Tur­geon stays course

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY KENT BABB kent.babb@wash­post.com

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.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

“I’m just­my­self be­cause that never gets me in trou­ble,” Mary­land CoachMark Tur­geon said.

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