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Maryland basketball Coach Mark Turgeon is all drive without the flash

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Mark Turgeon scanned the parking-lot forest, sizing up each tree. He looks for many of the same attributes in a basketball recruit: height, a commanding presence, the ability to occupy space. His wife, Ann, spotted a Christmas tree she liked.

“How tall is that one?” Turgeon asked. “Not big enough, is it?”

Turgeon, 47, didn’t have much time. It was another day of juggling families. That morning, the Maryland men’s basketball coach was in College Park with his team for an early practice. Then back home to Chevy Chase for a couple of hours — choosing the perfect tree is an annual family activity — before rejoining his team for a shoot-around later in the afternoon.

“I like that one! I like that one!” proclaimed 9-year-old Ella.

With wide eyes, the three Turgeon kids surveyed the nine-foot Douglas fir up and down. It was a four-star, blue-chip, can’t-miss tree if there ever were one.

This — an unseasonably warm Saturday in a neighborhood tree lot — is a respite for Turgeon. His other world is loud, messy, unrelenting and filled with larger-than-life characters recognizable by their sweaters, their gel-encrusted hair, their made-for-TV smiles. Rosters constantly turn over, but the coaches roaming the sidelines can become icons for their schools and communities. Many are known around the country by just one name: Cal, K, Roy, Izzo, Pitino.

Turgeon took over for such an icon — Gary — and in a year and a half he’s revived a dormant Terrapins program, all the while managing to maintain a relatively low profile, even just blocks from his home. No one at the lot seems to recognize him, and he has no problem with that.

The prized evergreen was soon tied atop the family’s black SUV, the Turgeons turned quietly out of the lot and minutes later were in their driveway.

“Dad, I’ll help you,” offered Leo, 7.

The tree was carried inside and erected in a corner near the fireplace. The first ornament was a basketball. Ella was piecing together a train set that would wrap around the base as her two brothers disappeared downstairs to play. Before long, Turgeon was gone, too, racing back to his other family.

Back in the SUV, back on the road and back to the Terps, stubbornly relying on his moral compass for directions in a murky college basketball world without a true north, distinguishable not as much by what he is — but by what he isn’t.

Among the giants

Taking up the entirety of one wall in a spacious College Park office is a display featuring five photos and the words, “Mark Turgeon’s Basketball Heritage.” The photo on the far left is James Naismith, who invented the sport. To the right is Phog Allen, Naismith’s protege at the University of Kansas. And then Dean Smith, who learned under Allen, followed by Larry Brown, Turgeon’s coach at Kansas.

Turgeon seems to constantly be surrounded by coaches with bigger, more recognizable names. Every day at work he walks across a court that bears the name of another coach. Gary Williams was a coach who was single for much of his tenure, who needed only a couple of turnovers to sweat through his clothes, who grew to loathe what recruiting had become, who never forced a visitor to guess his mood.

But the man who inspired a cult of personality in College Park was replaced by a man publicly void of one. Turgeon is married with three young children. His smile isn’t always on public display, but neither is a scowl. Recruiting isn’t his favorite part of the job, but he regards it as essential.

While both are fiercely competitive, Turgeon’s emotions are mostly bottled deep inside, where they burn and fester.

“They talk about a fire in the belly. Mark has a furnace,” said Jim Schauss, the athletic director who hired Turgeon to coach at Wichita State. “And it burns white-hot.”

Modern-day coaching is a balancing act: juggling the recruitment of future players with the teaching of current ones, challenging rules while still following them.

On the basketball court, Turgeon, in his 15th season running a program, says he has mellowed slightly over the years. The goal is still to win a national championship but not at all costs.

Here’s one example: The 2009 season was winding down and prognosticators had Texas A&M firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. Some players missed curfew and another was late for a team meeting. Turgeon benched most of his starting lineup for their next game.

“He didn’t put us in until late in the half. I kept looking at him, like, are you serious?” said Donald Sloan, now a guard with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “That’s him, though. He doesn’t front. He doesn’t put on an act.”

The Aggies won the game and made the tournament.

‘He understood the game’

When Turgeon was barely 10 years old, his team of fifth-graders was playing in a city tournament in Topeka, Kan. The team was leading by one point in the final minute when Turgeon was fouled. Two points would have given his team an insurmountable lead.

“I figured, well, he’ll make both,” said Bob Turgeon, Mark’s father and coach. “We’ll win the game and go home happy.”

Turgeon instead missed the front end of a one-and-one. The opposing team grabbed the rebound, raced down the court and drained a buzzer-beater to win by one.

Losing never was easy for Turgeon, but back then, in 1975, he found sanctuary in the back yard, where Turgeon’s father had enough concrete poured for a full court.

Turgeon returned home and stood in the cold at the free throw line and kept shooting: 50 . . . 100 . . . 250 . . . 500. It wasn’t punishment as much as preparation.

Turgeon was all of 5 feet tall when he began high school, but he was always confident in his abilities. Early during his junior season, he walked into the coach’s office. “Why am I not starting?” he said. “If I start, we probably won’t lose a game.”

Turgeon started and after that the team lost two games in two years, capped by a pair of state championships.

Colleges didn’t have much use for him, either. Brown was the head coach at Kansas then, and John Calipari was an assistant. They both love to tell the story of a teenaged Turgeon approaching them at an ice cream parlor.

“He basically said, ‘I’m better than the point guard you have right now,’ ” said Calipari, now the head coach at Kentucky. “It was funny because we were all like, who the hell is this kid?”

