Time will tell if Russell Turner is the genuine basketball coaching star some identify in the former NBA assistant who also cut his coaching teeth at Stanford and Wake Forest.
But now a dozen games into his first season at the helm of the UC Irvine men's program, it cannot be argued that Turner is a genuine person.
From his introductory press conference, the passion with which Turner approaches his job, his players and his considerable mid-major challenge at UCI, has been as apparent as the still-solid 6-foot-7 frame that enabled him to twice earn NCAA Division III All-American honors at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in the early 1990s.
That passion has led to some self-criticism, the foremost example being a demonstrative, profanity-laced double-technical ejection against San Jose State in a Dec. 4 home loss.
And, as the Anteaters (6-6) enter Big West Conference play Tuesday night at home against UC Riverside, it has led to the kind of restless and agonizing self-analysis that rarely occurs outside the competitively charged atmosphere of Division I college and professional athletics.
Like anyone who not only aspires to, but demands success, Turner's first two months of the season have included plenty of satisfaction and anguish.
But observing Turner after nonconference road setbacks at Pepperdine (Dec. 18) and UCLA (Thursday), it appears that he is already learning how to compartmentalize the unavoidable misery that most coaches experience after a loss.
Both at Pepperdine and UCLA, the Anteaters made determined comebacks, eventually taking, then losing a second-half lead to the Waves; then paring a 14-point deficit to one with a chance to win on the final possession in the final seconds at storied Pauley Pavilion.
After the loss at Pepperdine, Turner, who typically stands most of the game exhorting his players and working officials, was visibly spent. He sat in the postgame locker room, allowing his head to dip perceptibly between slumped shoulders.
Against UCLA, I caught him at courtside after his postgame radio interview. And while clearly disappointed not to have fully completed the comeback, there was a not-so-subtle pride about what his team had nearly achieved in the 74-73 loss to the Bruins.
Turner, whose Southern accent is usually most perceptible when he refers to those on his roster as "My guyyys," is clearly the kind of coach that can inspire his players. It is also apparent that Turner and his staff have not only motivated, but prepared their players with strategic wisdom that doesn't stop with the scouting report and/or game plan.
And, as his team tackles Big West foes, hoping to surprise those who predicted the 'Eaters would finish sixth in the nine-team conference, it is obvious that Turner is developing and honing his game right along with his players.
Coach John Speraw's Anteaters have developed quite a rivalry with Coach Bill Ferguson's Trojans, an ongoing battle that included UCI's five-game victory in the 2009 NCAA title match at BYU.
Speraw has welcomed former USC assistant Brad Keller onto the UCI staff this season as a volunteer assistant.
Ferguson fired his three full-time assistants from last season, including Keller and Rocky Ciarelli, the former longtime Huntington Beach High boys' and girls' coach. Ferguson included Ciarelli in his staff house cleaning despite the presence of senior All-American Tony Ciarelli, Rocky's son, on the Trojans' roster this season.
Ferguson's rebuilt staff includes Jeff Nygaard, a former two-time indoor Olympian with the United States who also starred on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach tour and was a two-time NCAA Player of the Year at UCLA.
Nygaard and Speraw were teammates at UCLA, including the Bruins' national championship teams in 1995 and 1993.
"I hate to see a good Bruin boy go bad," Speraw said of Nygaard landing on the Trojans' bench this season. "I obviously think he's going to be a great coach, but it was surprisingly painful [to see Nygaard alter his cross-town loyalty]."
*UCI men's volleyball, which opens the season Jan, 5 at Cal Baptist, is looking to overcome shortcomings at setter and libero that plagued the team during a 15-15 campaign in 2010.
Two players who contributed at those positions, would-be senior setter Jeff Schmitz, and would-be senior libero Kenny Webster, are both no longer in the program.