These should be glorious, gloating days for Norv Turner.
Having led the Washington Redskins to a 10-6 record, Turner claimed his first NFC Eastern Division championship as head coach Dec. 26 with an overtime victory over the 49ers in San Francisco, and his team will have the home field for Saturday's first-round playoff game against the Detroit Lions. The Redskins, featuring the NFC's leading rusher, the NFL's second-ranked offense and three Pro Bowl selections, are solid favorites.
Yet there is little outward change in Turner, whose teams frequently have fallen short of expectations since his arrival in 1994. His workdays begin between 5 and 5:45 a.m., as customary, and his mind is focused on fundamentals--limiting penalties and turnovers, establishing the run and playing with consistency--as he prepares for the team that routed his, 33-17, five weeks ago.
Turner's even keel goes a long way toward explaining his remarkable staying power.
Among the NFL's 31 head coaches, Turner and Jacksonville's Tom Coughlin have the third-longest tenure with their current team (six seasons)--outlasted by Minnesota's Dennis Green and Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, in place since 1992. Among the 22 head coaches in Redskins history, only Ray Flaherty (1936-42), George Allen (1971-77) and Joe Gibbs (1981-92) had longer runs.
"He doesn't get too high when things are going well and doesn't get too low when they're not," said Turner's brother, Ron, the University of Illinois' football coach. "When things aren't going as well as people might expect and are getting on him, he knows he's doing it the right way and is going to stick to it."
Turner's past two years, in particular, have not been easy.
The Redskins' 1998 season was shrouded by the sale of the team following owner Jack Kent Cooke's death. When the team began 0-7, Turner found himself the subject of sports-talk radio diatribes. The Redskins won six of their last nine, but Turner faced the implication he was retained for 1999 only because it was too late for the new owner, Daniel M. Snyder, to replace him. Snyder turned up the heat further in his first 100 days, deriding the team's defense as vanilla, declaring Turner's record unacceptable and vowing that only a playoff berth, which the team had failed to attain since Gibbs's retirement, could secure his return.
The strain was evident to those who know Turner well.
Said Miami Dolphins assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt, a longtime friend: "He was really concerned how it was going to affect the team, more than himself. Could they get the players signed they wanted to? How were the players going to respond? That was where the focus was. He knew he couldn't do anything about the ownership."
On Monday, the day after the 1999 regular season ended, Wannstedt went jogging with his boss, Jimmy Johnson. As they ran, they wondered aloud how many of their peers truly enjoyed coaching under such stressful circumstances. Bill Parcells had resigned from the New York Jets that day, and New England's Pete Carroll and Green Bay's Ray Rhodes had been fired.
"It's tough," Wannstedt said. "We're in the playoffs. We've got nine wins, and we're a miserable team right now. Nobody is happy. Seattle is miserable. I don't know how much fun they're having in Dallas. And these are all teams that are going to the playoffs, so you know on teams that aren't going, there's not a lot of fun going on. Unfortunately, it's what you have to deal with. It's part of the job."
For Turner, the rewards of the job come during the 60 minutes on the game clock, when he calls the plays he has scripted and watches players come of age.
"You do this at this level to win, to be a playoff team and to eventually be a Super Bowl team," Turner says. "Along the way there are a lot of things that are very rewarding and some things that are disappointing. When you can be involved with young people--and our players are still young guys--and you can watch them learn, work, compete, grow as people, grow as players . . . that's still a big part of coaching. I know what the biggest part is: It's winning. But being around a guy like Stephen Davis and watching him over the last four years do what he has done--it's very rewarding."
Sports was Turner's salvation growing up in Martinez, Calif. He and his brothers played organized sports from age 5. Turner played quarterback at Alhambra High School and earned a scholarship to Oregon, where he was third in line behind eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. It was the beginning of a long friendship. Turner was the better poker player; Fouts, better at golf and quarterback.
"I threw a spiral," Fouts said. "He threw a Norval."
The Ducks became Turner's team once Fouts graduated. And it was a tough two years.
"The team wasn't very good, and he got beat up a lot," Fouts said. "He was the object of ridicule by the fans and had some real tough times. But it never changed him outwardly. It may have made him even tougher than he was. He overcame a lot."
Fouts didn't know while at Oregon that Turner's hardships as a quarterback paled next to his hardships as a child. His father, a former Marine fighting battles with alcohol, deserted the family when Norv was 2. His mother, who later contracted multiple sclerosis, kept her five children together with plenty of love, a firm hand (they were not allowed out after dark), welfare assistance and organized sports.
As Ron Turner tells, the essential lesson their mother taught them was that life is what you make of it. You can either complain or do something to make it better.
"No matter how bad it gets," Ron Turner said, "he's been through some hard times and was taught at an early age to keep at it and good things will happen."
After a coaching apprenticeship that included stops at Southern California, the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas, where he helped engineer the Cowboys' Super Bowl titles in 1992 and '93, Turner faced hard times soon after being anointed Richie Petitbon's successor as the Redskins' coach in 1994. Quarterbacks looked promising one minute and fallible the next; teams started fast and finished weak. Two potential playoff berths slipped out of reach. Turner was cast as too nice and too lenient.
Running back Brian Mitchell, a 10-year veteran, said the tags are misplaced.
"You look at everything he's been through the last five or six years and all of the sudden, this year, look where we're at," he said. "Everybody expects every coach to be a Parcells or a [Mike] Ditka. They're not in the playoffs. Norv is. It's as simple as that."
While Turner has learned to tune out critics he feels are misinformed, he's mindful that it's not so easy for his family to do the same.
"We've got young teenagers," he said, "and they are affected by what's being said, written and obviously talked about in school. The biggest thing, if you have a normal relationship with your family . . . I'm the same guy, when we win a game, to them. I'm the same guy when we lose a game. They know what I'm about. They know where the truth ends."
So it meant a lot, after the 26-20 victory in San Francisco, which nearly three dozen relatives attended, to wake up at his Oakton home the next morning to find the three Turner children wearing the NFC East championship caps their father had brought home for them.
"You could tell," he said. "You could sense the excitement."
Given those types of rewards--along with the kind words and supportive letters he receives from Redskins fans--Turner paused when asked about the difficulty of the last few seasons.
"Difficult is all relative," he said. "There are a lot of people out there who have it difficult. I don't have it difficult."
CAPTION: Norv Turner, before his first playoff game as head coach: "You do this at this level to win, to be a playoff team and to eventually be a Super Bowl team."