Short and scrawny, Turgeon was invited into the Jayhawks program by Brown, and even if some mistook him for a student manager, he forced his way onto the court as a braces-wearing freshman.

“He understood the game,” said Danny Manning, the star of those Jayhawk teams. “He had a great feel for how a team should be run.”

A thriving practice

Those who know him best say to understand Turgeon as both a coach and a teacher, you have to see him at practice. The two sides come out. The emotion finally boils over.

“Once we get between these lines, you see the alter-ego of Coach Turgeon come out,” said Juan Dixon, the former Maryland great who has practiced with this year’s team as he attempts a professional comeback.

At a recent practice, 16 players shouted, balls bounced and sneakers squeaked in a symphony of organized chaos. It was clear who was conducting.

“If you want to finish sixth in the league, just tell me so I don’t have to lose sleep over it,” Turgeon said. “Do you guys want to be champions? Then let’s practice like it!”

Players say they all hear it at some point. They also say Turgeon is the first to congratulate them or offer encouraging words when needed.

“If you have a coach who yells at you all the time, you just become immune to it,” sophomore Dez Wells said. “We know he’s not satisfied with anything. There’s always a ‘but’ to something. You guys played good, buuuuut . . . You’ve got to love that. He wants us to be great.”

There are times Turgeon prefers the background. The coach wasn’t pleased with the effort during the recent practice, but about halfway through, the Terps appeared to be playing harder. A bit too hard. Two players began shoving. And then yelling. Before long, they were going after each other.

“You want to come at me. Let’s go!”

Just a minute earlier, Turgeon was barking instructions, but he watched the argument transpire from afar, never budging and never saying a word. It’s something he learned during his brief stint in the NBA, allowing players to take ownership of the team. And sure enough, 14 players jumped between two angry Terps and the ruckus quieted.

“Let’s go, free throws,” Turgeon finally said, as the team dispersed to different corners of the court to shoot in silence.

‘I want to do it the right way’

College basketball can be a nasty, unforgiving world, and the sub-universe of recruiting can be especially sleazy. After all these years, Turgeon knows he’s still not completely comfortable begging talented teenagers to play basketball for him. His father was a car salesman. Turgeon isn’t.

“Recruiting is not a natural thing for me,” Turgeon said. “I’m a pretty quiet guy, I don’t like to talk about myself.”

His style is different. Unlike the game’s smooth talkers — the celebrity coaches who are as comfortable in front of a television camera as in a recruit’s home — Turgeon is not a showman. Dustin Clark, the Terps’ director of basketball operations who held a similar position at Texas A&M, says that your first conversation will be the same as your 50th.

“That’s what sets him apart,” Clark says, “that he’s so genuine and so authentic.”

Those who know Turgeon say no matter how badly he wants to turn Maryland into an elite program, there are lines he will not cross.

That’s why his decision to add Dalonte Hill to Maryland’s staff raised eyebrows. Hill was the former youth coach who landed a $420,000-a-year job as an assistant at Kansas State around the same time he helped deliver uber-prospect Michael Beasley to the school. Hill’s tactics remain scrutinized, yet Turgeon was willing to risk his own reputation in bringing Hill to College Park.

“People get labeled and they get misinterpreted,” Turgeon said. “I feel like he was. I wasn’t 100 percent sure when I hired, but now that I’ve worked with him for a year, year and a half, I feel that way. . . .

“When I was a young coach, all I ever thought about was coaching at the highest level and winning national championships. Now I still want to coach at the highest level and I still want to win national championships, but . . . I want to do it the right way.”

Making time for family

In the Turgeon family, schedules aren’t planned around basketball; lives are. There’s a blue pillow in the family’s guest room with the words: “We interrupt this marriage to bring the basketball season.”

When they met, Turgeon was a graduate assistant on the Jayhawks coaching staff and Ann was a student manager for the team. He was a bit more relaxed then, perhaps, but still had a strong distaste for second place. On their honeymoon, the Turgeons went to St. Thomas. The first night the newlyweds played backgammon. She won. He sulked.

“We were waiting to eat dinner, and he got up and left. He just left the restaurant and walked away,” Ann says. “They’re ready to seat us and he came back and told me, ‘I’m never playing backgammon with you again.’ ”

Nineteen years later, they still haven’t played another game, and Turgeon’s competitive fire — his need to win — has moved the young family all around the country.

Turgeon is aware of the costs. Off the top of his head, he knows this year he made it to just one of Will’s soccer games, two of Leo’s flag football games and two of Ella’s soccer games.

“This fall has been awful,” Turgeon said.

He’s seen plenty of coaches who couldn’t juggle, who felt they needed to choose between family and team and watched one — or both — fall apart. “Remember one thing,” Roy Williams told Turgeon years ago. “Don’t neglect your family. There’s never been a guy on his deathbed who said I wished I worked more.”

Ann texts a steady stream of updates while Turgeon is with his basketball family, and the coach still seems to learn something new about his kids every day. For example, 13-year old Will, the oldest, is ultra-competitive. He has to be the first to brush his teeth, to reach the top of the staircase, to finish his dinner.

“When he was younger, Will would just cry until we’d let him win,” Ann said. “Mark was like, ‘This is everything I’m against. He’s got to learn how to lose.’ ”

It’s a process. Losing can spark tantrums and Ann or Mark at times would physically have to carry their son off the field. “We have a serious problem here,” Ann told her husband not long ago.

“We don’t have a problem,” Turgeon said. “We just have to figure out how to temper it. You can’t make a kid that competitive. It’s in your heart. It’s who you are.”

© The Washington Post Company