MIAMI – If Ron Turner had taken the stairs, who knows who would be coaching at FIU this season.
The story goes like this: Turner just happened to be in an elevator late last year with Butch Davis, who is close with FIU executive director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia, who just happened to be looking for a football coach. Davis asked Turner if he could envision a return to coaching in college. Turner said he would if the right opportunity came along.
A few days later, he was the coach at FIU.
Turner is taking over for Mario Cristobal, who was fired after the Panthers went 3-9 last season and is now on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama. The team has left the Sun Belt and is moving to Conference USA. There's new schemes all over the place, and external expectations couldn't be lower.
"We're not where we want to be. We're not where we need to be," said Turner, whose last experience as a collegiate head coach was at Illinois, getting fired there in 2004. "But we don't have to be today. We're getting better. We're better now than we were at any point in the spring."
Turner is thought of as an offensive guru, particularly with quarterbacks.
Jake Medlock is fairly convinced that such a description of Turner would be correct.
Medlock is expected to be the Panthers' quarterback this season, and when he heard that Turner was FIU's choice, he p got online and looked up to see what his new coach's story was.
"The first thing I saw was he coached Peyton Manning," Medlock said. "When I read that, I was ecstatic. Coach Turner has been everywhere in the NFL, college, he's done it all. He's coached a lot of great players. To learn from him, I'm very lucky. It's a blessing to have him as my head coach and I'm very excited."
Turner's spread offense came with a steep learning curve for Medlock, who had to re-learn the basics of his position, such as handing the ball off and how to throw the ball with touch.
"We're starting at ground zero," Turner said. "And I believe we're the youngest team in the country, as far as experience goes. Everything's new. We're starting anew."
Five things to watch during the Panthers' season:
1. WHO RUNS IT?: Kedrick Rhodes probably would have had a chance to be a 1,000-yard back for the Panthers this season, but got kicked off the team this summer after an arrest for firing a gun on campus. And with that, the Panthers lost what likely would have been their most dependable option this season. Look for the Panthers to establish at least a couple options in the backfield over the first couple games in 2013.
2. DEFENSIVE HOPE: FIU gave up at least 28 points in each of its first eight games last season. (For comparison's sake, Boise State, even with its reputation as an offensive juggernaut, gave up 28 points one time in 2012.) The Panthers found a way to tighten things up considerably down the stretch, giving up 14, 20, 24 and then 23 points in the final four games and going 2-2 over that span. The returning players on that side of the ball might have at least some confidence.
3. EARLY TESTS: If the Panthers are any better than 1-3 after September, then that would have to be considered a big bonus. FIU opens at Maryland, then opens the home schedule against Central Florida and — after playing host to lower-level Bethune-Cookman — heads to Louisville to wrap up the season's first month. The good news for FIU: The Panthers probably should have beaten Louisville last season. The bad news for FIU: There is absolutely no chance that the Cardinals have forgotten that scare.
4. TURNER'S STAMP: New FIU coach Ron Turner sounds like he'll be patient — to a point, anyway — with the Panthers this season. He doesn't talk to the team about what happened last season, when the Panthers were widely thought of as a Sun Belt favorite and a lock for a bowl bid. A 3-9 record ultimately cost Mario Cristobal his job as coach, a decision that some at FIU thought was hasty. Turner's biggest task in 2013 will be turning the page and transforming the Panthers into his program.
5. MEDLOCK'S TIME: Quarterback Jake Medlock was up-and-down in his first two seasons, but here's one stat that jumps out: He's thrown 319 passes in college, and only three have been intercepted. He'll have to continue keeping those giveaways to a minimum this year.
Predicted finish in Conference USA's East Division: Seventh.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/