Turgeon stays course
A year ago, many questioned the Terps coach’s job security. Now his team could be a preseason No. 1.
Two weekends ago, Mark Turgeon was at a friend’s wedding when the toasts began. There would be laughter and memories, but the occasion made Turgeon’s mind wander.
This happens sometimes now. He blames it on his age. Anyway, as he sat there, the 50-year-old Maryland men’s basketball coach imagined someday attending the wedding of one of his kids. He has two boys and a girl, and in his mind, a sibling took the microphone and asked for raised glasses. Memories were shared: about those magical, carefree summers spent together on the beach, everyone smiling and together — everyone, of course, except for their dad.
“Those are the hard ones for me,” Turgeon said recently, holding back tears as he told the imaginary story. “And they’re used to it. They accept it. The whole thing is, I just never lie to them.”
He has, in fairness, been busy. Turgeon has been the head coach at four programs these past 17 years, and each of the past seasons seems to have been preparing him for the one that begins this fall. A little more than a year ago, Turgeon’s job security was a popular topic— a15-loss season during the program’s 2013-14 ACC farewell tour tends to have that effect. This summer, the coach is looking back on a crossroads season and ahead to a possible No. 1 preseason ranking.
He executed the turnaround not by panicking or making impossible promises. In fact, in one way, he has rebuilt Maryland in the same way he runs his family: by being realistic and honest because Turgeon doesn’t likemaking — or, worse, breaking— promises.
“I’m just myself,” Turgeon said in his College-Park office, “because that never gets me in trouble.”
This time of year, when the games are months away in either direction, is mostly quiet. He has time to think, to hope, to regret. Sure, his program is in good shape and his future at Maryland seems secure — he has four years left on his initial contract — but what is he missing? As his kids grow, Turgeon is usually at the basketball office; when he’s at home, recruiting calls often pull him away. On a recent Thursday evening, he gave a speech in Baltimore while his eldest son, Will, played another basketball game without his father in the stands; Turgeon’s wife and two younger children were away at the beach. Turgeon can’t remember whether he attended last year’s vacation. He figures he probably didn’t.
He said his family understands, enjoying the loud nights at the arena in exchange for Dad hedging on whether he will attend family functions.
“I’ve learned over the years to be like: ‘I hope to make it, but something could come up,’ ” he said.
This is the life atop a major college basketball program: competing interests and the pursuit of continual improvement, and besides, no one weeps for the man earning $2 million a year. Turgeon dislikes recruiting, the dueling necessity and isolation of it, but he learned decades ago that there are two ways to earn the trust of prospects and therefore build a program: with candor and face-toface discussions. ‘What am I doing here?’
When Turgeon was a point guard at the University of Kansas in the mid-1980s, coach Larry Brown taught him honesty wasn’t just the principled thing; it was a time saver, too. When a skinny but ambitious Turgeon shared his NBA dreams with Brown, the coach scoffed and explained that his basketball future was in coaching, not playing.
Turgeon took Brown’s advice, and in part because he didn’t waste years languishing in Europe or on an NBA bench, he was a head coach at age 33.
Wha the lacked in charisma and tournament wins, he made up for in sincerity. As he would do at home later, Turgeon preferred to hedge rather than promise. Sure, a player might have a chance to start, but what would that player tell the next group of prospects if Turgeon broke a vow? Time passed, and if his consistent way turned off some recruits, it drew many more to him.
After a while, Turgeon was attracting somany out-of-his-league recruits at Jacksonville State, his first job, that Lefty Driesell, the legendary Maryland coach who was finishing his career at Georgia State, pulled Turgeon aside and told him to keep doing what he was doing. Turgeon took his philosophy to Wichita State and then Texas A&M, his young family growing and moving with him as he climbed. The demands increased, the list of recruiting calls grew longer and the competition for prospects intensified.
“You get so used to working,” Turgeon said, “that you don’t think it’s work.”
He took the Maryland job in 2011, another step forward in prestige and pressure. Change came slowly, and Turgeon often felt the competing pull of his professional and personal lives. Almost always, basketball and his competitive nature won out.
He was on the road scouting a recruit a few years ago when his phone kept lighting up. Will had made the winning shot during his basketball game, and here Turgeon sat, experiencing his son’s big moment via his wife’s text messages. He escaped into the gymnasium hallway so no one would see him cry. “What am I doing here?” Turgeon remembered thinking.
But he continues to immerse himself in work, determined to turn the program’s fortunes. Though he spent time with his family, avoiding work discussion and committing to going home earlier at least during the summer months, Turgeon still felt guilty. Vacations came and went, lacrosse and baseball games discussed only in past tense.
“It’s like I’m there,” he said, “but I’mnot there.” ‘No smoke and mirrors’
Then the 2013-14 season began, Turgeon’s third in College Park, and nothing seemed right. Maryland went 9-9 in ACC games, blown out by Florida State and Pittsburgh, edged by Clemson and Syracuse. The Terrapins missed the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year, and five players left the program in the offseason.
Turgeon’s father, Bob, couldn’t help himself from reading the Internet chatter sometimes, calling to ask how his son was holding up as fans speculated whether he was equal to the task.
“‘Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,’ ” Bob Turgeon said his son told him, but a father always knows the truth. “It was damn rough on him, too. He just didn’t act like it.”
By June 2014, that third season behind them, those within the basketball office adopted an organizational philosophy to essentially ignore the 2013-14 season. Players and coaches avoided references to it, and even now program officials rarely speak about those 32 games. More than a year later, Mark Turgeon is careful about how he describes his third year in College Park.
“When I’m on the court, it’s the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “And I wasn’t happy every day. . . . We just didn’t fit together.”
Turgeon needed change, and he leaned again on his well-used philosophy: targeting talented yet unentitled players — those who, like Turgeon had been since his days at Kansas, preferred to get to work rather than chase false promises.
That appealed to Bob Stone, whose son, Diamond, was ranked amongthe nation’s top 10 recruits. Turgeon was passionate during games but level-headed off the court. The Stones crafted a list of coaches whose personalities made sense for Diamond: Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford, Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie and Turgeon. Ollie took an early lead, but then Turgeon arrived, needing a big recruiting victory but calmly outlining how the young center could improve his game and strengthen his body. Stone signed with the Terrapins, who finally returned to the NCAA tournament in April.
“No smoke and mirrors— that’s what appealed to Diamond,” Bob Stone said. Turgeon “has that real side to him.”
About a month after Stone signed, Rasheed Sulaimon announced his intention to transfer to Maryland. Sulaimon, who in January became the first player to be dismissed during Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 35-year tenure at Duke, has known Turgeon since Sulaimon was in seventh grade; nonetheless, the coach said, the player’s background was vetted.
“Our university was very thorough,” Turgeon said.
His roster mostly in place, Turgeon could celebrate. He did so with Will, his elder son, who’s 15 and old enough to follow recruiting and see his dad’s program taking shape.
They have talked about next season and what it will be like on opening night at Xfinity Center, andif all this is possible, then what else might be? A while back Turgeon’s family asked whether, just this once, he could commit to joining them this summer at the beach— maybe show his face for a change in a few photographs or memories.
Timing-wise, it was lousy, keeping Turgeon from his young team shortly before the most anticipated season of his coaching career.
He promised to be there anyway.
“I’m justmyself because that never gets me in trouble,” Maryland CoachMark Turgeon said.