The best year of Mark Turgeon’s life happened away from the spotlight, behind the bench, watching as the University of Kansas men’s basketball team won the national championship. It was during the 1987-88 season, one year after Turgeon graduated from the same school, and he was a graduate assistant working under Larry Brown, watching all-American and future No. 1 overall pick Danny Manning run the show.
“People think, oh you graduated, wouldn’t you love to have been on the championship team?” Turgeon said Saturday. “I had my chance. I wouldn’t trade my fifth year for anything, just to watch Coach Brown, be a GA, win a national championship, see how it worked with no pressure at all. I wouldn’t trade that year for any year in my life. That was a lot of fun.”
That year set both Turgeon and Manning, close friends and former teammates on the Jayhawks, on their respective paths. Turgeon spent several more seasons in Lawrence, ultimately moving onto other assistant coaching jobs before getting his first head gig at Jacksonville State. The Los Angeles Clippers took Manning and he blossomed into a two-time NBA all-star who won the NBA sixth man of the year award in 1998, the same year Turgeon joined the Gamecocks.
Sunday evening, the two will reunite at Comcast Center, where the Maryland men’s basketball team hosts Tulsa. Turgeon has held several head coaching gigs during his career, while Manning, after retiring from the NBA in 2003, started climbing the coaching ladder back where both began – at Kansas. Turgeon has often referenced this path when discussing Juan Dixon, the Maryland legend who was recently hired as a special assistant to the men’s team.
“I knew he was a smart player,” Turgeon said of Manning. “When he made all those millions, I didn’t think he’d go through this. The thing I love about Danny, is Danny never thought he was better than you, whether he was the best player in the country, which he was, or the number one pick.
“Danny started at the very bottom, worked his way up, didn’t step on any toes, waited his turn, got his kids through high school and off to college, then became a head coach. Obviously it’s a passion that he has. He’s doing a nice job.”
The Golden Hurricane, in Manning’s second season, are just 4-8 with a tough non-conference strength of schedule that ranks among the top 70 nationally. Over the years, he and Turgeon had discussed the prospects of becoming a head coach, and during a telephone interview Manning recalled visiting Turgeon once he got the Jacksonville State job.
“Our conversations have always centered around just our friendship that we had in college and the things that were going on in our lives, whether it was coaching, playing, things of that nature,” Manning said. “When I was an assistant, the recruiting circle is very small. We’re all in the same venues and anytime I saw Turge, we’d talk about different things that was going on with his team, different things I was going through. He’s made a few stops, he’ got some really good experience under his belt.”
Both parties downplayed the significance of Sunday’s reunion, even if they planned to meet for dinner on Saturday night. Maryland had booked Tulsa, one of the last games it added to the 2013-14 slate, foremost hoping the Golden Hurricane would help bolster the RPI. Coaching opposite Manning was secondary.
“When the game starts, you’re not worried about who’s coaching,” Turgeon said. “You’re looking at the five guys on the court. If you’re coaching the way you’re supposed to coach, you really never look down at the other coach until the end of the game. That’s the way Danny and I will approach it tomorrow.”
Said Manning: “Obviously there’s going to be a winner, there’s going to be a loser in the game. It’s definitely going to be fun. Before the game, there will be hugs and well wishes. During the game, we’ll try to do whatever we can to get our teams to the point where we have success. But the friendship doesn’t change. It is what it is. Just playing a good friend.”