Few surprised by success of intense, competitive Maryland coach Mark Turgeon

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COLLEGE PARK — Before he became a college basketball coach, before he even became a college basketball player, Mark Turgeon's reputation around his home state of Kansas grew rapidly as a result of some of his early accomplishments.

When he was in grade school, so small that most figured he'd have trouble hitting the rim from the free-throw line, Turgeon won a state foul shooting contest by making 24 of 25 shots.


"Missed the first one," the Maryland coach recalled.

A couple of years later, a day after Turgeon's fifth-grade team lost a chance to go to a national YMCA tournament because he missed a free throw, he went to the court behind his family's home and shot free throws for hours — about 500, his father, Bob, said.


Even then, Turgeon seemed to know where he was going. Those who knew Turgeon growing up in Topeka, and are still in touch with him now, are not surprised that the player who used to orchestrate their pickup games is coaching on the sport's biggest stage, in its biggest spotlight. Just as he will be Thursday, when Maryland faces his alma mater, Kansas, in the Sweet 16 in Louisville, Ky.

Bob Turgeon, who built a fully-lit, 65-foot basketball court in his backyard, recalled his son watching an instructional tape made by NBA star Pete Maravich over and over again, "and then we'd be hearing him dribbling off the wall doing these Maravich drills."

And when Turgeon was a junior at Hayden High leading his team to the first of two straight state titles, an upset over a bigger, stronger school from Kansas City prompted the opposing coach to call the smallish point guard "Turgeon the Surgeon" for the way he "carved up" his team's defense.

"It kind of stuck with me from there, right through college," Turgeon said of the nickname.

The college was Kansas — the team he captained under Hall of Famer Larry Brown and as a junior helped Danny Manning lead to the 1986 Final Four.

It is now the team that stands in the way of the fifth-seeded Terps in this year's NCAA tournament, which began last Tuesday with 68 teams and is down to 16.

Seeded first in the South Region, Kansas (32-4) finished the regular season ranked at the top of both polls. Maryland (27-8), once ranked as high as second in the country, slipped to 18th in the final Associated Press media poll.

Being the underdog


Turgeon, 51, has faced seemingly impossible odds before.

It started when he left Topeka for Lawrence, Kan., as a freshman in college. Brown, who had just replaced Ted Owens as Jayhawks coach, agreed to give Turgeon a one-year tryout as a scholarship player.

With braces on his teeth and his shorts taken in by his grandmother so they wouldn't fall off, Turgeon's first game as a college basketball player was against the famed "Phi Slama Jama" team at Houston. It was 1983 and the Cougars were on their way to reaching the Final Four for a third straight year with the likes of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

"I was real naïve," Turgeon said. "I was the third point guard to go in the game. I was so [angry] at Coach Brown. Here I was this little skinny kid playing the team that had lost in the national championship game [to North Carolina State].

"I was little and [Houston point guard] Alvin Franklin kind of started laughing at me and it really [upset me]. Because it made me mad, I actually played well. And we got hammered pretty good. I learned the highest level of basketball right out of the gate and where we had to go."

At least a head shorter than most of his friends going into Hayden High, Turgeon's growth spurt came after his sophomore year when he sprouted nine inches to about 5 feet 9. He took over as the starting point guard that winter.


"Once he became the point guard, we went to a different level in terms of our team being really good. Our senior year we ended up being undefeated and winning the state," said Rob Reilly, Turgeon's lifelong friend who played on every team with him from second grade through high school.

Reilly said Turgeon will take that same feeling of confidence into the KFC Yum! Center against the Jayhawks and convey it successfully to his Maryland players.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we're talking Thursday night about Maryland going to the Elite Eight," Reilly said.

A known opponent

In what is easily the most important game for the Terps since Turgeon arrived, the inner conflict is understandable considering the opponent. So are some nagging doubts, since Turgeon never beat the Jayhawks in six games while at Texas A&M.

"Knowing Mark, I don't think that's going to be a problem. I think he will be all-Maryland Thursday," Reilly said. "That said, he grew up as big a KU fan as anybody. He's a Jayhawk inside. … But I don't think there's going to be an issue trying to beat the socks off the Jayhawks."


