Turgeon eager for the challenge of building on Gary Williams' legacy

Know this about Mark Turgeon: He has no reservations, absolutely none, about replacing Gary Williams, the man who resurrected Maryland basketball.

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.

"You just look back to his belief that he could play for Kansas at his physical stature and his ability to follow through on that," Boyle says in explaining his friend.

Turgeon really had no business suiting up for Kansas, a program that has churned out dozens of NBA players and where Brown, one of the most respected basketball minds in history, was head coach in 1983.

He grew up in Topeka as a fervent fan of the Jayhawks, the kind of kid who couldn't remember when he fell in love with the game because he had a ball in his hands before his memory began. His dad, who played on the freshman team at Creighton, took him to local high school games, where Turgeon loved to watch coaches from his perch a few rows behind the bench.

His eventual high school coach, Ben Meseke, first glimpsed Turgeon as a third-grader in a newspaper photograph, which captured the youngster craning his neck so he could hear the inner workings of a sideline huddle. Later, as a freshman built like a pipe cleaner, Turgeon assured the coach that he'd be the one to bring Hayden High its first state championship.

In YouTube clips of his Hayden games, Turgeon looks like a beagle navigating a pack of Great Danes.

But he made good on his promise as a junior and led the Wildcats to another state title as a senior. Turgeon didn't score a ton of points but he was the one who kept all the other players on the same page, who refused to let them sag even when a late shot put them in a tough spot.

"We'd have been lost without him," Meseke says. "I've coached for a million years now, and I've not seen a better leader."

But no one other than Turgeon envisioned anything more than a college career in the lower divisions. No one grasped his absolute determination to forge the life he wanted. Well, maybe Brown did. The famous coach had also been a short, skinny point guard. He made it all the way to the pros on brains and moxie, and he saw much of the same stuff in the Topeka kid demanding a spot on his Kansas team.

Meseke remembers taking Turgeon to meet Brown at Baskin-Robbins. When the Kansas coach asked the kid why he deserved a shot, Turgeon said, "Because I'm better than any guard you've got right now."

Meseke just about spit out his ice cream. Brown loved it.

Boyle remembers the incredulity of older Kansas players when they realized the little guy with braces was their newest teammate. But in an early-season game against Missouri, Turgeon got out on a fast break, faked a pass that froze his defender in place and whizzed by for a lay-up.

"The field house went crazy," Boyle says. "Coach Brown turned around like, 'Did he really just do that?' That was the moment when we all realized this kid was for real."

Turgeon ended up as team captain for two years, playing in the Final Four as a junior.

Eventually, Brown sat Turgeon down and asked about his post-college plans. "I want to play in the NBA," Turgeon said. Brown laughed. No matter how fierce and clever the kid was, he just didn't have the body to play ball beyond Kansas. "I think you'd make a good coach," Brown said.

Just like that, a new path opened.

After graduation, he served as an assistant to Brown for the 1988 Kansas team that won an unlikely national title on the shoulders of Turgeon's buddy, Danny Manning. He continued his apprenticeship under another fabulously successful Kansas coach, Roy Williams, who will now be a chief ACC rival as the head coach at North Carolina.

From Brown, he learned that, "you never stop teaching. Even if a kid is just one step out of place, you tell him, even if it's going to make him upset."

From Williams, he learned to compete at every aspect of running a program, from recruiting to organizing the office.

He also met a student manager named Ann Fowler who, crazy as it seemed, loved the game nearly as much as he did. She hadn't grown up in Kansas, so she didn't know he was a beloved former player. She just liked the way he made her laugh with his sarcastic sense of humor, the way he always seemed to say the right thing, no matter the setting.

When they started dating, she really had no idea she was signing a lifetime contract with the game.

And then he left the grandeur of Kansas basketball to become a higher-ranking assistant at Oregon.

From the heights of coaching to the depths

The Ducks were terrible and worse, no one in Eugene, Ore., seemed to care. Those were the lowest days of Turgeon's coaching career, the only time he questioned his chosen path. "I'm out of this gig," he remembers thinking. "I can do something else."

