- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

DAVIE, Fla. — Norv Turner keeps an old Washington Redskins sweatshirt at his summer cabin on a lake in New Hampshire in case it is needed some chilly day.

It is stored away, but it is there. So it is with Turner and his seven-year tenure as coach of the Redskins.

Turner says he doesn’t think about it. Not much, anyway.

There are flashes of small victories, individual players and his one playoff win. And there are other memories, too, of many losses and backroom quarrels.

There exist no scars from heartfelt conflicts, but neither is there lingering affection for the organization that gave him a chance to follow such notable predecessors as Ray Flaherty, Vince Lombardi, George Allen and Joe Gibbs.

Turner’s children still consider Washington their hometown. Their stay here was the longest stop of childhoods spent moving from town to town: Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, San Diego and now Miami. But Turner doesn’t view his time with the Redskins — his only head coaching job — as any more special than his others.

When the Redskins recently played the Dallas Cowboys, Turner had no trouble choosing between past employers.

“I don’t root for Washington,” he said.

It has been nearly three years since Redskins owner Dan Snyder dismissed Turner with a 7-6 record and three games left in the 2000 season. Washington has gone 20-25 under his three successors. Turner went on to run the offense for the San Diego Chargers and now the Miami Dolphins, where he’s in his second season as coordinator.

On Sunday, the Redskins will face Turner for the second time since his departure, so it’s nothing new for either side.

Turner didn’t even crack a smile in the locker room after his Chargers whipped the Redskins 30-3 in the 2001 season opener. There was no emotional lust for revenge then, and there still isn’t. Only six Redskins from the Turner era are on the current roster. That’s not enough to invest in a grudge match.

“When you face a team where there’s some emotion involved because there’s so many people you were close to, [theres incentive],” Turner said. “But I don’t have that in Washington. It’s a job. It’s an important game to us.”

Hard goodbye

Turner does not badmouth Snyder despite the ugly circumstances that surrounded his firing — a dismissal that followed an impetuous overnight session at which defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes refused the job and several senior assistants threatened to quit if vice president Pepper Rogers were named interim coach. To do so would be to confront the madness that engulfed his last three years in Washington.

Current Redskins coach Steve Spurrier has chafed about the public haranguing he has received for a few weeks this season because of his team’s poor performance.

He has no idea.

Turner’s fate was debated from the death of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke in April 1997 through the sale of the franchise in 1999 to the final days of the 2000 season, when the Redskins lost back-to-back games by a combined five points to teams that later played for the NFC championship.

Turner knew after his team lost 9-7 to the New York Giants on Dec.3, 2000, that he would be fired the next day. He arrived at Redskin Park at 9a.m., uncharacteristically late and in no hurry to get to the meeting that would result in his dismissal within minutes of his arrival.

Turner’s eyes were swollen as he uttered his final words. Seven years made it hard to leave so abruptly. Yet the unending pressure finally would end. No longer would classmates berate Turner’s children. No longer would “Fire Norv” signs litter the stands.

“I don’t think I ever used the word ‘relieved,’” said Turner in his first lengthy interview about his dismissal. “There’s always mixed emotions because you’re in this to finish a job and win games. It really came down to [the fact that] I wouldn’t play [quarterback] Jeff George early in the season [per Snyders demand], and I felt Brad [Johnson] had the best chance to be the starter. That’s the coach’s decision.”

Turner said the only reason he didn’t leave Washington after the 1999 season, when the Redskins were a bad snap away from the NFC Championship game, was to let his son, Scott, play his senior season in high school. Transferring would have made the prep quarterback a long shot to start elsewhere, and Turner didn’t want to take another NFL job and leave his family behind for a year. Otherwise, he would have pursued the head coaching position with the Cowboys that was then available, a job he likely would have gotten.

“I wanted to stay in Washington because we had a good team and my family situation,” Turner said. “I was going to do everything within reason to make it work.”

Turner decided to work another season for Snyder knowing it would be his last despite contrary statements on both sides. Snyder spent nearly $100million on free agents and expected to win the NFC championship given the narrow miss by his team the previous season.