Said Bob Turgeon, "I think he wants to win really bad because of the beatings he's taken at A&M. Allen Field House is a big place to play and some of those kids never played in that kind of environment. I think the Maryland kids are OK with that. He didn't have as good a team there as he has now."

Earlier this season, the day after the Jayhawks battled Oklahoma into three overtimes before surviving, Turgeon was asked for his thoughts and he kept using the pronoun "we" to talk about Kansas. From that standpoint, it could be one of the most difficult games than any he has coached, from an emotional standpoint.

Turgeon insists facing Kansas doesn't resonate with him like it once did,

"It really doesn't," he said. "The first time I coached against Kansas, it was weird. But that was at Texas A&M and I've done it [six times], so it's really not about that. It's about the Sweet Sixteen. We're playing the No. 1 seed in the whole tournament, not just our bracket, and it's a great opportunity for us."

Competitiveness among friends

Tim McGivern, who grew up in Topeka with Turgeon and is now a lobbyist in Washington, said the word that describes his longtime friend is "intense," but in a good way.


"He's intense because he's serious about the sport, about the game," McGivern said. "At the same time, Mark is a hell of a good person. He's a very sensitive guy, and I think that shows. Mark cares about winning. There ain't no doubt about that. Mark cares more about his players than about what the damn scores have been."

Reilly said that it's a trait Turgeon got from his father, who founded the Capital City Youth Basketball League with Reilly's dad when their sons were small and later coached their Amateur Athletic Union and summer league teams as they became more competitive. The elder Turgeon lives in Lincoln, Neb., but has been a presence at Maryland games since his son took the job.

Mark Turgeon said a lot of what he did on the court in Topeka, and later in Lawrence, is still transferable to what he does with the Terps.

"Almost everything, to be honest with you," Turgeon said. "You are who you are and you hope your personality comes out on your teams. I like to think I was an attention-to-detail guy as a player. Had to be; was so little. I just think that everything I've learned from my mentors, plus my personality, comes out in my teams."

Turgeon credits the group of friends he grew up with, and their collective competitiveness, for the success he has had as a Division I coach at Wichita State, Texas A&M and now at Maryland.

That competitiveness and disdain for losing carried over to the early part of Turgeon's coaching career, beginning with a four-year stint coaching the junior varsity team at Kansas that included traveling with the varsity team.


"When I was a young coach, I was pretty demanding, probably not a lot of fun to play for," said Turgeon, who began his career as a head coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State. "I've learned over the years to dial it back. I realize the sun's going to come up."

Having children of his own — sons Will and Leo, and daughter Ella — had a tremendous influence on Turgeon.

"I think that changed everything," Turgeon said. "I don't want people treating my kids [badly]. I try to treat each player with respect. I'm demanding still, but I do it in a different tone than when I first started."

A crossroads for the Terps

This has not been the easiest season for the Terps. The early season hype faded after Maryland went from its best start in school history at 15-1 and from 22-3 to losing four of its last six regular-season games.

After beating Hawaii on Sunday to reach the school's first Sweet 16 since 2003, Turgeon said he felt the late-season struggles would eventually help the Terps.


Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble said the message from Turgeon has been consistent.

"Focus and have fun and enjoy the moment," Trimble said last week."It's been a long season. We had a lot of up-and-downs, but throughout this whole season he just wants us to have fun because we don't always get moments like this."

If anything, Turgeon tries to take the pressure off his players and put it on himself. It doesn't always work.

"I've always been really hard on myself. It's one of the worst things I do," he said. "Because I critique myself so hard, I critique my team the same way. No one could ever put the pressure on me that I put on myself or my team. I said that when things were going well."

There has long been the question about what would happen if Kansas coach Bill Self left for the NBA, would Turgeon get the first call? Whether that's still the case is uncertain — the idea of Self leaving seems more unlikely — but it has to pop into Turgeon's mind.

"He seems very comfortable coaching for Maryland, he's very happy," McGivern said. "They like living [in the D.C. area]. I posed the question, 'Would he ever go back to Kansas?' And it was not a, 'Hell no,' but they didn't leave me with any doubt that they were right where they want to be."