Shortly after being introduced as Maryland’s head basketball coach, Mark Turgeon was asked about the prospect of facing his mentor, Roy Williams, once ACC play began.
Full of pluck that afternoon in May, Turgeon replied, “The only place I fear Coach Williams is on the golf course.”
But fear will hardly be the only relevant emotion Saturday at Comcast Center, where North Carolina’s Williams and Maryland’s Turgeon — mentor and protege — meet for the first time as head coaches. At least until tip-off, the sideline where coaches pace and rant will be awash in pride and gratitude, admiration and respect in the first of the teams’ two regular season matchups, which are sure to test each coach’s ability to compartmentalize.
Williams, 61, the more emotive of the two, didn’t sidestep the inevitable awkwardness when talking to reporters Friday.
“He’s part family,” Williams said of Turgeon, 46, whom he has nurtured and cheered since Turgeon was a driven young assistant on Williams’s Kansas staff from 1988 to 1992. “I’m going to have some bad thoughts about competing against him.”
Turgeon was more circumspect.
“Once the game starts, you don’t even think about who’s coaching the other team; you just coach,” Turgeon said. “When I took this job, I knew I was going to have to coach against him.”
Williams played a significant role in Turgeon’s decision to leave Texas A&M for Maryland. Williams never told him what to do, insisting he’d back whatever decision Turgeon made. But “at least 25 times,” Turgeon recalled, Williams told him that Maryland was one of the top 10 coaching jobs in the country.
“You deserve one of these jobs, and you’d be foolish not to take it,” Turgeon remembers Williams saying.
Throughout Turgeon’s rise through the coaching ranks, Williams’s counsel has been significant, as has that of his coach at Kansas, Larry Brown.
An assistant to Brown following his graduation from Kansas, Turgeon persuaded Williams to keep him on his staff after Williams parted with his mentor of 10 years, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, to take the Kansas job in 1988.
On Friday, Williams made it sound as if it were Turgeon who did him the favor, rather than the reverse.
“I was being selfish [in keeping him on] because I thought he’d really help us,” Williams said of Turgeon. “I needed him on my staff. . . . It was one of the luckiest and best decisions I ever made in my life.”
Among Turgeon’s early assignments in Lawrence was coaching the Jayhawks’ junior-varsity team. After a particularly painful loss, he went to Williams and confessed he feared he’d never be a great coach.
“I’m not you, and I’m not Larry Brown,” the 24-year-old Turgeon told his boss.
“That’s your problem right there!” Williams replied, and encouraged his assistant to forge his own coaching persona.
Two decades later, Turgeon said he still hears traces of Williams’s voice, as well as that of Brown’s, in his own during the occasional practice.
“I try to take the best of what coaches have taught me,” Turgeon said.
Friday morning, Turgeon heard Williams’s voice directly. The Hall of Fame coach phoned his protege to talk about Maryland’s double-overtime loss at Miami on Wednesday night, in which Turgeon was ejected with just more than seven minutes remaining in regulation after drawing two rapid-fire technical fouls.
“I was concerned for him,” Williams explained. “I didn’t want him beating himself up over the game [because] he had the technical and was tossed. We as coaches tend to think we’re more important than we are.”
Turgeon’s ejection had a positive effect, however, firing up a too-complacent Maryland squad and spurring the rally under assistant coach Scott Spinelli that slashed a 16-point deficit and forced overtime.
Once again, Turgeon spoke Friday about how proud he was of Spinelli’s guile and his players’ guts as he monitored the comeback in a TV-less locker room via a phone call from his wife and texts from friends.
It was Maryland’s fourth loss in its last five games, underscoring the Terrapins’ underdog status when they take on No. 5 North Carolina (19-3, 6-1).
The Tar Heels boast the nation’s most prolific offense (84.1 points per game) but could be without top scorer Harrison Barnes, who sprained his ankle in Tuesday’s victory over Wake Forest.
For Maryland (13-8, 3-4), tied for seventh in the ACC standings, the challenge is enormous. Turgeon boiled it down to two keys: racing back on defense and rebounding (the Tar Heels have gotten the rebound on missed shots — theirs or their opponents’ — 56.8 percent of the time, which ranks fifth nationally). He tossed in “figuring out a way to score” for good measure.
But as far as Saturday’s coaching matchup, Turgeon said he felt Williams, as the mentor, had the tougher task.
“I think it’s harder for the mentor [than the protege] because your whole life you’re trying to help guys get to where they need to be,” Turgeon said.
In fact, Turgeon said he didn’t feel as much dread over facing Williams as he did each time he has coached against his best friend and former teammate, Colorado Coach Tad Boyle, or when he first coached against Kansas, his alma mater.
“I’m not worried about coaching against Coach Williams,” Turgeon said. “It’s more about Harrison Barnes and all those studs they run out there on the floor. . . . When the game starts, you’re coaching. After the initial handshake, we won’t think about it till the game is over.”