Joe Turbeville steps inside the small, second-story office in his Irmo home and begins to reflect.
Surrounding him are more than five decades worth of memories, a collection of honors that shaped and molded the 73-year-old into the revered football coach he is. Trophies and game balls sit on a shelf high above the far wall. Pictures line the rest of the room, the paint underneath barely visible as history bursts from the walls around him.
Turbeville says he does not come in the room often to reminisce. There are too many moments to devote much recollection to. From championships and Shrine Bowls to press clippings and team photos, a virtual prep football museum stands inside the room.
But now, as Turbeville prepares to enter the S.C. Football Coaches Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class Friday, he finds himself back in this quaint space, looking back on the 40 years as a player and coach that helped define him as one of the state’s most esteemed football minds.
Off in the far corner, a small, framed cross-stitch made by his wife Sandra uses a handful of words to summarize Turbeville and his career.
It is a poem the coach discovered while at Spring Valley in the early 1970s, as he flipped the pages in a Bear Bryant book two days before the Vikings’ state championship game. In there, he came across the popular poem “Thinking,” penned by Walter D. Wintle. The final verse reads:
“Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the man who wins
is the one who thinks he can.”
Airport High coach Kirk Burnett sees much of his old boss in that poem. He was with Turbeville from 1989 to 1993 at Irmo, where the coach claimed his fifth and final state title in 1980. Back then, Burnett was the young, energetic coach eager to break into the head coaching ranks. To do so, he figured, he would need to outwork the man who hired him.
“I always wanted to beat him to school on Saturday,” he recalled. “I’ll be daggummit if I got there at 6 a.m. on Saturday and he had already beaten me there. I thought, ‘Geez, I can’t win.’
“ … It’s just amazing back then, when I was a young gun trying to beat the head man there on a Saturday morning after a Friday night game to grade my tapes and get organized, that old man still beat me to school.”
Such was life working under the legendary Turbeville, who finished his career with a 239-99 record over three decades as the coach at Winnsboro, Spring Valley and Irmo. His players might never have been the strongest or fastest, but seldom were they unprepared or outcoached.
“He was always on the cutting edge. He was ahead of his time, in other words, as far as offensively and organization-wise,” said Spring Valley coach Jerry Brown, who played and coached under Turbeville. “He was always a student of the game and was always willing to try, look at different things and change, whereas a lot of coaches like their system more than they like the players.
“He adjusted his system to the players. He was always adapting and changing the offense and other aspects.”
Turbeville won wherever he went. From Ellis Johnson’s improvised two-point conversion in the 1969 title game, when Winnsboro beat Strom Thurmond 15-14, to the three consec utive crowns he earned at Spring Valley from 1973-75. Those sparked the first title games to be played at Williams-Brice Stadium after having previously been held inside the Vikings’ Harry Parone Stadium.
“After we got in it three years,” Turbeville said, “they decided that wasn’t such a neutral site anymore.”
“I’ve never played for a coach that was that prepared, was that organized,” said Del Wilkes, a former USC All-American. “ … His attention to detail, his preparation and translating that to players. The reason he’s been so successful at every place he’s been is because of those things.”
Turbeville is quick to redirect credit to his players. But five state titles and nine championship appearances is no coincidence. Turbeville’s guidance, intense preparation and supreme confidence were the driving forces in his dominating run.
“The only secret I had about being a good coach was the better players you have, the better coach you are,” he said. “That was it. I’ve never heard of anybody winning a state championship with bad players. We tried to do some things to get them a little stronger and tougher and motivate them, but back then we had good players.”
On the other end of Turbeville’s football shrine, tucked away between his desk and sofa, is a framed press clipping from The State newspaper. The story, published in anticipation of Turbeville’s last title, focuses on the positive outlookhe carried with him in all walks of life. The piece begins:
“Trying to get Joe Turbeville to say something bad about anybody or anything can be quite a chore. In his 17 years as a high school football coach, the Mullins native has had more ups than downs and the bad times have been quickly forgotten. Winners don’t think about losing.”
Brown saw that both on the field and off. When family troubles set in at home, Turbeville was there for his Winnsboro star. His positive approach to the game and life won over players and coaches.
“My mom died when I was 16 and my dad had already left the family,” Brown recalled. “He was kind of more of a father and parent figure to me. … He was just always around whenever I needed him. He was real supportive.”
He was supportive on the field, too. Brown could be cited as the prime example.
“I couldn’t even run a lap around the field,” he said. ”A lot of coaches didn’t really give me a chance, but he gave me a good chance and worked with me. He told me it’s not how you start but how you finish. And I ended up finishing in the Shrine Bowl my senior year.”
That eternal optimism played a part in Turbeville’s on-field success. No matter the outcome, he always expected the positive.
Burnett can rattle off every time a mentor outsmarted his protege. From the 99-yard touchdown pass he called from the sidelines – when Burnett begged for a draw – to the Hail Mary pass against North Augusta, which led to a double-overtime victory.
“That’s what you have to have in a leader,” Burnett said. “In the bleakest moments, you keep trying and have faith. if we didn’t do it this Friday night, we’ll do it next Friday.”
In truth, the bleak moments were few and far between for Turbeville.
“I think being positive, thinking you can win, that’s it,” he said. “You’ve got to believe in yourself, and I think that’s the real key.”
NEVER FAR AWAY
It has been two decades since Turbeville stalked the Irmo sidelines. But it has not signaled his exit from the game.
“I enjoyed the Friday nights,” he said. “I still enjoy football. I go to pretty much a game every week.”
Turbeville tries to see a former player or assistant coach each Friday. That leaves plenty of options, given the coaching lineage he has left. And when wife Sandra goes to choir practice on Thursday evenings, Turbeville will take in a B-team or junior varsity game.
“I might see four games a week,” he said. “(Sandra) goes to a lot of games with me. She went to all the games; I think in 31 years she missed one game.”
He remains a legend at Irmo games, and a handful of Spring Valley fans still recognize him. He will often find a player in the stands, such as Wilkes, whose son was an offensive lineman for Brookland-Cayce.
The coaches are always quick to find him, and they are seldom timid about tugging his ear for advice.
“I enjoy seeing him, he’s still in great shape,” Burnett said. “ ... He’ll make some comments to me still. ‘Hey, you need to run this.’ ”
Forty years as a player and coach can have that effect. Turbeville remembers vivid details of his playing days and moments as a leader, like persuading Citadel coach Dwight Adams to offer Ellis Johnson a scholarship.
The sheer number of moments do not make them any more difficult to remember. And now, each of them will guide Turbeville into enshrinement into the S.C. Coaches Hall of Fame.
“It’s very special,” he said. “I think all of them are special. I’ve just been very fortunate, because all of them are related to athletics. I’ve enjoyed it.”