The football players at Fort Worth North Side didn’t seem to mind that Joseph Turner only had two years of coaching experience, or that he wasn’t even 30 years old.
When the search began for the Steers’ new coach this spring, their suggestions to principal Antonio Martinez were the same.
“I can’t tell you how many boys came by to stick their head in and say, ‘Mr. Martinez, we would love to play for Coach Turner,’” Martinez said. “They automatically flocked to him.”
Searching for a way to rejuvenate the struggling program, Martinez picked the players’ choice and hired Turner, a former starting running back at TCU who’s been an assistant at North Side the past two seasons.
The 28-year-old, who officially started last month, has one of the toughest coaching jobs in North Texas.
The Steers haven’t had a winning season in 31 years and haven’t made the playoffs since 1979, the third longest postseason drought in Class 5A, according to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
They lost their last six games last season, but with Turner in his first year as offensive coordinator, a 3-1 start was a sign of life.
From 2010 through 2013, the team went 2-37, with one win coming by forfeit.
Their meager results have been a combination of familiar hurdles faced by Fort Worth schools: Low turnout, aging facilities, limited financial resources — all of which are amplified when compared to suburban schools in the area.
None of those factors, though, turned away Turner, who grew up in an apartment on the east side of Austin. His single mother, who had Turner and his two brothers by the age of 20, worked multiple jobs.
“Years would go by where we would see her when we’d wake up in the morning,” Turner said, “and we wouldn’t see her again until we’re getting ready to go to sleep.”
While Turner grew into one of the best athletes at LBJ High School — he was 6-foot-1, 195 pounds as a freshman, and ran the 100 meters in under 11 seconds — he never considered college until TCU called him his junior year. Coach Gary Patterson visited his school, and a few weeks later, the Horned Frogs called with a scholarship offer. Turner committed over the phone.
He tore his ACL his senior season, but TCU honored the offer, and by the next summer, he was headed to Fort Worth.
After redshirting, he saw backup reps in 2006 and then led TCU in rushing the next three seasons. His senior year, after rehabbing another ACL injury, he rushed for 754 yards and 11 touchdowns, as the Horned Frogs reached the Fiesta Bowl.
But when the NFL wasn’t an option, Turner needed a job to support his fiancee and 1-year-old daughter. He found one, and for six months, he changed out lightbulbs for the TCU physical plant.
“Making $8.75 an hour, just trying to make ends meet,” Turner said. “There wasn’t a lightbulb I didn’t know how to put in.”
He then took a housekeeping management job at a hospital, but when that became shaky, his wife suggested he try coaching. North Side was the first to offer a job and, as with his commitment to TCU, he accepted on the spot.
“I’ve never really had the opportunity to have a lot of time to decide what I was doing,” he said.
He quickly found he could relate to the players. He was younger than most coaches, and he grew up in a similar socio-economic situation.
“A lot of stuff they’re going through, I’ve been through,” he said. “I come from the same kind of environment, if not a tad bit worse, so I’m able to talk to them about everything.”
If Turner can connect with North Side students, perhaps he can convince them football can become something at a school where soccer is the most popular sport. Martinez grew up on the North Side and has seen how soccer can galvanize the community, as football does in most Texas towns.
He hopes football can gain similar traction.
“I’ve told Coach Turner, football starts the year,” Martinez said. “Football can set the tone for the way the school year starts and how the school year goes, at least the first semester.”
But here’s Turner’s reality: He lost 23 seniors from a team that went 3-7, and for the next six weeks, he won’t have a practice field, as the district installs artificial turf. In August, he’ll have to move the team’s first practices to a middle school or Farrington Field.
In the meantime, he has designed a lifting program more similar to the one at TCU. The two white boards in his office are covered in daily schedules. North Side’s offense is “about a third or a fourth” of what the Frogs ran when he was there, but last year, it was an improvement. Next week, Buffalo Bills defensive end and former TCU star Jerry Hughes will meet with players.
The small steps, Turner said, are the ones he knows he has to take first.
“I plan on being successful by longevity,” he said. “It takes time. It takes years.”
Ryan Osborne, 817-390-7760