His future wife challenged him. "I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Ann Turgeon recalls. "One bump in the road and all of a sudden, you're not good enough?"

He stuck it out for five years at Oregon. And then the couple enjoyed a brief respite from the college game in 1997 and 1998, when Turgeon worked as an assistant for Brown with the Philadelphia 76ers. His hours weren't bad, and the city overflowed with pleasant diversions.

But when Jacksonville State — literally the second weakest team in the country according to RPI power rankings — came calling, Ann knew the cushy period was up. Turgeon missed teaching college players, and a head coaching job was his destiny.

Jacksonville State went 8-18 in his first season, anathema to a guy who'd never won fewer than 22 at Kansas. Turgeon was more apt to show his temper then. "I was full of piss and vinegar," he says. "I would fight anyone who'd get in my way."

"I've seen him down," says Boyle, who assisted Turgeon at Jacksonville. "But Mark's not going to be down for long. It gets back to that sense of competition. It's, 'I might have lost this battle but I'm going to win the war. I might have lost this recruit, but I'll find one better.' He's not going to feel sorry for himself, and he's always going to come back for more."

Jacksonville improved to 17-11, and then Turgeon engineered a similar turnaround at Wichita State. But it was at Texas A&M where he learned the pitfalls of replacing a proven winner. College Station, Texas, is a football town that had rarely given a hoot about hoops before Billy Gillispie swept in and steered the Aggies to the Sweet 16. Then Gillispie bolted for Kentucky, leaving Turgeon his first shot at coaching in a big-time conference.

Local reporters accused him of whining that first year as the team floundered in the middle of the season. "I know, no matter what I do, Gillispie is getting credit for the win," he said in an oft-replayed tirade. "If we lose, it's my fault. I'm in a no-flipping win situation this year, and that puts me in a bad mood."

Asked if he will apply lessons from that year to the experience of replacing Williams, Turgeon says he won't hide his feelings in the face of criticism. "I wouldn't take any of those comments back," he says. "I'm not going to let someone kick sand in my face."

His best answers came on the court, where Texas A&M went to four straight NCAA tournaments under his watch. The Turgeons' three children grew up in College Station, and the sudden decision to leave a successful program for Maryland was not easy.

"The thing that made it hard was the team he left behind," Ann Turgeon says. "But I think he always wanted to be at a basketball powerhouse. When [Maryland athletic director] Kevin Anderson called, my heart dropped, because I knew that was what he always wanted."

Filling big shoes

Turgeon was careful after his hiring to pay homage to Williams, who in turn said that he would not hang around the program he rebuilt (despite keeping a job in the athletic department).

But the new coach wasted little time showing that he meant business in recruiting. He brought one assistant, Scott Spinelli, with him from Texas A&M. But for his others, he lured Dalonte Hill from Kansas State and kept Bino Ranson from Williams' staff. Turgeon didn't know either man well, but both have strong ties to youth basketball pipelines in the Baltimore-Washington area. The new coach was, in effect, letting everyone know that he cared more about getting great players than about surrounding himself with familiar faces.

His first major task was to keep City College guard Nick Faust, who had committed to Maryland, but had the right to back out when Williams retired. Faust's mother, Lisa, was in no mood to hear from Maryland after Williams' abrupt retirement.

"We just don't trust any coaches right now," she shouted at Turgeon the first time they spoke.

"I told her, 'Lisa, if Nick doesn't come, I won't be here in two or three years,'" he recalls. "She laughed."

Faust stayed.

"I think it was just the feeling that he's a secure coach," the freshman says. "He tells you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear."

Since then, Turgeon has secured commitments for next year from two top-60 recruits, Jake Layman from Massachusetts and Shaquille Cleare from Houston. The Terps have also appeared on the final lists of several top-20 prospects.

Aaron Harrison, who coached Cleare on a Houston summer team and whose twin sons are elite players and top Maryland targets for the class of 2013, says Turgeon impressed him with his compassion after Texas A&M recruit Tobi Oyedeji was killed in a 2010 car accident.

