The scuffmarks that Gary Williams etched into the Comcast Center floor by pacing obsessively in front of the Terrapins bench will have been polished over when Maryland opens its 2011-12 men’s basketball season.
Sunday marks the start of a new era in College Park, where for the first time in 22 years a new coach will lead the Terrapins onto the court. But it won’t be the first time Mark Turgeon has had big shoes to fill. Nor will it be the first time he has taken on a rebuilding job.
Turgeon’s experience at both — succeeding Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M and, before that, turning a moribund Wichita State program into a Missouri Valley power — may prove his strongest asset as he attempts to restore Maryland’s basketball prominence, pay due homage to his predecessor and step out from under Williams’s long shadow.
“All due respect to Gary — I want to be a legend. I want to be the next Gary Williams at Maryland,” Turgeon said in a recent interview. “That’s why I chose Maryland, because of the job he had done. He won a national championship, and that’s never going away.”
As college players, Turgeon, 46, and Williams, 66, shared a common basketball DNA — both were undersize point guards who forged improbable careers at Kansas and Maryland, respectively, by scrapping harder than the next guy.
There are commonalities, as well, in the coaching challenge they inherited at Maryland.
Williams was lured back to his alma mater in 1989, the program still reeling from the death of Len Bias. The following spring, the NCAA stripped Maryland of two scholarships and banned the Terrapins from television for one year and the NCAA tournament for two.
“It took us four years to come out of that,” Gary Williams recalled, crediting Walt Williams’s decision not to the transfer with saving the program.
Turgeon stepped into a far more enviable job in May. Still, Maryland was in a down cycle, having lost four of its top five scorers from a 19-14 team that missed the postseason. Then, in October, the Terrapins lost their starting point guard, Pe’Shon Howard, to a broken foot, forcing Turgeon to rework both his lineup and strategy.
“I think Gary had the betters players [when named Maryland’s coach], but he had a bigger hill to climb,” said Walt Williams, now a commentator for the team’s radio broadcasts. “Still, the situation [facing Turgeon] is not the best.”
Asked whether he felt Maryland fans had enough patience for Turgeon to turn things around, Walt Williams roared with laughter.
“Not at all!” Williams howled. “Unfortunately, not at all! But that’s part of what was endearing about playing for Maryland — taking on that challenge. As a player, you know the heartbeat of that environment. You’ve got to get it done. No excuses.”
That, in essence, is what Turgeon has sought his entire coaching career — to lead a basketball team that’s followed almost religiously by fans whose expectations know no limits.
“Do I want to win 30 games this year? Yeah!” Turgeon said. “Is it realistic? Probably not. But every game that we throw it up this year, I’m going to expect to win. And so are my players, and so are our fans.”
Colorado Coach Tad Boyle, a former Kansas teammate and member of Turgeon’s staffs at Jacksonville State and Wichita State, believes Turgeon has the skills that are essential to any rebuilding job: the ability to recruit, develop players and coach to players’ strengths.
“There are very few coaches around the country that are good at all three,” Boyle said. “Mark has got the complete package.”
Turgeon’s first head job — at Jacksonville State in 1998 — was no prize. The Gamecocks were ranked 308th among 309 Division I schools at the time. But he brought in nine new players and went from 8-18 the first year to 17-11 the second.
“We did it on a shoestring,” Boyle recalled. “I remember stopping on the side of the road in Alabama and making recruiting calls on pay phones with the university credit card, punching in the long-distance code.”
Expectations were far higher at Wichita State in 2000, even though the Shockers hadn’t reached the postseason in 11 years. Unless a prospect was from Wichita, Turgeon and his staff had to fly to a conference rival’s back yard and sell the Shockers. According to Boyle, Turgeon’s work ethic and candor won most of the key battles.
After one losing season, Wichita State was .500 in his second year and earned a National Invitation Tournament bid in his third. The Shockers won the Missouri Valley title and reached the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 in 2005-06.
At Maryland, Turgeon has thrown himself into instilling his values in the short-handed squad: defending hard, rebounding and making the extra pass.
“He’s a great teacher,” Mosley said, “but he’s snappy if he has to tell you something more than once.”
After the Terrapins coughed up the ball 23 times in their exhibition victory over Northwood, Turgeon instituted a new rule in practice this week. Anytime a player committed a second turnover in a workout, the team had to run baseline-to-baseline sprints. He also further reworked his lineup in Howard’s absence, naming 6-foot-6 freshman Nick Faust as the starting point guard to free up Stoglin to shoot more.
“He’ll find a way to squeeze as many wins and the most out of the people he has got,” Boyle said.
Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown, for whom Turgeon played and apprenticed at Kansas, agreed.
“Whether they have the players to win, I don’t think it really matters right now,” Brown said of the Terrapins in Turgeon’s first year. “What matters is the fact that people see that he insists on doing the things Gary’s teams did every night. Gary’s teams always tried to guard, always played unselfishly and always played hard. And that has been a staple of Mark’s teams everywhere he has been.”