At Friday’s introduction of Ron Turner as FIU’s head football coach, as many questions that could actually be answered Friday faced FIU entertainment and sports director Pete Garcia as Turner.
As in, why Turner? And, why did it take 29 days after the surprise firing of Mario Cristobal to land Turner, a former University of Illinois coach working as Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks coach?
According to Garcia, the guiding advice that landed his sights on Turner came from Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay special assistant Butch Davis, Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano and former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
On longtime friend Davis, presumed to be a candidate for the job though he told FIU early on he wasn’t interested, Garcia said he and Davis “have always talked about who could be the coach for this team, but not Butch Davis [as coach]. Everybody pointed to Ron Turner if you could get him.”
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Garcia said he waited two weeks until Tampa Bay’s season finished. Turner said he flew down to meet Garcia and FIU president Mark Rosenberg on Sunday night after Tampa Bay’s season finale in Atlanta. That night, they toured the campus and talked until 2 a.m. Monday.
“The thing that kept coming up from Pete Garcia and President Rosenberg is ‘We’ve got to get better,’ ” Turner said. “No matter what it was, as we’re driving around campus looking at buildings, the business school, the law school, it was, ‘We’ve got to get better, we’ve got to improve.’ We started talking about football. We’ve got to get better. What can we do to get better?’ It’s not that we’re not happy with where we are, it’s you’ve got to continue to improve. What can we do to get better?’ ”
Turner said the FIU job was his only interview this year, and despite spending 12 of the past 20 seasons in the NFL, the nine seasons as Illinois head coach from 1997 to 2004 ranked as the happiest time of his career. Illinois went from 0-11 Turner’s first season to 10-2 and the Big Ten title in 2001.
After that, however, the Illini spun out to 9-26 over Turner’s final three seasons. Though he had just fired Mario Cristobal after Cristobal went 18-20 with two bowl appearances and a conference title in his last three seasons after resurrecting FIU, Garcia said Turner’s closing record didn’t bother him.
“We went over that,” Garcia said. “He told me the reasons why he felt that happened. But if you’re deterred by that [New England Patriots Super Bowl-winning coach] Bill Belichick would’ve never gotten another job because he failed in Cleveland. So, people learn from their success and their failures. He’s had more successes than failures.
“To turn Illinois around in a conference that’s always and will continue to almost always be dominated by the Michigans and Ohio States is remarkable,” he continued. “And what he’s done since then — taking the Bears as a coordinator to the Super Bowl, that speaks for itself.”
Chicago’s offense ranked 15th that 2006 season, after which Turner was a finalist for the Dolphins coaching job that went to Cam Cameron.
In Turner’s most recent five seasons as offensive coordinator with Chicago, a franchise historically offensively constipated, the Bears ranked 29th (2005), 15th (2006), 27th (2007), 26th (2008) and 23rd (2009) with quarterbacks such as Rex Grossman, Brian Griese and Jay Cutler.
Garcia described Turner with “he is no doubt, in my opinion and a lot of people’s opinion, the best quarterbacks coach in the country. He’s one of the best offensive coordinators in the country.”
Garcia said the expectations haven’t changed for this season, which will be FIU’s first in Conference USA.
“The expectations are always to win at the highest level,” he said. “Those expectations aren’t going to change. We don’t use excuses. He mentioned we’re losing 30 seniors and 19 starters who did a lot in this program, but we still expect to compete.”