"That meant something to me," Harrison says. "I feel really comfortable with him. I feel like I could leave my kids with him, and he would take care of them as if they were his own."

Fans are pumped about Turgeon's early signings.

"Everyone is excited by the effort we've seen in recruiting," Jaklitsch says. "He has created quite a honeymoon period for himself."

What you probably won't see is Turgeon sweating through his jacket and stomping up and down the sideline in classic Gary fashion. He gave fans a glimpse of his lower-key exterior at the program's annual Midnight Madness kickoff. Over the years, Williams had showed up at the event in everything from a race car to a tank. But Turgeon simply strode onto the court at an unhurried clip with no hint of a fist pump.

"I'll sit down most of the game," he says. "I'm calm outside. I think the players perform better when they see you that way. But I might be rolling pretty good inside."

The cool facade extends beyond the sideline, according to his wife. "If you got in his car, you wouldn't even know that someone owned it," she says. "He's that meticulous about the way he keeps it. His closet is the same way, and so is his office."

But she adds that his exterior belies an internal fury to win, not just on the court but at everything. "He turns getting pajamas on at night into a competition," Ann says. "That's just his nature."

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas recalls appearing at a recent event with Turgeon. The conversation turned to a 1986 Final Four game in which Bilas' Duke team beat Turgeon's Kansas squad by 4 points. Suddenly, Bilas glanced up and saw tears rimming Turgeon's eyes. Twenty-five years later, the loss bothered him that much.

The best time of the year

It's five days before the team's opener, and Turgeon is doing the part of the job he says he likes best. Practice is his unvarnished chance to teach basketball and, in a sense, the games just get in the way.

His white Under Armour T-shirt is tucked neatly into his black Under Armour shorts, and it stays that way, even when he pops into a drill to dribble the ball or demonstrate proper defensive position (butt square to the baseline, hands up, eyes scanning.)

He's right in the middle of the court throughout practice, his eyes boring in on key players as they try to learn his ways. Today, he's growing exasperated with his team's loose grasp of the basics, the way players fail to fight through screens or to sprint back on defense after missing lay-ups.

"We turn to [expletive] when we're tired," he barks at his undermanned team. "We turn into five individuals that I don't know. We've got to stick together, or we have no [expletive] chance."

"Wow," he says a moment later, shaking his head despondently.

Profanity creeps into his lessons, but it never dominates, and he never seems to target curses at individual players. He looks nearly as composed when angry as he is chatting amiably with bystanders.

Midway through practice, he trills his whistle three times and calls the players together for a glimpse inside his being.

"The way I live my life," he tells them, "the way I try to have my kids, and I hope my team, live their lives is by working as hard as I can every day."

Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Mark Turgeon

Age: 46

Born: Topeka, Kan.

College: Kansas (1987, bachelor's degree in personnel administration). Played for Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown from 1984 to 1987 and became the first player in Jayhawks history to appear in four straight NCAA tournaments. The point guard led the team to a 108-33 record under Brown and to an appearance in the 1986 Final Four. He was team captain his final two years.

Assistant coaching career: He served as an assistant coach at Kansas for five seasons, first under Brown (1987-88) and then Roy Williams (1988-1992). He moved to Oregon and coached under Jerry Green the next five seasons before rejoining Brown with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers for the 1997-98 season.

Head coaching career: After his one season in the NBA, Turgeon took over Jacksonville State's program, going 25-29 in two seasons, including 17-11 in 1999-2000. He left for Wichita State, where he went 128-90 in seven years and made one NCAA tournament appearance, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2005-06 with a 26-9 record. After a 17-14 season, he was hired by Texas A&M. In four seasons, he made the NCAA tournament each year and went 97-40. His team reached the second round in his first three seasons and was knocked out in the first round this past season. He is the only coach in Texas A&M history to lead the Aggies to four straight NCAA tournaments. His career head coaching record is 249-158, and he has led his teams to seven 20-win seasons in the past eight years.

Personal: He is married to the former Ann Fowler of Chicago. They have two sons, William Harris and Leo, and a daughter, Ella.

Source: Texas A&M website

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