Turgeon eager for the challenge of building on Gary Williams' legacy
New UM coach has never lacked for confidence since his days as an undersized point guard at Kansas
In his first game as Maryland's coach, Mark Turgeon guided the Terps to an 89-84 win over Northwood. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / November 4, 2011)
If Turgeon was the type to be cowed by a challenge, he would never have tried to play point guard for mighty Kansas as a short, scrawny teenager with braces on his teeth. He would never have left his comfortable job as an NBA assistant to become head coach at Jacksonville State in rural Alabama, which had just finished 308th out of 309 Division I men's teams.
"I don't have a problem filling anyone's shoes," says the wiry Midwesterner with the sharp, prominent nose. "If the price had been right, I would've taken the Lakers job last year."
He's not bragging exactly. It's just that, as he's talking, the start of practice is three days away and Turgeon is about to do the thing he loves best in the world — teach basketball. After three head coaching stops and five NCAA tournament appearances in the last six seasons, he's pretty sure he knows what he's doing.
"I was on the phone with [his college coach] Larry Brown the other morning, and he said, 'Don't change. Do all the things that have gotten you here,'" Turgeon says. "We rebound, we defend and we play together on offense. It's led to a lot of wins. I'm a lot more comfortable today than I was 10 years ago in my coaching style."
Turgeon knows expectations are low for the Terps' season, which begins Sunday with a home game against UNC-Wilmington. He knows that his tenure in College Park still carries an unrealistic glow because he has yet to lose a game. But his self-assurance does not feel like an act. It feels hard won, the product of years serving at the knees of basketball masters and winning games in sub-optimal environments.
"He got where he did because of his mental toughness and his brain," says Tad Boyle, a close friend who played with Turgeon at Kansas, worked for him as an assistant and coached against him at Colorado. "He has a deep belief in himself."
Turgeon, 46, will need every bit of his experience and confidence. He's taking over a Maryland team that struggled last season and then lost its best player, Jordan Williams, to the NBA. The Terps haven't made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2003. Despite his prodigious coaching record, Williams faced constant talk that he had stopped signing top high school players because he didn't put enough effort into recruiting. Meanwhile, the entire athletic department is under scrutiny for its inability to keep revenues apace with expenses.
So Turgeon finds himself in the tricky position of replacing a legend while also trying to lift the university's signature program.
Though he was initially derided by some as an unsexy choice, players, alumni and the coaches of top recruits say he has attacked the mission with aplomb.
"I love Gary Williams, but at the same time, all of us, including Gary, recognized the need for a change," says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of the university's most powerful advocates. "I'm very enthusiastic [about Turgeon]. It looks like we're going to have a top 15 recruiting class, which is remarkable given the amount of time he's been here. My only worry is that Kansas will try to take him back from us at some point."
"I'm blown away by how good he is," says Rick Jaklitsch, a Prince George's County attorney and former president of the university's booster club. "You wouldn't think the transition from Gary Williams could possibly be this seamless, but I see a lot of similarities between them, that intensity."
Turgeon recently allowed top donors to sit in on a film session with the team and then hosted them for cocktails at his Chevy Chase home. "He made us feel like part of his family," Jaklitsch says.
The players, most of whom were recruited by Williams, say Turgeon also won their confidence quickly.
They have grown accustomed to his frank criticism of their performance. "He's soft-spoken," says sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin, who has heard rebukes of his shot selection and defense. "But when he gets angry, he's up there with Coach Williams."
At the same time, they say his talk of a family atmosphere is genuine.
Senior swingman Sean Mosley was impressed that Turgeon, shortly after his hiring, met with the player's father. "When he came in, the first thing was, 'It's a family,'" says the former Baltimore high school star. "And when Coach Turgeon said that, my eyes lit up."
Improbable career at Kansas
To understand the depth of Turgeon's confidence, you have to go back to his playing career.