Ron Turner didn’t know what he got himself into when he came to FIU. Now that he’s into it, however, he’s not planning on marching out any time soon. And Turner seems to think he accomplished the first step in a turnaround during this 1-11 2013 season.
That won’t please some of the parents who posted on this blog, e-mailed me or took to Twitter to rip Turner as stodgy. It won’t please the parents and fans who see Turner as yet another near senior citizen coming down to South Florida on a semi-retirement plan (see “Ted Aceto,” “too many Florida Panthers and Dolphins free agents”).
My doubts about Turner; suspicions about his hiring and criticisms of his strategy/personnel deployment have been well-documented on this blog. That said, I do wonder how much FIU fan/parent criticism of him comes from South Florida parochialism.
Don Strock connected Dolphins eras like the Venetian Causeway connects islands. He backed up each of the three Super Bowl starters in Dolphins history (Bob Griese, David Woodley, Dan Marino) over his 15-season Dolphins career. A well-tanned lover of football and golf, the Pennsylvania native out of Virginia Tech might as well have been 100 percent South Floridian when hired as FIU’s first coach.
Mario Cristobal? A 305 guy to the bone. You know the personal history.
Turner? From California and uses a more run-heavy version of the West Coast offense, but seems purely Midwestern. He’s known for being Illinois’ head coach and the Chicago Bears offensive coordinator. Besides, even that so-called West Coast Offense is Midwestern, developed in Cincinnati.
(Digression: Bill Walsh created it while with a Bengals assistant after a shoulder injury to big-armed Greg Cook, whom Walsh called in the late 1990s “perhaps the best quarterback talent we’ve seen,” left the Bengals with noodle-armed Virgil Carter. The Bengals ran the offense through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Ken Anderson won a few passing titles. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, they shared a division with the 1970s Steelers. So, it wasn’t until the Walsh-coached 49ers started winning Super Bowls in the 1980s with a refined version of the offense that it got nicknamed “The West Coast Offense.” Coincidentally, San Francisco beat Cincinnati for its first Super Bowl win. Digression over…)
Turner’s got his way of doing things. His way could be rocketing toward a head-on with the FIU way of doing things and the South Florida way of doing things.
He clearly had some things to get off his chest about his first 11 months on the job. He went into a 24-minute soliloquy that bounced around quite a bit. Even at that, there were a couple of things I think he wanted to touch on but didn’t.
Turner started with, “I believe and I think everyone in this program believes our program is ascending and we are heading in the right direction. Now, people on the outside can look at the record and look at the scores and say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’”
The reason Turner says that from his chair is what he saw upon arrival. And that's a more detailed version of what you’ve read some of here since last January.
“When I first got here, I was in shock,” he said. “I was, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We didn’t have a day go by, not one day went by, when somebody didn’t do something wrong. Somebody didn’t get into trouble. Sometimes, more than one. It could be from getting arrested, to the off the field problems…I got calls constantly. “So-and-so’s not going to class” “So-and-so didn’t get his study hours.” “He missed a workout.” I’m like, ‘This is like dealing with second graders.’
“I was shocked. I’ve never been in a program where it was like that. I was at Illinois and we were 0-11 my first year. We had a lot of problems. And we had some of that. I never had it to the degree it was here, where guys just blatantly were not doing what they were supposed to do. Coaches would call guys, “Can you come in and meet me at 2 o’clock?” “Yeah, Coach, I’ll be there at 2 o’clock” and not show up. I’ve never seen that in my life.”
“We had 12 players ineligible, which is unbelievable. I’ve never been around that many in my life who were ineligible when I got here or right on the border and didn’t get it done.”
Of course, that group included, “Our top five or six receivers. I don’t know anybody in the country who can lose their top five or six receivers and go out to play. And, arguably, top two running backs, for sure our top running back. That’s not to mention defensive linemen – one transferred (Fadol Brown) and three were ineligible.”
