Long before Jim Turner became the Dolphins’ jokester offensive line coach whose blue one-liners made him a Hard Knocks darling, he was a scrappy kid from Boston who picked patriotism over professional advancement.
The year was 1990, and America was on war’s doorstep. The nation’s first conflict with Iraq was swelling, and Turner, just two years out of college and in the infancy of his coaching career, decided to join the fight.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps — like his father before him — and became an officer.
And although the war ended before his training did, crises testing Turner’s mettle sprung up nonetheless during deployments to the Mediterranean, Japan and Turkey — to name a few.
Just one example, as recounted by Chris Platt, a fellow Marine and longtime friend:
Turner’s unit, stationed in Israel, was on a live-ammunition training mission when something went horribly wrong. One of his men took an accidental bullet, and the medical specialist on duty was too shaken to help.
“Jimmy got him focused,” said Platt, now an Indiana-based salesman. “He told [the medic] that the [injured Marine] wasn’t going to die and to get him fixed.”
Turner was right. The Marine who was shot survived, thanks in part to his lieutenant’s steadying command.
Two decades later and half a world away, Turner heads up a far different group of men, with far different stakes. Yet the calm demeanor that helped keep his men alive will serve him well during his first fall as an NFL assistant.
“The Marines helped me tremendously in my leadership and organizational skills,” Turner said recently. “But I always loved football, have always been very passionate about football my whole life, which is why I ended up back in it.”
Turner might love football, but he also doesn’t see it as a solemn duty. Consider him the drill sergeant with a wicked sense of humor. His mid-meeting breaks to show players YouTube clips and gut-busting sideline quips are proof of that.
The story is the same when cameras are not around, said Richie Incognito, the Dolphins’ starting left guard.
Training camp is a grind, with 12-hour days spent on the practice field and in the meeting rooms. So Turner — just as he did in the Marines — finds ways to keep it fresh.
Late one evening, as the Dolphins defensive linemen huddled in the team’s Davie training complex, they heard a ruckus coming from the adjoining room. Turns out, it was a bunch of 300-pound guys playing baseball.
Turner had stopped the meeting, cleared the room of its desks, and broke out a whiffle ball and bat. Everybody got a few cuts.
“When you get a change of pace like that, it’s a breath of fresh air,” Incognito said. “You’re working and you’re grinding, and you’re into it, but you’ve got to have mental breaks.
“It’s great to come from the offensive line coach. That’s usually on the players to do. He keeps it light.”
Turner has been keeping it light for as long as Joe Philbin has known him.
Their relationship dates back to 1995, when Philbin was the offensive coordinator at Northeastern University and Turner his offensive line coach.
Turner, who is more than a head shorter than all the players under his command, actually played fullback at Boston College but was always intrigued by blocking schemes. He stresses the basics, even now that he’s dealing with professional athletes and not small-school players. But he does so with panache.
“He’s a hard worker but knew when to laugh, knew when to keep his mouth shut, knew when to work hard and knew when to bust other people’s chops,” Philbin said.
“He had a natural way about him, and he connected with players right away. There was that respect factor that I think he commanded, as well.”
Turner’s time in the Marines helped develop that moxie. But in a way, the military was more of a laboratory than a training ground.
Platt knew right away that Turner “marches to the beat of his own drum,” and his friend used the Marines to determine which of his unique ideas work and which don’t.
“He was the kind of guy who was always keeping people off-balance,” Platt added. “You never knew what he’s going to do next. He’s the best person I’ve ever met at doing any of that.”