969, and much of what that decade symbolized was still boiling a hill or two away on the Berkeley campus. Still, Tourville thought his boys were safe among the willows and oaks of the valley nestled behind the Alhambra Hills. He thought they could still wear sweaters and crew cuts and it would be okay.
"It took two years before long hair came to Martinez," Tourville said. "We were protected from the Berkeley scene."
Norval Turner was a senior and his grades sufficient that he was allowed to be a teacher's assistant during his free period. Tourville, also a physical education instructor, wanted Turner to do it. Tourville admired the boy's drive, his thirst for football knowledge. Tourville understood better than some what Turner's youth was like because Tourville came from a "migrant family situation," with five brothers and a sister. "Lots of kids, little money, shoes off in the summer," he said.
The free period was just after lunch. On Fridays, the day of a game, Tourville and Turner would walk up and down the field, stopping as they went. Tourville would call out a hypothetical situation at a particular yard line. Turner would then tell him which play the Bulldogs should run in that instance and call the signals.
"It wasn't so much tactics," Tourville said. "It was togetherness, camaraderie and bonding."
It was like the weightlifting sessions Turner organized so his teammates would be stronger physically and become a cohesive group. Like the trips Turner and other players took in the back of Tourville's pickup to watch Cal or Stanford or the 49ers work out in the summer months before Alhambra started practice.
"Anyone that takes a special interest in you, you will take a special interest in them," Turner said. "He took a high school program that wasn't very good and in three or four years made it one of the best in the area, so you gravitate to people like that." Formative Days: Life
In 1993, the Washington Redskins were 4-12. As they spiraled toward their worst record in 30 years, management gravitated toward Turner, who was the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys knew worse despair than the Redskins after a 1-15 season in 1989, but in three seasons -- Turner's second -- the team won a Super Bowl. Then it won another one. The Redskins have no greater rival than the Cowboys. The Redskins have no greater desire than to duplicate -- and improve upon -- what that rival has done.
Turner signed a five-year contract with the Redskins at $600,000 a year. He might have done so before the Cowboys' Super Bowl triumph over Buffalo on Jan. 30, but Commissioner Paul Tagliabue enforced a league rule preventing coaches from talking to other teams until their season was over. Turner and Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly had spoken once before by phone but did not meet until Turner arrived at Redskin Park after the Super Bowl.
"When Norv and I first sat down and talked, we went right into the football," Casserly said. "There wasn't a whole lot of small talk. There may not have been any small talk. I was impressed by Norv's knowledge of the league and the Redskins. Norv had ideas; he had a plan."
Turner has a wry sense of humor, but does not engage in an overabundance of frivolous chatter or idle backslapping. His brother Ron, the Bears' offensive coordinator, says Norv is the more private of the two in expressing emotions; Norv agrees. Yet family members, friends, players and associates say that what you see is what you get with Norv Turner. He can be annoyed and perhaps angry, as he was after the Redskins' second preseason loss, but the next minute he can be very positive on a different subject or laugh about his wife's reminders about using better grammar in his postgame dissertations.
"He doesn't put on airs and he's not a B.S. artist," said Rich Olson, the University of Miami receivers coach. Turner was best man at Olson's wedding. "As you get to know him, he'll tell you more things, though it's not like he's testing people, looking for something."
Turner's life did not allow him to put on airs. He was born May 17, 1952, in Lejune, N.C., but it was never home. Turner's father, Richard, moved the family several places before settling in Martinez. He was a Marine who fought in World War II and Korea. He also fought the bottle, and lost. In 1954, he abandoned his family. Vicky Turner was left to fend for herself and five children -- Richard Jr., Janis, Wanda, Norval and Ron. If that task wasn't enough, she had to do it with multiple sclerosis.
Norval -- as he was called in his youth -- was 2 years old when his father left. He said his mother, who died in 1989, might have provided details about his father, but he didn't ask many questions. Only when reporters started asking about him in recent years did he learn from Wanda that their father worked as a fireman.