And, Turner said the player attitude was that “It’s OK, I’ll just redshirt.” Turner paused. “It’s not OK to be ineligible.”
(One of the inelgible players, redshirt freshman wide receiver-turned-safety Adrian Jenkins got jettisoned from the program during the season. At this moment, Jenkins sits in the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center after being arrested and booked in the wee hours on a charge of burglary of an occupied dwelling. His bond is $12,500.)
Some believe last year’s Cristobal firing and the remaining staff being put on paid leave until they were fired led to players academically crashing the last week of the fall semester and finals week. That, in turn, resulted in the academic ineligibility of several players. Others believe players requiring that level of extremities-holding shouldn’t be in college.
“I don’t want to babysit them,” Turner said. “I’m not going to babysit them. I’m not going to hand walk them to class. They’ know what they’ve got to do.”
(To be clear on where I tend to land on this: My 8-year-old daughter already has seen me hold up a piece of her homework with “I’m not telling you the answer or whether you’re right or wrong. I’ll help you learn how to figure it out. But there’s one name at the top of this sheet. That’s the person who’s responsible for this work.” You might think I’m a curmudgeonly salt-and-pepper no-hair who doesn’t remember what it’s like to be a kid. Ask my mother, who often heard me say during my middle school, high school and college years, “There’s one name on that report card and it isn’t yours.”)
The Cristobal staff knew these young men, especially the South Floridians. They knew the baggage some athletes brought from their neighborhoods. They knew about the rivalries that sometimes seeped onto campus. They worked overtime to keep their players out of trouble. They went for fast, quiet resolution when their players got into trouble.
The Turner staff knew not the lay of this new land.
“And (players) weren’t doing the right things in any areas,” Turner said. “I was getting calls from the dorms once a week, twice a week. Guys being disruptive in the dorm playing their music too loud, too late.”
(Why did I just think of the November 2012 tweet from FIU butterfly queen Marina Ribi slamming the football team for disruptive nightly partying after the season was over?)
“And all these calls were consistent in every area – dorms, class, guys being disruptive in class, if they showed up to class. If they did show up, they were late. And being disruptive in class. I’m not talking about the entire team. I’m talking about a group. But that group was too many.”
Turner said he told the team they would be winners, but they wouldn’t win on the field until they were accountable to one another on and off the field. Also, lateness and no-shows get you fired or buried on the bottom in the real world, which is where the vast majority will earn the rent in a few years.
Finally, he said he told the 70 to 80 percent of the players who acted like they had some sense and were “taking care of their business” as the popular euphemism goes, “either you’re going to bring the other guys up or they’re going to bring you down.
“Obviously, this year, especially early, they brought the other guys down.”
And it didn’t surprise him.
“This may not come out really well,” he said. “Obviously we were all disappointed, but I wasn’t totally surprised. In January and February when we were going through all these problems that we had and they continued, they got better a little bit, but they continued…it was not unexpected what happened on the field this year, in my mind. Part of it is talent. In some areas, we’ve got to get better players. Some areas, we had good enough players. As a football team, we have to get more talent, better players as a group. But it’s not surprising because of the off the field issues.”
I’d say you could throw a few more things into the mix – new systems, young team, tough early schedule including three bowl teams, two of which went 11-1. Anyway…
Turner said a sense of possible doom crashed home in the summer, when he punished some players by taking their football privileges away.
“I can’t tell you the number of guys I had tell me, ‘Coach, we felt we’d always be able to play on Saturday no matter what we did. We might get punished. We might get disciplined, things might happen. When the season came, we’d play on Saturdays,’” Turner said. “That’s kind of a product of them growing up in football. A guy’s a young player, Pop Warner, he’s a great player, the coach looks the other way when he doesn’t show up for practice or does something wrong. High school, the same thing happens. A guy’s not going to class, not taking care of grades, they maybe help him out -- talk to the teachers ‘hey give him a break, he’s my best player…” this and that. And it continues on to college. And those guys expect that to happen. ‘Hey, they’ve always taken care of me.’
