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At Jacksonville State, Terps' Mark Turgeon learned to wrestle with head coaching demands

At Jacksonville State, Terps' Mark Turgeon learned to wrestle with head coaching demands
Jacksonville State assistant coach Tad Boyle, left, and head coach Mark Turgeon take on Georgia State. (Jacksonville State)

When his Maryland men's basketball team plays its final nonconference home game of the season Monday, against Jacksonville State at Xfinity Center, Mark Turgeon could have a flashback to his first head coaching job.

Turgeon was a 33-year-old NBA assistant when Bill Jones, who had won 449 games in 25 seasons at the small Alabama school and led the Gamecocks to the Division II national title in 1985, retired in 1998. Then working as Larry Brown's video coordinator with the Philadelphia 76ers, Turgeon decided to leave a city of 1.5 million with his wife, Ann, pregnant with the first of their three children, for a town of about 10,000 and the start of a head coaching career.

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"I was really excited. I was really naive. I liked the simplicity of it," Turgeon recalled Friday. "Just kind of rolling your sleeves up, and recruit the best you can and change some thinking. It was a great two years. We got a lot done."

Former Jacksonville State athletic director Joe Davidson, who knew of Turgeon only as a former Kansas point guard, didn't think he would be interested in leaving a position in the NBA to coach a team that was barred from the postseason the year after moving up from Division II.

Davidson recalled telling Lee Hunt, a longtime college coach who had recommended Turgeon, " 'Hell, I can't get him. He's with the Sixers.' When I spoke to Mark, he said, 'I can be there at anytime.' He came down three days later and accepted the job."

Ann Turgeon, who grew up in Chicago and met her future husband when she was a student at Kansas, said she recalled wondering what they were doing going to a place the locals call the "Gem of the Hills."

"I never thought in a million years that we'd leave Philadelphia to go there," said Ann, who had just been hired as a kindergarten teacher. "That was going to be a hard move for me. There were a lot of tears going there."

Two years later, when Turgeon was hired at Wichita State and the family had to leave friends whom they have remained close to, the reaction was nearly the same.

"In our little neighborhood, we were so embraced," Ann said. "Everyone took care of everyone. For me, it was a year of being pregnant [with son Will]. We had such a community around us."

With a staff that included assistant coach Tad Boyle, a former teammate of Turgeon's at Kansas who is now the coach at Colorado and remains one of his closest friends, the Gamecocks improved from 8-18 in Turgeon's first year to 17-11 in their second.

"We ended up losing a home game late in the year and we didn't finish first in the league. That's my biggest regret, because I don't have a banner hanging up and I have a losing record" at the school, Turgeon said.

What Josh Bryant remembers are Turgeon's work ethic and willingness to do whatever it took to convince some of the state's top high school players to give Jacksonville State a chance, even when bigger like Alabama and Auburn were interested.

"What sticks out to me today was that nobody outworked him," recalled Bryant, who was Turgeon's first big recruit. "He demanded a lot out of us, but also at the same time, we could see ourselves improve as players."

Bryant said Turgeon and Boyle once showed up at his house in Hatton, Ala., and promptly started to undress. They knew Bryant was a big wrestling fan.

"Coach Turgeon and Coach Boyle came in wearing suits," recalled Bryant, the state's Class 2A player of the year in 1999. "He's sitting in my house and he says, 'Josh, it's hot in here. Do you mind if I take my jacket off?' He takes his jacket off, he starts undoing his tie and he takes his dress shirt off."

Underneath, both Turgeon and Boyle were wearing a T-shirt with the likeness of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Bryant's favorite wrestler, on it. Bryant passed on an offer from Alabama and some interest from Indiana to commit to the Gamecocks.

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"I think I was a good get for him," said Bryant, now a high school coach in Florence, Ala. "He sold me on him and the things he could do. He was just a relentless worker. … It was a great experience playing for him."

Bryant is still in touch with Turgeon, whom he calls a "major influence" on his becoming a high school coach. On the wall of the Central High gymnasium in Florence are the words "Play hard, play smart, play together," a mantra Maryland has used for the past three seasons.

In replacing Jones, who was to Jacksonville State what Gary Williams was to Maryland, Turgeon took over with the same confidence that he later did in succeeding the Terps' future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer in 2011.

"I've always been comfortable in my own skin," Turgeon said. "I was ready to take over the world, and nothing fazed me."

Those who know Turgeon from his two years in Jacksonville said he was the same feisty sideline presence and compassionate coach he still is today.

"He was a players' coach, and from what I hear now, he's still a players' coach," said Davidson, who works in athletic administration as Samford in Birmingham, Ala. "You would figure that with all the success he's had and the kind of money he makes, he could act like he's big time, but he doesn't. He's still the same. Nothing's changed."

The last time Davidson saw Turgeon was for a Maryland road game at Alabama in quarterfinals of the 2013 National Invitation Tournament, a trip to New York hanging in the balance.

After the Terps survived, Davidson visited with Turgeon. In Turgeon's first year at Jacksonville State, he had been ejected from a game in Tuscaloosa. "I told him: 'Well, it went a little bit better this time than it did the last time,' " Davidson said.

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