Mark Turgeon, the man who holds the Terps’ operation together

Success is hardly routine for Mark Turgeon's Terps, whose intense preparation is a hallmark of their coach. Now to spend enough time with the family...

Published on January 29, 2016

For a coach, the late games are the worst. The tension builds to a boil early in the day, followed by hours of a prolonged simmer. It’s agonizing, really.

Facing a 9 p.m. tip-off in Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier in January, Maryland men’s basketball Coach Mark Turgeon returned to the hotel from his team’s afternoon shoot-around shortly after 2 p.m. He rested, ate, exercised, rested some more. Turgeon checked the clock regularly and visited a hotel meeting room for the team dinner about 31/2 hours before game time. He wasn’t hungry but still ate, sticking around long after his players left.

MARYLAND'S MARCH:

About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese and photographer Toni L. Sandys go behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.

Part 1: For Maryland basketball, expectations are great. Now for the hard part.

Part 2: For Turgeon and his Terps, preparation is key -- and every night is movie night

Part 3: Maryland's fortunes are tied to Melo Trimble and Jake Layman they-almost lost both

“I sure hope they win. We need this one,” he told his assistants, shortly before leaving the table to kill more time.

Turgeon, who will turn 51 in February, is a live wire, coiled taut at birth. On game days, the tension is palpable. Turgeon, whose Terps entered their matchup against Michigan ranked No. 3 in the country and considered a strong Final Four contender, emits enough angst to keep the whole world an arm’s length away.

“Usually when he’s in that zone, thinking about the game or whatever, we try to stay away from him,” guard Varun Ram said. “He has his routine, and I don’t want to get in the way of that.”

The bus finally left the team hotel about 7:30 p.m. While his players warmed up, Turgeon paced the locker room, triple-checking the game plan. He wasn’t a prize fighter before a championship bout as much as a skilled litigator prepping for a big case, rethinking scenarios and plotting counter maneuvers.

Rasheed Sulaimon, with ball, and Coach Mark Turgeon went to Ann Arbor as the No. 3 team on the nation on Jan. 12. But Maryland suffered a 70-67 loss to Michigan.

But on the court, a coach can affect only so much. As time expired hours later, senior Rasheed Sulaimon launched a potential game-tying shot from behind the three-point arc. It missed, and Turgeon swatted a hand through the air, the final punctuation on a 70-67 loss, Maryland’s first in the Big Ten.

“When I was a young coach, I just yelled at everybody because I thought that's what you were supposed to do, as you get older, you realize you have to coach each player differently. It's like having kids. I have three totally different kids. You do different things, push different buttons.”

—Mark Turgeon

[Sulaimon still hears echoes of his past at Duke]

He walked quietly to a postgame news conference. Turgeon doesn’t hide his disgust well; honesty tends to be his default setting.

“Some nights just aren’t meant to be,” Turgeon told reporters. “This was one of them.”

The team’s lofty goals weren’t derailed by a road loss against a talented team, but it still felt like a missed opportunity. Turgeon changed his clothes and began to make his way toward the bus idling outside. It was 11:45 p.m., 14 degrees outside. The late games are the worst.

“What is it — midnight?” Turgeon asked a security guard, pulling a red hoodie over his head. He sighed. “I’ll get in my driveway about a quarter till 4.”

The losses all hurt. They’re impossible to avoid entirely, but that inevitability does little to loosen the knot in Turgeon’s stomach.

“You could win 40 in a row and you lose that 41st game,” he said. “You don’t just get over that one loss. It stings. Now how much they affect me is whether I think I did a good job or not.”

[Maryland’s march: Trimble, Layman return to school and to evolving roles]

As the team left Ann Arbor, he wasn’t happy. Turgeon told his coaches he didn’t want to see the film and didn’t want to talk about the game, an unusual edict for him.

