Behind the scenes with the Turgeonites

It’s 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday, three hours before the Maryland men’s basketball team tips off against Wake Forest, and Mark Turgeon is late.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. One Mark Turgeon arrived on time to Jason’s Deli on Baltimore Avenue. Three other Mark Turgeons, however, are tardy.

The punctual Turgeon is actually named Steve Ernst. He’s a junior from Damascus who’s sporting a red tie, black suit and gray Adidas sneakers, leaning against an island countertop in the College Park eatery. By all accounts, Steve is a perfectly normal and friendly guy. He’s an engineering major, participates in the school’s Catholic youth center and loves Terrapins basketball. He just happens to dress up like a 48-year-old man once or twice a week.

The second Turgeon to arrive is Joey Switzer, a sophomore from Montgomery County. His parents graduated from Maryland. They were Terps fans, too. Unlike their son, however, they did not dab baby powder into their hair until a pizza slice-shaped section turned ashen, all in the name of fandom.

Like most Maryland loyalists, Switzer was an ardent supporter of legendary coach Gary Williams. But when Williams abruptly retired in 2011, Switzer sensed an overwhelming sense of doom among his peers. Even after the Terps hired their new coach, a straight-shooting, blue-collar, old-school Midwesterner (in Switzer’s words), rhetoric around College Park centered on what Maryland had lost in Williams, not what it gained in Mark Turgeon.

As most great ideas begin, dressing up like Turgeon originated from a discussion about suits. Midway through Turgeon’s debut season, during one nonconference game around the time Maryland decided to name its court after Williams, junior Cory Frontin mentioned he would receive a suit for Christmas. Almost as a joke, Frontin and junior Jamie Morris, who met through the Catholic youth center, discussed putting that fabric swagger to use. So they busted out their duds, sprinkled classroom chalk onto their heads and somehow, somewhere down the line, became recognizable as those fans who dress up like Turgeon.

The process has evolved over time. Baby powder proved a more suitable method for emulating Turgeon’s recognizable gray spot. Hair gel works eliminates the need for halftime reapplication. They perform the “Turge Surge,” the enthusiastic swoop-and-double-fist-pump move that Turgeon mastered on the sidelines. Others, like Ernst and Switzer, joined the movement. Len Elmore once called them “the Turgeonites” on a broadcast, and the nickname stuck. At least to the outside world.

“We don’t take ourselves seriously enough to give ourselves a name,” Morris said between bites of his sandwich.

Once, they made the rapid-fire introduction montage on “SportsCenter.” After the Wake Forest game, they filmed a sportsmanship video for the team. On Jan. 22, when a record-setting 10 Turgeons (six is their ideal number) showed up in Section 101 to watch the Terps beat Boston College, 64-59, the real deal met them at midcourt after the game. Turgeon was a little self-conscious about the gray spot, they said, but was a good sport and posed for pictures. After all, his wife Ann sits in front of the Turgeonites, along with other team family members, and loves them.

Acting like Mark Turgeon requires learning many moves. His disciples know them all. When in doubt, move around. Hands on the hips. Arm cross. Jacket off. Hike up the pants and squat, preferably near the scorer’s table. Jacket on. Turge Surge for emphasis or, when the mood strikes, cannonball yourself into the air like a leprechaun.

Most importantly, be courteous. Golf clap during pregame introductions like Turgeon, rather than shower opponents with the standard “sucks!” as the Maryland student section often does. Barking at referees is acceptable. Turgeon does that, too.

“I wonder if he thinks we’re really creepy,” Frontin said, only mildly serious.

There’s no real end game for this group. They enjoy the fame, even though it’s hardly fame. Over the summer, during a parade in Damascus, Ernst got recognized by a marching, glad-handing realtor as “one of those Turgeonites on ESPN.”

Fellow fans love their antics, especially when they thrust their hips and fling their arms and spin around like the Maryland dance team. Frontin and Morris applied the concept at a Baltimore Orioles game last September, dressing up like Wild Bill Hagy, a bearded superfan known for leading entire sections in cheers. They joke about getting special recognition on their Maryland degrees. Something like, “Bachelor of Education: Summa Cum Turgeon.”

The Turgeonites spent much of lunch pondering what others think of their efforts, or how Williams would react if they dressed up like him. They don’t self-promote, and have no idea how they wound up on Turgeon’s Wikipedia page. It began as a simple way to hype up fans and support the Terps. Now they’ve become a recognizable staple at Comcast Center. Usually, they appear on the JumboTron. Morris once won a $100 gift card for being the game’s “best dressed.” He wanted to buy a new suit. He could only afford dress shirts.

With 90 minutes left until tip-off, the four Mark Turgeons piled into their cars and drove to Comcast Center, where the real Turgeon and his Terps were preparing to hang a 26-point blowout on the Demon Deacons. As the pregame clock ticked down, the Turgeonites slid into their customary seats. They mingled with friends and the surrounding crowd. Then they pulled out the baby powder and began to dance.

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