"It was obvious my father wasn't around, but we never sat around depressed because our father wasn't around," said Turner, who was 12 when his father died. Turner's three children -- Scott (12), Stephanie (10) and Drew (4) -- are curious about their grandfather. Turner said he tells them the truth, though he tries to turn it into a productive discussion.
"I don't want it to be too cold-blooded," Turner said. "My father, from all accounts I have, was a nice person, a good person. But he had a problem. He had an alcohol problem that he could not control. He needed help. When you're talking about it, that's how you present it."
Deciding her children were better served with her at home, Vicky Turner moved her family into a public housing project that is still standing and accepted welfare. The family did not have a car. In elementary school, Norv Turner had two paper routes, doing the job well enough to win trips to Disneyland and Thanksgiving turkeys. During summer while in high school, he worked at a furniture factory.
The multiple sclerosis meant Vicky Turner would have to watch her sons' games from a wheelchair. But there were times before she remarried when she had to enter the hospital and the children apparently fended for themselves -- with help from neighbors, adults from boys clubs, Boy Scout troops and the like.
If Vicky cried at night when she thought her children were asleep, they drew inspiration from her and each other. Norv said much of his formidable work ethic comes from watching his mother hold the family together and from coaches who guided his football career. Ron watched his brother work to be an all-area quarterback, but also was grateful that his older brother let the kid brother tag along. They did not know what they did not have, so there was no self-pity.
"We didn't know better because she never gave us the opportunity to think about that," said Ron Turner, who still calls his brother to talk football strategy. "She gave us a lot of love. We didn't know any better. We got a lot of love and affection from her and there was always food on the table." Formative Days: Football
Oregon, Oregon State, Southern Cal and, late in the process, Cal, recruited Turner. Tourville, who played on the Ducks' '58 Rose Bowl team, was one reason Turner went to Oregon, where he learned from two assistant coaches who went on to NFL careers. He was recruited by current 49ers coach George Seifert and also learned from current USC coach John Robinson, and that association paved the way to future employment, if not grand success, in Eugene.
Turner is 15th on the Oregon career passing list, but he had 22 interceptions to only 11 touchdowns. He didn't play until he was a senior because the guy ahead of him was Dan Fouts, who has a plaque in a museum in Canton, Ohio. Fouts has joked about Turner's wobbly passes, but when Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was looking for an offensive coordinator in 1990, Fouts recommended Turner. It was evident to Fouts and the Oregon staff that Turner wanted to know not only which receiver would be open, but why.
"He was a sponge, trying to absorb everything about the game," Robinson said. In 1975, Turner was a graduate assistant at Oregon. In 1976, Robinson was hired as USC's head coach and hired Turner.
"He cared about football and football was going to be his life," Robinson said. "But Norv is also a guy that can walk into a room and make everybody feel good about themselves. He doesn't try to overwhelm you with his knowledge or his ego. That was evident right away. He is a smart guy, but not an ego guy."
The Trojans are famous for big offensive lines and the tailbacks who ran behind them, and Turner lapped up those ideas from Robinson while at USC. Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys would later succeed using some of those very same ideas. Olson was just getting started in coaching as well when they intersected on the USC staff in 1977. Olson needed a place to live, so they shared a bachelor apartment with a typical bachelor refrigerator that probably only held "a jug of white wine, a roll of salami, a thing of cheese and maybe some chips lying around," as Olson recalls.
"We were working 14- to 16-hour days, in early to cut up film. He still goes in early," Olson said of Turner, who is usually at Redskin Park by 5 a.m. "We didn't get there that early. We might have been coming in at that hour."
It was during the USC years that Turner met Nancy Marpe. She grew up in Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl, but despite the birthplace, football was not a central part of her life. She worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines, then became Robinson's secretary at USC in 1979. That is where she met her future husband, Norv Turner.
"They were very secretive for about a month," said Robinson, though they didn't think their budding romance was such a secret. "Then, at my daughter's wedding, they came together and I think that was the first official, open date."