The next morning, he woke up in time to see his kids off to school. The youngest, Leo, 10, was sick, so the two spent the morning together, hanging out and watching a movie. Later, Turgeon went out for a haircut. By late afternoon, he couldn’t wait any longer and finally cued up video of the previous night’s loss. It was an essential part of turning the page, and Turgeon was suddenly eager to see how his team would respond to its first big disappointment of the season.

“Even if he’s screaming, he’s telling us something. ‘Don’t get mad at him because he’s yelling. Think about what he’s saying.’ “ Robert Carter Jr. says of Coach Mark Turgeon.

‘It’s like having kids’

The calendar is a slow-turning torture device, each month representing a new level of torment for a college basketball coach. January, February and March are by far the toughest. Turgeon feels guilty when he’s not with his family and distracted when he’s not with his team.

“I wish I was better sometimes. I’ll go home, I’ll be lying in bed and thinking I could’ve spent five more minutes with Leo before bedtime,” Turgeon explained. “That’s the biggest thing: the pull. Am I being a great dad? Am I being a great husband?”

He feels most present during games and during practices. There, nothing else exists. At other times, he’s preoccupied thinking about the next game or the last practice.

“You can see him at practice: He has bags under his eyes; his face is red,” Sulaimon said. “You can tell he’s had no sleep because he’s up all night watching film, trying to figure out how we can be better as a team.”

At a recent practice, Turgeon was running through a defensive scheme and installing a couple of new post plays, his frustration increasing. He whistled one play dead when he spotted a player out of position. Turgeon didn’t raise his voice, instead asking matter of factly: “Do you have any idea what we’re running right now, Diamond?”

As conference play heated up, freshman Diamond Stone had grown into an essential part of the lineup. But at the afternoon practice, he didn’t say anything. Play resumed, and not long after, the Terps were running through a full-speed scrimmage when Turgeon again blew his whistle. He ordered Stone to switch to a black jersey and run with the reserves.

Mark Turgeon is front and center, and in pixels, during the postgame news conference following the Jan. 12 loss at Michigan.

“Diamond, you’re just doing your own [expletive] thing today, doing whatever you want,” he said.

But then a funny thing happened. With the reserves, Stone had a quick steal and streaked downcourt, scoring a layup and drawing a foul. He was clearly fired up. After a nifty turnaround jumper, he barked, “All day long!” And when his teammates scored, he was the first one with a high-five or chest bump.

The entire sequence was Turgeon’s design. He has 15 players and has figured out how to motivate each. Stone thrives when challenged.

“When I was a young coach, I just yelled at everybody because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do,” Turgeon said. “As you get older, you realize you have to coach each player differently. It’s like having kids. I have three totally different kids. You do different things, push different buttons.”

The younger players learn quickly that when Turgeon appears to be upset, it’s never personal. There’s a mantra at Maryland, and the veterans pass on to the new guys the same thing they were told when they first joined the team: Don’t listen to the tone; listen to the message.

“At times, it feels like he’s riding you, and you don’t understand why he’s on you,” junior Robert Carter Jr. said, “but at the end of the day, when you look at it outside of that moment, he really wants the best for us and he really wants us to succeed. Even if he’s screaming, he’s telling us something. ‘Don’t get mad at him because he’s yelling. Think about what he’s saying.’ ”

Players say it works because they know Turgeon cares, and by January, everyone on the team had a good feel for the coach’s style, both on the court and off. He’s particular and deliberate in both places.

A sense of routine

At the Turgeons’ Kensington home, the coach’s closet is meticulously organized. His car is so clean, his wife, Ann, jokes, “You wouldn’t even know that someone owned it.” In the past, he has been loyal to certain driving routes that he made each day, careful never to veer off course.

“The sense of order, repetition, that’s important to me,” he explains.

That’s one way to put it.

“He’s probably the most superstitious guy I’ve ever seen in my life,” senior Jake Layman said.

That’s another.

