Maryland fans finally got what they wanted Friday: Mark Turgeon’s tenure as the school’s basketball coach ended suddenly — if not necessarily shockingly.
But Maryland fans never embraced him. He was ice to Gary Williams’s fire, and even though his record was good — very good at times — he couldn’t match what Williams accomplished in 22 seasons at his alma mater. Those last two words — alma mater — are important. Maryland was always Williams’s dream job, and he walked away from an Ohio State program that was ready to take off to become Maryland’s coach, even though the school was in the midst of an NCAA investigation that would result in two years of postseason sanctions.
Turgeon is a Kansas graduate, a quiet Midwesterner who would have walked to Lawrence to coach at his alma mater. He’s only 56, and there’s little doubt he’s going to coach again somewhere, sometime. He’s too good a coach not to.
But Turgeon and Maryland were never a comfortable match. Turgeon wasn’t the least bit happy when the school was forced to leave the ACC to grab the money dangled by the Big Ten. When he was offered the job in the spring of 2011, he had told then-athletic director Kevin Anderson that he wanted to coach in the ACC. He got the chance to do that — for three years.
By then, Maryland fans already were complaining about Turgeon. Many had fallen out of love with Williams in his final seven seasons because the Terrapins didn’t maintain the level they had reached between 1994 and 2004, when they went to 11 straight NCAA tournaments, seven Sweet 16s and back-to-back Final Fours, winning the national title in 2002.
During Williams’s last seven seasons, Maryland reached the NCAAs only three times and didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the tournament.
Coincidence or not, Maryland took off under Turgeon after moving to the Big Ten for the 2014-15 season and went 79-25 the next three years, making the Sweet 16 in 2016. In 2020, the Terrapins were 24-7 and finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten regular season title. That team never got to find out how good it might have been because the coronavirus pandemic shut down the postseason before it got started.
Would Turgeon have taken that team to the Final Four? Most Maryland fans would tell you it wouldn’t have happened. Which takes me back to 2001, when I was frequently stopped by Maryland fans in Cole Field House telling me, “It’s time for Gary to go; he’ll never be more than a Sweet 16 coach.”
After a loss that winter to Florida State, Williams was booed lustily by fans while doing his postgame radio show on the building’s public-address system. “Yeah, you should go ahead and boo,” Williams said angrily at the time. “Because the last seven years around here have sucked, haven’t they?”
That was Williams: He never held anything in before, during or after a game. Or in practice or the locker room. You always knew exactly where he stood. I later asked him about the booing incident, and he laughed. “My attitude was: ‘F--- you. I’ll show you,’ ” he said.
And he did.
The Terrapins turned things around after that, and Williams is now an iconic figure in Maryland’s pantheon.
Turgeon never will be — and never would have been short of matching Williams by winning a national title. He also never would publicly attack his fans, referees, other coaches or even the media. He internalized. And even if he had won a national title, he wouldn’t have been as beloved as Williams because he rarely seemed to get angry. The notable exception was his near-fight with Michigan Coach Juwan Howard last season. That was a moment Maryland fans loved.
In the spring, Maryland announced that it had given Turgeon a contract extension through the 2026 season, but that was a smokescreen. To get extended, Turgeon had to accept a reduction in buyout money, meaning it would be easier for the school to move on from him.
My guess is Turgeon’s fate was sealed when the Terrapins lost at home to George Mason. Power schools often lose to mid-majors in this day and age — Navy over Virginia, Colgate over Syracuse and Liberty over Missouri are only a few of this season’s examples — but Turgeon was already on thin ice with many Maryland people before that game. Then came a defeat to Louisville and Wednesday’s loss to Virginia Tech, a game the Terrapins led by seven in the second half at home.
By sheer coincidence I was in the car driving home from another game Wednesday and heard Turgeon’s postgame radio interview. He sounded like a beaten man. Without being asked, he noted the boos that had followed his team off the floor and said he knew most of them were for him. He talked about how frustrated he felt — and that it was only Dec. 1.
Did I think he had just coached his last game at Maryland? No. But having known him since his playing days under Larry Brown at Kansas, I felt like I was listening to someone who was very unhappy.
Turgeon was always aware that Maryland’s fan base never fully accepted him. He made a mistake by never embracing Williams, who is still on the Maryland payroll and would no doubt have loved to have some involvement with the program that went beyond fundraising.
While the timing of his departure, eight games into the season, feels strange, these are strange times in college athletics. In the past two weeks, football coaches have left storied programs at Oklahoma and Notre Dame for big money and big pressure at Southern California and LSU. Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall suddenly resigned Thursday, and now Turgeon is gone from Maryland.
Danny Manning, Turgeon’s former teammate at Kansas, is a good choice to take over for the rest of the season. He has coached a big-time program at Wake Forest and is certainly someone the players should respect. He won a national championship as a player in 1988 and as an assistant coach in 2008, both at Kansas.
Now the search begins. Maybe Manning will produce a turnaround that will earn him the job — if he wants it — at season’s end. Until then, Maryland would do well to stay away from any silly, overpriced headhunters and instead form a search committee chaired by Williams.
In the meantime, Maryland fans will be celebrating Turgeon’s departure. The only one who might be celebrating more is Turgeon.