There are what you’d call “dream jobs.” Ron Turner doesn’t have one of those.
That’s me talking, not Ron, of course. As the football coach at Florida International University he has one of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision-level jobs in all of the NCAA, and one of only seven in the state of Florida, so he can’t complain. As a “mid-major” coach he’s lower-rung, but he’s on the big ladder.
Otherwise, though, Turner surely would qualify if that Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs, hosted by Mike Rowe, had devoted an episode to college coaches.
Look at all of the challenges before Turner as he prepares to begin his third season with FIU this coming Thursday evening against Central Florida in Orlando. By my eye this man has the toughest coaching job of anybody in South Florida right now, for these four main reasons:
▪ His team: Turner inherited a struggling, talent-thin, controversy-marred program impervious to a quick fix, one that has seen him with a 5-19 record over the past two seasons. And this year FIU is predicted to finish fifth of seven East teams in a Conference USA media poll, suggesting a massive turnaround is not anticipated.
▪ His boss: Turner answers to the mercurial athletic director Pete Garcia, whose track record suggests the coach might be on a short leash that could tighten to a choke hold if this season doesn’t go well. Turner was hired after Garcia unexpectedly fired predecessor Mario Cristobal, the most successful coach in the program’s 14 seasons.
▪ His fans: What fans? OK, that’s mean. (Well, gratuitous, at least.) But Turner must do more than win games here, he must ignite and grow interest, a very tough sell. FIU has a nice little campus stadium but only half filled it with 11,966 fans last season — ranking 126th of 128 schools in average attendance. FIU must rise to the standard of a 15,000 average this year or risk facing demotion from the FBS level.
▪ His shadow: Not foreseeable (or at this point even imaginable) is a time when FIU football will stop being the “other” college team in town, the largely ignored lil’ brother to the Miami Hurricanes. There is no bridge yet visible for the enormous gap in the two schools’ tradition, media coverage or level of interest, although the teams playing each other again (they will resume in 2018) at last gives FIU a fighting chance.
That is my view, the one from the outside.
Turner’s view, the one from the inside, is better. I’ve never met any coach who didn’t spin positively his own situation, and Turner, at 61, is practiced at the art. He’s a lifer at this. FIU is his 13th team at the pro or college level in a meandering coaching odyssey that began in 1978. But I must say Turner is a good salesman.
“There are certainly challenges, but I can see a job that can be a very, very good one,” he told us. “I’m excited to be here. I don’t know if I could say that the first year. But now I look forward every day to coming to the office.”
The Panthers were 1-11 in Turner’s first season, a turbulent, transitional year. He had inherited a roster rife with classroom casualties and players suspended for off-field shenanigans. He began to clean house.
“We had 16, 17 players academically ineligible, guys suspended, issues off the field that surprised me. I was, like, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “We had to start getting guys here to buy in. Start recruiting the kind of guys we wanted. It was about being accountable. It was about changing the attitude. Changing the culture.”
His second year the Panthers bounced up to 4-8 and were a pair of two- and three-point losses from being 6-6.
I asked Turner if this year’s team could finish above .500.
“I’d be disappointed if we don’t,” he said.
Turner’s older brother, Norv, is the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator (and held the same job with the Dolphins in 2002-03 under Dave Wannstedt).
Norv’s Adrian Peterson-led Vikings will rely on offense first.
Ron’s Panthers flaunt defense as their strength, “and all of the key producers are back,” he said.
Turner calls his 2015 team “very focused, very determined and much more mature” than the roster he inherited in 2013.
“We’ve made huge strides. I feel good about this team,” he said. “We are going to win here.”
He will need support to see that goal through. He will need time, the patience and support of his boss — a fair chance to continue the obvious progress he is making. And he will need the support of fans, the reward of a full stadium now and then.
At FIU, neither type of support is a sure thing, but Ron Turner shows signs of meriting both.