Turgeon will stick with a blazer and necktie that produces wins (usually a tie bought by his 12-year-old daughter, Ella). If the Terps are victorious on the road, he’ll make sure to stay in the same hotel the next year. From the team’s film room at Xfinity Center, rather than turn right and walk straight to the court, he’ll turn left and take a circuitous route, walking up steps, out to a corridor, then back down steps and finally to the court.

[Maryland's march: After the hours of video and practice comes the hard part]

“His memory is incredible,” Terps assistant Dustin Clark said. “We’ll be walking into an arena and there will be a double door where you can go in the right side or the left. He’ll go in the left side and turn and say, ‘Gotta go left because that’s the one I went in last year.’ ”

Turgeon said he was born this way. When he was younger, growing up in Topeka, Kan., he made certain to watch Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas Jayhawks games from his special beanbag, careful to keep the volume tuned to a precise number. He said he’s getting better, but last year Turgeon realized he’d forgotten to kiss his wife goodbye before a stretch of wins. There were no more goodbye kisses the rest of the way. Turgeon can only chuckle about that now.

“Geez, can you imagine not kissing your wife goodbye because you lost a game? She’s such a trouper,” he said.

A matter of time

Four days after losing at Michigan, the Terps were on a mission. Turgeon canceled the team’s regular film review following their loss and focused all of his energy on looking ahead.

An hour before tip-off against Ohio State at Xfinity Center, graduate assistant Ben Eidelberg had synced his phone with the game clock. There was no margin for error. When the game clock showed 38 minutes remaining, Eidelberg poked his head into the locker room.

“Coach, they’re about to come in,” he said.

The players trotted in from their warmups, and Turgeon greeted each one. Then, as it does for every game, the entire coaching staff quietly assembled in the hall.

“They looked like a million bucks warming up, didn’t they?” Turgeon asked.

They were mostly quiet, and Eidelberg kept checking the time on his phone. “Two minutes, Coach,” he said.

“This is a long two minutes right here,” Turgeon said, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

The long stretches of silence were interrupted only when Turgeon wanted to double-check something about the game plan against the Buckeyes. “One minute?” he finally asked Eidelberg.

“I already said one minute,” the young assistant said. “Twenty-four, 23, 22 . . .”

Maryland Terrapins guard Melo Trimble (2) flies through the Ohio State Buckeyes defense on his work to scoring two during the game between the Maryland Terrapins and the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday, January 16, 2016.

Turgeon walked in the locker room when the game clock showed 32 minutes until tip and ran through the keys to the game: ball-screen defense, boxing out, sharing the ball. Then the players ran back to the court for more shooting and the entire process repeated itself when the clock showed 12 minutes remained and the players returned.

Turgeon entered the locker room four minutes later and stepped up to the dry-erase board. The players were seated in three rows of folding chairs, which, Turgeon pointed out to a team manager, were positioned a hair closer to the front of the room than usual. He again walked through the game plan, and by this point, most of the players could barely sit still.

“We gotta compete,” Turgeon told them. “We’re not protecting anything. We’re not this, we’re not that. We’re just gonna go out and have fun. That’s how you got to this level, so go out, compete and let’s do this together.”

There was shouting and clapping and everyone counted down the final seconds until the players sprinted out of the locker room. When they all reassembled in the same space barely two hours later, the Terps had put together their most complete performance of the season, dismantling a formidable Ohio State squad, 100-65.

“That’s a great game for you to bounce back,” Turgeon told his team. “None of us enjoyed Tuesday night. As a matter of fact, that’s as bad as I’ve felt after a loss in a long time. I tried not to show it, but that’s as bad as I felt. I didn’t think I did a great job. . . . So I’m proud of you. That was a good bounce-back game — let everyone know, ‘Hey, we’re for real. We let one get away, but we’ll get a few more back down the road.’ ”

Turgeon circled the room and exchanged high-fives, handshakes and hugs with each player and then popped into the film room next door, where Ann and their kids were waiting. Turgeon smiled and held out his arms.