But Turner didn’t want to sign George and said later that the issue was the defining moment in his bitter relationship with the owner. Johnson later — and gladly — left the Redskins via free agency and won the Super Bowl last season as the starting quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. George was released by the Redskins the next season after two games.

Turner was used to emotional swings during his 49-59-1 tenure with the Redskins. The franchise was salary-cap poor and its roster riddled with old players and unfortunate draft picks in his early days in 1994.

His 3-13 debut was followed by 6-10 and 9-7 seasons, but the Redskins were twice edged out for the final NFC playoff seed. The Redskins won the NFC East in 1999 — and saved the coach’s job for another year.

“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Turner said. “We came close two or three times to having real good seasons. We won 18 games the last two years and won a division. We did a lot of good things that tend to get lost because of the circumstances [in which his tenure] ended.”

It didn’t help that two high first-round picks in Turner’s early years were busts. Quarterback Heath Shuler (1994) and receiver Michael Westbrook (1995) did little as Redskins.

“Mike showed in 1999 that he was physically capable, but there’s a lot of things that kept him from being the player he could have been,” Turner said. “I don’t think anyone ever questioned Heath’s physical skills. We were a young team, and he was viewed as a savior, and it was overwhelming. The other thing was, he had a number of injuries. I don’t think he was ever going to be a great player, but with some luck he may have been able to make it longer.”

Life in Miami

At 51, Turner hasn’t aged a day since leaving Washington. No gray hair is visible among his thick, dark locks. Even the worry lines around his eyes are gone.

“He may be a little more laid back,” said Dolphins punter Matt Turk, who played five seasons for Turner in Washington. “He’s smiling a little bit more here, but I think everyone who leaves Washington smiles a little more when they go somewhere else.”

Turner knew where to find Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt after Turner rejected Marty Schottenheimer’s offer to remain in San Diego as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2001. Wannstedt and Turner had agreed in 1983, when they were assistants at Southern Cal, to work together whenever possible. They spent two years as assistants with the Cowboys before Wannstedt left to become a head coach with the Chicago Bears and, eventually, the Dolphins.

It was an easy reunion. The two often talk in similar half-sentence fashion. However, they don’t finish each other’s thoughts because they already know what the other is thinking.

“What’s so valuable about being an ex-head coach is Norv’s appreciation and understanding of personnel matters that normal assistants aren’t involved with,” Wannstedt said.

Said Turner: “There’s a relationship with Dave that goes beyond football. It’s personal.”

Turner remains a run-first playcaller, helping Ricky Williams to emerge as one of the NFL’s top rushers. Turner hasn’t found a quarterback as good as the one he had in Dallas, where Troy Aikman became a Pro Bowl passer. Still, Turner no longer talks about “all three phases” of the game because he’s only worried about one.

“I really enjoy what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s not as many things to deal with, but I enjoyed being the head coach and having to deal with all those things.”

Life in Miami is good. Turner attends his son Drew’s football games. The eighth grader is a quarterback — just like his father and older brother Scott, who’s now a backup passer at Nevada-Las Vegas. Turner’s daughter, Stephanie, attends acting school in Los Angeles and has picked up small parts in TV shows like “American Dream.”

Looking ahead

There could be another half-dozen openings for head coaches around the league come January, but Turner doesn’t expect to get one. That’s OK. He believes his chance eventually will come if the Dolphins do well in the playoffs, just as the Cowboys’ consecutive Super Bowl titles helped land him the job with the Redskins.

“Everyone knows these things happen based on someone who’s been in your past that has a positive feeling about you,” he said. “I’m not on any schedule. It’s exciting to know that Dick Vermeil came back from retirement and had success. Bill Parcells came back. There is no age factor. You don’t have to be in a hurry.”

If it never happens, that’s fine, too. Turner is happy with his legacy as one of the NFL’s leading playcallers.

“I’m really proud that you can look at guys in Washington, the Rams or Dallas and they had the best years of their careers when I coached them,” he said. “Deep inside, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. I’ve been able to have a positive impact on a lot of guys’ lives, whether it’s football or non-football.

“If you’ve helped them grow as people, that’s the legacy you want. The people I was involved with in Washington know they got everything I had. That’s all you can ask.”

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