Greg Cote

FIU’s Turner credits who he is to the one strong woman who never left, never quit

Panthers head coach Ron Turner on the sidelines as UCF Knights host the FIU Panthers at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Thurs., Sept. 3, 2015.
Panthers head coach Ron Turner on the sidelines as UCF Knights host the FIU Panthers at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Thurs., Sept. 3, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

These are challenging times for the Turner boys, the brothers who have given their lives to coaching football.

Norv Turner is the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator and on Tuesday watched a promising season crumple in a heap with the gruesomely serious knee injury to starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Miami-born rising star out of Northwestern High.

Ron Turner, at 62 two years the younger brother, is trying to keep his job as head coach at FIU and lift a struggling program to relevance as the Panthers open their new season Thursday night against Indiana at Miami’s FIU Stadium.

Both men face a difficult test, but that isn’t daunting, or new.

They were born into worse.

The Turners’ father, Richard, abandoned his family when Ron was 10 months old. Hopped a bus, never came back, never heard from.

“I had no desire to find him,” FIU’s coach said Wednesday. “How could someone do that to my mother?”

It was a long time ago but it has never left Ron. See, him and his four siblings were raised in a situation that might have torn their family apart but instead showed it strength.

Vicki Turner was left to raise three boys and two girls on her own, Ron the youngest, none older than 7. She did this while battling the onset and worsening of multiple sclerosis, the crippling disease for which there still is no cure.

They lived in a two-room duplex in a subsidized housing project in Martinez, California, near San Francisco, relying on welfare checks and their mother’s spirit. She’d put cardboard inside their worn shoes to cover the holes. Made sure all her kids were home before dark. Steered them toward the positive influence of sports. Mostly, she never quit on them like their father had.

“The strongest, most caring person I’ve ever known,” Ron says of his mom, who passed away in 1988. “I owe so much to her. Still miss her every day. I never once heard her complain, not about her illness or the situation she’d been put in. She’d say, ‘Let’s focus on what we have. We have a family. We have each other.’ 

Her overarching emphasis was a lesson Ron passes along to his FIU players, some of whom, like their coach, were raised by single parents in tough circumstances.

“You control who you are.”

Their mother remarried and the family welcomed a loving stepfather when Ron was in eighth grade, but, by then, most of his and Norv’s positive male role models had been coaches. The Boys Club and sports helped raise them.

“That’s why Norv and I both got into coaching,” Ron said. “No question in my mind. Most of the friends I grew up with ended up in jail or shot. I know the impact sports had on me.”

He passes it down. He can hear his own mother’s voice when he tells his players, “It’s how you treat people. I talk to our team all the time, ‘I don't care if it’s the guy cleaning the bathroom, show respect. Treat him the right way.’ 

Turner, starting his fourth season at FIU and 39th year of a meandering coaching career with 13 teams, college or pro, inherited a mess here, a roster full of academic and off-field issues. He went 1-11 that first year, then cleaned house, began reshaping the culture. His Panthers improved to 4-8, then 5-7 last year. FIU attendance at its 22,000-seat campus stadium also improved, to an average of 15,381 last season — still modest even by Conference USA standards but a spike of 3,415 that marked the 19th-biggest jump of the 127 FBS schools.

Turner’s job is to lift FIU football back to the relevance it began to enjoy in 2010-11.

Then, a window had opened. You looked inside and what you saw looked like something shot with helium: A program on the rise.

You saw a dynamic young head coach in Mario Cristobal and a game-changing star player in exciting T.Y. Hilton. You saw FIU finish consecutive seasons in bowl games. You saw attendance catch on with school-record crowds. You saw the Panthers, at 3-0 in 2011, receive votes for the first time ever in The Associated Press’ Top 25 rankings.

Across town at the same time, the Miami Hurricanes were underachieving enough to get Randy Shannon fired and follow that, in 2011, with a 6-6 record — UM’s first non-winning season since 1979.

For the first time you had to acknowledge Miami had two college football teams, not just one. Yes, the Hurricanes, with their long tradition, five national championships and bigger conference, always would be Big Brother. But the little guy was growing up, getting stronger.

That is what FIU needs to get back to. Just be relevant. No broader goals yet. Just matter in your own backyard first. Make South Florida care a little bit. Make us notice you again.

This is Ron Turner’s job.

It may take a winning season or a bowl game — more progress — for him to keep it, and an opening-night upset of Indiana, from the Big Ten but hardly a powerhouse, would be a huge step.

“It’s Division 1 football, and you have to win. I understand that,” Turner said. “I got a really good feeling for this team. I want to win, but not for me. For these players. I could retire tomorrow and be OK. I just want to win for this program.”

And maybe for someone else, too.

For the strongest woman he ever knew. The one who never quit. The one who didn’t leave.

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