Joined by his wife, Ann, and son Leo, Mark Turgeon jokes around with his daughter Ella about her game-winning free throw after the Ohio State win.

“Game-winning free throw?” he asked Ella. He had missed her early-morning game, but Ann sent text and photo updates of their daughter’s clutch performance.

Like most college coaches, he misses so much this time of year. The three Turgeon children are enrolled in soccer, flag football, basketball, guitar, lacrosse, baseball and, of course, basketball.

“I think it’s always eating at him,” Ann said.

Turgeon chatted with a couple of recruits who watched the game and then plotted out the afternoon plan with his wife. The lingering taste of the Michigan loss had been replaced, and he walked out of the arena with Will, his 16-year-old son, to watch the Chiefs’ playoff game.

Another big road test

By mid-January, the weekly top 25 polls amounted to an out-of-control carousel: Five times, the team ranked No. 1 had lost. The Terps still hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent but continued to get rave reviews. Northwestern Coach Chris Collins called them the most talented team in the country after his Wildcats lost in overtime in College Park. And after Rutgers lost by 25 earlier in the month, Scarlet Knights Coach Eddie Jordan walked out of Xfinity Center telling arena staff, “I hope you all get bonuses when this team wins a national championship.”

Jordan compared Turgeon’s Terps to the 1975-76 Indiana team, which saw five starters and two reserves reach the NBA. ”They have every part,” Jordan said of Maryland, “talent at every position.”

Sign of the times: Mark Turgeon's wife, Ann, waves to a friend as the Turgeonites cheer behind her during the Northwestern game.

[Maryland’s march: From the beginning, expectations are sky-high]

With a blizzard approaching the Washington area in late January, Maryland boarded an airplane a few hours earlier than scheduled. The Terrapins landed in East Lansing, Mich., for their toughest foe yet: a Michigan State team that once had been ranked No. 1 but was mired in a three-game losing streak.

After checking into their hotel, the Terps reboarded a bus. On the road, Turgeon wants his players shooting in the foreign arena as close as possible to 24 hours before tip-off. During a light walk-through, Sulaimon wore headphones while he warmed up, and Stone was still wearing his Timberlands on the court until it was time to run through some plays. The Terps needed just a half-hour or so, and then they began filing out.

With school back home canceled by the weather, Turgeon’s oldest son, Will, made the trip and was the last one on the court, practicing his jumpers and having fun. He launched a half-court shot and threw his hands in the air when it passed through the basket. “Made one of those finally?” his dad said with a grin, turning to leave the arena.

While his son Will, 16, looks up other scores, Mark Turgeon waits for the bus to head back to the hotel after the shootaround before the game at Michigan State on Jan. 23.

That night the team ate at the same seafood restaurant that preceded last season’s victory in East Lansing, and the next morning, the team gathered in a hotel ballroom for breakfast and a final film session. Turgeon went through the Spartans’ talented lineup, aiming a red laser pointer at a projection screen. His right foot bounced involuntarily as he went through the night’s keys: sprint back on makes and misses, limit the opponent to one shot on a possession and value the ball.

“Any questions?” he asked. “Big opportunity, fellas. We gotta get one back. We let one slip away. We got to get it back tonight.”

After watching the clock all afternoon, the Terps left their hotel 90 minutes before tip-off. With ESPN’s cameras rolling, Maryland didn’t sprint back on makes or misses and allowed too many offensive boards. Turgeon was his usual animated self on the sidelines. Shy off the court, he can’t control himself during games.

“Box out!” Turgeon yelled early. “Wake up!”

The Terps were up against a team that wasn’t willing to lose a fourth straight game. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said it was the hardest his team had played in years, and the Terps fell for a third time this season, 74-65. Turgeon talked to members of the media and then changed his clothes. His squad was still without a signature win.

