Commentary

Leading the charge

What does Norv Turner need to do to get some respect around here?

Updated: January 6, 2010, 8:27 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN The Magazine

George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesIt may take a Super Bowl for Turner to get his due.

When you're stuck with the name Norv and your hair looks like it was styled by Bill Gates and you're skinny enough to fax yourself places, you're not going to intimidate anybody in the NFL.

Which is why the San Diego Charger's Norv Turner -- the hottest coach in the league the past three years -- continues to be about as famous as a Des Moines podiatrist. The man has been in one ad in San Diego during his tenure.

But here's what he has done in San Diego: He's won three AFC West titles in his three seasons, has won every game he's coached in December and has the longest winning streak in the league at 11 (including wins over Dallas, Philly, Cincy, the Giants and Denver). Yet you never hear so much as a cough about him for Coach of the Year. This might be because he doesn't look like a coach. He looks like an accountant waiting for a bus.

"I've been told I look more like an English teacher," Norv says.

"You need to smile more," his wife, Nancy, tells him.

"He won't toot his own horn like other coaches," says his son Drew, 20.

Me, I think it's his news conferences. He stumbles, he stammers, he starts over. He makes Elmer Fudd sound like a toastmaster. "Around the guys, he's not like that at all," says a team exec. "He's funny and dynamic. But something happens in front of the media and I think people underestimate him because of it."

Give you an example: Here is his exact full answer when I asked, "Do you wish you were more polished in front of the media?"

Norv: "I just wanna be, and that's -- I wanna be, I think I'd like people knowin' what I'm really like, and bein' real, and this game -- and you know I'm respectful of the multimedia aspect of the sport -- and the league does a great job. Some of it I do enjoy doing, and I've watched it back, you need to smile more. But I've been on both sides. You open up a little bit and I've obviously been in places -- you've struggled -- you're too light and you're too this. So, I enjoy the media, it's probably, you know, I probably should."

So at least we cleared that up.

Norv's curses are three:

1. That name, which is short for Norval, which was also the name of his grandfather, who was long dead by the time he was born. "So I never got to ask him how he liked it," he says, ruefully. "My brother and I are very grateful nobody named us Norv," says Drew. One day in the locker room this season, guys were asking tailback LaDainian Tomlinson -- whose wife is pregnant -- what they were going to name the baby. Turner chimed in that he had some ideas, but when a player asked if the name Norv was on the list, he answered, "Hey, I'm STILL mad at my mom over that one."

2. His "Leave It to Beaver" haircut, which hasn't changed since the 1970s, complete with cowlick. "Well," Norv says, "the headset doesn't help."

3. A lousy agent. His first two head-coaching jobs in the league were under arguably the two most difficult owners in pro sports -- Daniel Snyder in Washington and Al Davis in Oakland. He lost in both places and was labeled a loser. That's like divorcing Charlie Sheen and being called a bad wife. The Redskins just hired their sixth coach since Norv and none of them have had a better finish than his 10-6 in 1999. The Raiders, meanwhile, are working on their third post-Norv coach with no end to the suffering in sight, and we all know why.

Would he recommend that his son Scott, an assistant at Pitt, take the Raiders' job? "Uh, no," Norv says.

Really, if you inherited an NFL team tomorrow, how could you do better than Norv? He's tight with his team. He has "the steadiness, the never-flinch leadership and attitude," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has said. He's seen it all. (Among current NFL coaches, only Jeff Fisher, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and just-hired Mike Shanahan have more seasons under their belts.) He's arguably the finest playcaller in the league, having been the brains behind the great Dallas Cowboys' Super Bowl teams (Troy Aikman had Norv present him at the Hall of Fame) and having run NFL offenses, as a coach and coordinator, for 19 seasons.

He is a good man worth rooting for. He is a man who's known loss. His father ditched the family when Norv was 2. His mother suffered from MS and died of cancer. His older brother, Richard, died suddenly in his sleep. His sister now has MS. And yet Norv remains sunny and grounded and humble.

Which is why what you'd like to see now is for Norv to go out and win a Super Bowl.

If he does? Might he let loose a whole entire smile for the cameras?

"Let's not get carried away," he says.


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