Nancy wanted a more substantial job and the romance continued, so she left to be an insurance claims adjuster.
"It got to the stage where we were never away from work," Nancy said. "Looking back, I'm glad I was there because it gave me an understanding of what he does and what's involved."
"Both are good people," Robinson said. "Underneath a whole lot of brilliance and talent, there is a good human being. It is the same with Nancy. They are people you would count on in any kind of crisis. You look at both and say that's when they would shine." On to the Pros
Turner spent nine seasons -- one as defensive backs coach -- at USC before joining Robinson with the Los Angeles Rams. Ernie Zampese became the Rams' offensive coordinator, and from him Turner learned about passing -- when to throw, where to throw, who not to throw to. Quarterback Jim Everett had his best season under Zampese, while Turner coached the receivers. Turner became a morning person because Zampese was there before the sun rose. Ironically, Zampese replaced Turner with Cowboys.
Johnson was rebuilding the Cowboys, but his young quarterback Troy Aikman struggled under assistant coach David Shula's guidance. Shula departed after the 1990 season. Turner was Johnson's third choice, but it proved fruitful. Turner didn't try to tell the strong-armed Aikman how to throw. But he told him to speed up his drops, which allowed earlier decisions and required less sustained blocking by the offensive line. He told Aikman to throw the ball away when there was no open receiver. That reduced turnovers. Aikman is now a star.
Aikman and others, including Redskins tackle Jim Lachey, have spoken of Turner's habit of talking directly to players, using assistants less in that way, to explain how different parts of the offense are intertwined while also collecting information on what players think -- about whether a play works, or if the team needs a day off.
"His biggest thing for us has been that he does not allow players to do things that they're not good at doing," Aikman said during the Super Bowl week. "If there's something that I throw well, we'll throw it. If there's something I don't throw well, regardless of how much he thinks it's going to work, we will not throw it during the game. And receivers do not run routes that they don't run well. And he's very adamant about that."
Sunday will be Turner's first chance to run the whole show, his first day as a head coach, as the Redskins begin the regular season against Seattle at RFK Stadium. Robinson said Turner, from their Rams days, knows that shaky management can doom a coach before he gets to the field and that Turner knows this is an outfit that wants to win. Robinson thought Turner was suited to be a head coach because, even as an assistant, Turner was able to see the job of the head coach and not only through his own "window." Turner credits Robinson for training him to identify and exploit an opponent's weakness and focus on what has to be done to win a particular game, regardless of how the strategy might benefit the offense or defense or a particular player.
The particular position that draws the most attention is the quarterback. Shaping a quarterback was part of why Turner chose Washington. Heath Shuler is the top pick whom Turner must mold. John Friesz might start at times this season, but Shuler is the future. He one day might be as close to Turner as Aikman still is. But both Friesz and Shuler are getting to know Turner as he learns about them. Both will need his help.
Come Sunday, Turner will call their plays. To get ready, he will do as he did when he was a quarterback back at Alhambra High a quarter century ago.
"I always take the game plan and walk the field," Turner said. "It is a reminder. If the ball is on the 10-yard line or the 20-yard line or the 15-yard line, you've got things in the game plan for those situations. I like to get to the stadium early. I like to get there when it is empty and walk the field. You can play the game in your mind. You start at the goal line and walk your way out, all the way to the other end."
CAPTION: What They Say About Norv Turner:
(1) "Guys genuinely like him and want to play for him." -- Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys quarterback.
(2) "He's one of the major reasons for my success." -- Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys running back and Super Bowl MVP.
(3) "Norv is one of the nicest people and one of the brightest people you have ever met. But he won't be around much when time comes to take the credit. Players will play for him because they feel like he's on their side." -- John Robinson, Southern California coach, who was Turner's boss with the Trojans and the Los Angeles Rams.
(4) "It doesn't matter how much a coach knows about football if he can't teach. Norv is an excellent teacher." -- Jimmy Johnson, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, where he was Turner's boss.