It was the 23rd of the month. Summertime in the East Bay oil town of Martinez, Calif., about half a century ago. Young Norval Eugene Turner was playing basketball on the asphalt court at the county-subsidized housing projects where he lived with his mother, Vicki, and four siblings in a small two-bedroom duplex.
“I had these old tennis shoes that I guarantee weren’t top-of-the-line,” said Turner, now the Vikings offensive coordinator. “I had a hole in them and it was the 23rd of the month. I said, ‘Ma, I need to get some new shoes. I have a hole in the bottom.’ And she said, ‘First of the month.’ I’m 8 or 9 years old and I’m thinking, ‘First of the month? What the hell does that mean?’ ”
It didn’t take Turner long, even at that age, to understand exactly what she meant. The money was gone and the next welfare check wasn’t due for another week. As for Turner’s father, Richard, he climbed aboard a Greyhound bus when Norv was 2 and never returned. Vicki was left alone to battle multiple sclerosis while raising five kids under the age of 7.
“And yet I never heard her complain. Never,” Turner said. “I’m sure she had her moments, but never in front of us kids did she ever feel sorry for herself. She was always like, ‘We’re going to make it.’ No one in the world had better mental toughness than my mom.”
Even at 62 years of age and 26 years after Vicki’s death, Turner’s eyes begin to well up. He misses the woman who raised him, shaped him and instilled in him the passion, perseverance and work ethic that pushes him into his 40th consecutive season of coaching, his 30th in the NFL and his first as a grandfather.
The Vikings’ 64th training camp begins Thursday when players and coaches report to Minnesota State Mankato. Turner will bring an urgency to continue advancing his well-respected “numbers” system with a demanding, in-your-face approach that already snapped the players to full attention during offseason workouts. But he also packs the calming influence of a man who has pretty much seen it all and is comfortable as a former head coach working for a man, Mike Zimmer, who had never been a head coach before Jan. 15.
“My ego allows me to do this,” said Turner, the Browns offensive coordinator last season. “Being in Cleveland last year, I don’t even consider it me getting fired or [then-head coach] Rob Chudzinkski getting fired. It was a total mess. Things were going nowhere and it was a bunch of people trying to save themselves at the end.
“But in this league, you got to wipe the slate clean and ask yourself, in my case, ‘Do I want to retire?’ No. Ultimately, I really, really like to coach. And this is a good fit.”
With years still left on his Cleveland contract, Turner could afford to be picky, or even sit out a season for the first time since he joined his alma mater, Oregon, as a graduate assistant in 1975. But Turner was intrigued by the Vikings despite a 5-10-1 record and the absence of a proven quarterback.
Turner always has respected Zimmer’s defensive expertise. The Vikings also were interested in hiring Turner’s son, Scott, who worked under Norv for the first time as Cleveland’s receivers coach. And with Scott’s wife, Robyn, pregnant with Norv and Nancy’s first grandson, Harrison David, the Minnesota winters would sure be a lot warmer for Nancy Turner, who has spent most of her husband’s career in warm-weather cities.
Couple all of that with some of the key ingredients necessary to make Turner’s offense hum — a power running game led by Adrian Peterson, a big receiver in Cordarrelle Patterson and a standout tight end in Kyle Rudolph — and, well, it was enough to take a leap of faith on the quarterback situation. Plus, once they were hired, Norv and Scott, the quarterbacks coach, would play pivotal roles in an exhaustive predraft process that meticulously examined nine prospects and eventually led to General Manager Rick Spielman trading back into the first round to select Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 overall.
“I can’t believe Coach Turner is a grandpa,” Bridgewater said. “He sure doesn’t act like any I’ve seen. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us down the road.”
Spielman laughs when the now-4-month-old Harrison is mentioned as a reason that Turner might have wanted to slow down.
“You see him coaching out here,” said Spielman, nodding to an animated Turner during an organized team activity session in June. “Age is not a concern with Norv. It’s just a number to me.”
Turner has won Super Bowls as Jimmy Johnson’s top assistant in Dallas. But he also has been fired three times as a head coach in Washington, Oakland and San Diego. He has lost more games as a head coach (122) than he’s won (114), but as an offensive coordinator, his concepts and feel for play-calling and in-game adjustments will make him one of the NFL’s most coveted assistants for as long as he wants to keep coaching.
“Norv is what Coach [Bill] Parcells used to call an indiscriminate play-caller,” Zimmer said. “Like everyone, he has some tendencies. But he could keep you off-balance as a defensive coordinator with shifting and motion, his protection schemes and those indiscriminate calls. I’m glad he wasn’t ready to retire.”
If there’s one thing Vicki Turner’s kids learned, it’s the value of hard work.
“Our mom provided as best as she could for us and kept out of harm’s way by making sure we were always home before dark,” said Ron Turner, Norv’s younger brother and also a longtime coach who is in his second season as head coach at Florida International. “But if we wanted a nicer pair of basketball shoes or something like that, then we had to go out and earn that money. You had to work for things.”
To this day, Norv is called “The Paperboy” by his former high school football coach, Charlie Toureville.
“I started out with 35 or 40 customers on one route but ended up doing two routes,” Turner said. “I was 10 years old and if you got so many new subscriptions, you got a trip to Disneyland. It was a lot, but I worked and got it.
“We were going to Disneyland and one of the other kids looked at me and said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘10.’ The guy who was our district manager came over and said, ‘Don’t ever tell anyone you’re only 10. You have to be 12 to have a paper route.”
Football trumps newspaper
It wasn’t long before football trumped delivering the afternoon newspaper. When he was a freshman quarterback at Alhambra High School, Turner asked an older player to describe what his read was on a particular throw. The kid had no idea what Turner was talking about.
“Norv was watching film and really studying the game long before that was popular,” Ron Turner said. “Hell, he was organizing offseason workouts 40 years before anyone ever heard of OTAs. By eighth grade, I knew he’d be a coach.”
Turner was a three-year starter at Alhambra en route to a earning a scholarship at Oregon, where he backed up Dan Fouts, who is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Marriage and the birth of three kids — Scott, Stephanie and Drew — brought the same kind of responsibilities that his own father ran from decades earlier. Norv has no memories of Richard Turner, who never did reach out to him before dying when Norv was about 18. By that time, a responsible stepfather was in the picture.
“Loyalty and finishing the job is something my dad instilled in me,” Scott said. “He’s been a great dad and I think all those things growing up are tied together in how he’s lived his life and how he has related to all of us.”
Finding a way
For everything he learned not to do from Richard’s actions, Norv learned more productive habits from Vicki.
“To this day, the concept of responsibility and commitment is what I learned from my mom,” Turner said. “If we’re evaluating a player, that’s the No. 1 quality I look for. Is this guy accountable, responsible? Does he do what we ask him to do? Can we depend on him every day? Can we depend on him on third-and-12 in the fourth quarter of a big game? I think all that comes from my mom and her mental toughness.”
Although Turner has made millions of dollars in coaching, he also credits Vicki for teaching him to focus on what he has, not what he doesn’t have. And, who knows, that could come in handy if he gets another hole in his shoe someday.
“What she would do is take a cardboard box top cover, fold it up, put them in your shoe over the hole and say, ‘Here, this will last,’ ” he said. “She probably didn’t care about our feet. She just didn’t want our socks to get holes in them, too. But she had a way of making things seem normal. She found a way. She just found a way.”