Coach Mark Turgeon, left, is congratulated by Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson after the rout of Ohio State at Xfinity Center.

At 9:19 p.m., an exhausted Turgeon walked through the loading dock toward the bus. Will was at his side and put an arm around his dad, patting him on the shoulder. They were headed back to the hotel, where the snowstorm back home had trapped the team for an extra night. For Turgeon, that was a lot of time to dwell on the latest loss.

‘This is when I’m at my best’

The low point of Turgeon’s tenure at Maryland no doubt came in May 2014. The Terps had just posted a middling 17-15 record, missed the NCAA tournament for a third straight season under Turgeon and saw five scholarship players transfer out of the program. Meanwhile, Turgeon was building a new house, selling another and had no idea how stable his job was. That’s about the time senior-to-be Dez Wells came into his office.

“They’re killing you out there, Coach,” the player told him, “and it’s not fair to you. You’re a good coach and a good person.”

Turgeon was touched. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “It might look like our backs are to the wall, but trust me, this is when I’m at my best.”

A year and a half later, the Terps were midway through their conference schedule and Turgeon’s back was in a familiar place.

“This is what you always want,” says Ann, “to have this type of team, to be in this type of situation. His back is against the wall and he has all these expectations on him, but this is exactly where he wants to be.”

As January wound down, the team prepped for its biggest challenge to date: a surprising Iowa squad that had risen to No. 3 in the polls. (The Terps had fallen to No. 8.) As is the case during most game days at home, Ann barely spoke to Turgeon. She was busy, and he was focused. She texted updates on their children's schedules but otherwise, her first glimpse of her husband Thursday was when he walked onto the Xfinity Center court.

Turgeon had selected one of his lucky “big-game ties,” a plaid number that he last wore for the team’s win over Connecticut in December. It was a Christmas gift a year ago from Ella.

The tie flailed about when Turgeon disagreed with calls, spotted a player out of position or needed to emphasize a point. Sitting in the stands 10 rows behind the Maryland bench, Ann tried her best not to watch her husband because his frenzied energy just makes her more nervous.

Once again, the Terps showed great energy coming off a loss, particularly on the defensive end. The home crowd was electric, and the Maryland defense superb. Ann was still anxious in the final minutes, her arms crossed and lips pursed, but the Terps eked out their biggest win of the year, 74-68.

“Whoo!” Turgeon bellowed in the tunnel as he stomped off the court.

In the locker room, he congratulated his players and ran through the game’s high points. “We’re back in the league race,” he told them. “Good job.”

The room erupted in yelps and applause. “Don’t stop here, man,” said Carter, the junior forward. “Let’s keep going!”

Turgeon left the locker room for an on-court ESPN interview but spotted his family in the corridor and opened his arms wide.

“Leo, what’s up, brother,” Turgeon said to his youngest son with a smile. “Have fun?”

There was still TV and radio and a news conference to do, but for the first time all day the family was together, all smiles as they celebrated the season’s biggest win. There’d be school in morning, carpools to manage and game film to watch. But for a few minutes, they were all able to bask in the victory together.

Ann and the Turgeon children watched from a corner of the room as the coach told the reporters how proud he was of his players, how he never lost confidence in them and how he was glad his fans didn't feel the need to rush the court after toppling a top-five team.

“They expect us to win,” he said. “That’s the way it should be.”

MARYLAND'S MARCH:

About this series: The Maryland men's basketball team faces high expectations as one of the nation's top-ranked squads. Washington Post reporter Rick Maese and photographer Toni L. Sandys go behind the scenes this season to see what makes a high-level program tick and what it takes to fulfill potential.

Part 1: For Maryland basketball, expectations are great. Now for the hard part.

Part 2: For Turgeon and his Terps, preparation is key -- and every night is movie night

Part 3: Maryland's fortunes are tied to Melo Trimble and Jake Layman they-almost lost both

Credits