“Once some of these guys were ineligible that they all thought would be eligible – something would happen and they’d be eligible – I think it was starting to sink in.”
It should be said here that the ineligibles included a couple of academic phoenixes. They’d flamed out at FIU before and mysteriously risen from the ashes -- twice.
More than one player has claimed to his parents or confidants that Turner doesn’t care about winning. I’m not sure about that. Maybe Turner felt this year needed to be about a culture change before FIU really could move forward. Any reasonable person saw a roster that would need voodoo just for an outside shot at five wins. Better to sacrifice a win or two to get things in order for a smoother future.
Cristobal took a similar line of thinking in 2012 with a freshman he thought could’ve been better than any of the upperclassmen starters at his position. But, Cristobal reasoned, if he played the freshman after some of the young man’s serious transgressions off the field, the guy was so good that he’d be on his way to being a nightmare: fantastic player, zero character plus a sense of entitlement. Nope, Cristobal thought, better for the young man and the program to let him suffer the consequences of sitting out.
Turner repeated that he felt the team got better on the field as the year wore on but they got worn down, especially defensively. In his office on this day, however, he spoke more of the off-the-field improvements.
“We do (random) class checks. Early, we’d go check a class, we’ve got eight guys in a class, five would be missing,” he said. “In the last month, when I get the reports back, I don’t think we’ve had one guy miss. Does that mean, we have 100 percent attendance? I’m not naïve enough to think that was the case. They’re college kids.”
He says he hasn’t heard from the dorms for a while. After seeing one group of players wallowing in an FIU pig sty, Turner instituted pop-in room checks.
“It’s not military school. But we’re looking for it to not be disgusting.”
As is the custom in the NFL with Tuesdays, Turner started sending players to speak at elementary schools, hospitals, volunteer at nursing home and retirement communities on Mondays. He claimed a doubling of the community service time done previously. All FIU student-athletes are required to do community service.
“Our guys are doing a tremendous job in the community.”
This week, as the semester closes, players file in and out for something of exit meetings on the season. Turner said he didn’t expect large turnover, although I keep hearing there could be a bloc of transfers.
“I’m not going to sit there and guarantee a number of wins (for 2014). If they continue to do what they’re supposed to do and develop, there will be…” Turner hesitated. Then finished, “It’ll start to show up on the field. I believe that strongly.”
Again last week, I heard about FIU’s lack of attendance at some of the major South Florida high school clashes, where the stands teem with coaches from other colleges. I asked Turner about that and about trying to develop relationships with the stronger programs in town.
He said they were. In fact, two coaches were at Northwestern High that day.
“Are we at games on Friday night during the season, this year? No, we are not.”
His reasoning: “Our team was so young, we did not feel comfortable going to the hotel and having our night meetings and not having coaches there. It sends the wrong message, No. 1, about the importance of the game. And, No. 2, our guys weren’t mature enough to handle it and do what they’re supposed to do and get us focused as we needed to be.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re not getting out into the field, we’re not talking to coaches, we’re not going to schools. When we had our byes, we went to schools. We have four coaches that only recruit South Florida, and they are establishing good relationships with those coaches. We’ve had (those coaches) on our campus. I’ve talked to a bunch of them. We are establishing those relationships.”
“What we’ve to be careful of is when you’re 1-11, coaches coming in and saying ‘Take this guy, he’ll help you.’ We’ve got to make sure we’re doing our evaluations to make sure that they’re guys that we can win with at this level. They’ve got guys Miami, Florida, Florida State are recruiting. Our chances of getting those guys is very slim. But there are other guys that for whatever reason they aren’t recruiting that we can find and get. But we’re not going to take guys just to take them.”
Another player waited to enter for his postseason talk. I’m not sure he’ll be here next year. Turner will be. He’s not going anywhere. We’ll see if FIU is.