The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mark Turgeon’s tenure ended with boos, stress and the need for a new voice

Mark Turgeon got off to a 5-3 start with the Terps before deciding to step down this season. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
8 min

Over the years, the restlessness of Maryland men’s basketball fans intensified, but Mark Turgeon stayed relatively insulated from criticism. He kept away from social media, and strangers treated him well in public. Turgeon knew what these fans wanted — more postseason success, marquee wins and title runs — but he wanted all of that, too. And every coach, even this mild-mannered man from the Midwest, has a healthy dose of fiery confidence that he’s the right person for the job.

As Turgeon entered his 11th season with the Terrapins, his athletic department didn’t offer resounding affirmation that he would continue leading this team into the future. Turgeon signed a contract extension in the spring, and the new deal included terms that wouldn’t strain the school as much financially if it wanted to move on from Turgeon.

Multiple people with ties to the program said that Turgeon stepping down from his job was indeed his decision, particularly the timing, rather than a product of the university pressuring him to do so midseason. But the coach never felt as if he had a long-term future with the school or was supported under this administration, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Maryland sputters to a third straight loss in its first game since Mark Turgeon’s departure

Both sides held on to this fraying relationship that probably could have been repaired only by a remarkable tournament run. The voices of disgruntled fans grew louder. They booed sometimes after Turgeon’s name was announced during introductions, but that could be muffled by music and cheers from others. Then their displeasure became clear and undeniable: A larger group of critics inside a quieter Xfinity Center booed after a loss against Virginia Tech on Dec. 1, and as Turgeon and his players walked off the court, some fans chanted, “Fire Turgeon!”

That night, Turgeon began a conversation with Athletic Director Damon Evans about his future with the program. Two days later, he stepped down from his position, a surprising move just eight games into the season.

Turgeon declined to comment, but his statement provided by the school said he “decided that the best thing for Maryland Basketball, myself and my family is to step down.” Under Turgeon, Maryland began the season 5-3 with losses to George Mason, Louisville and Virginia Tech — a disappointing start but not one that would typically lead to a coach’s departure.

The extent of the disapproval, building over years, peaked last week, and “I think that ripped a hole in his heart,” Rick Jaklitsch, a major athletic department donor who considers Turgeon a close friend, said of the reception after the Virginia Tech loss. Turgeon’s wife and three children could not be fully shielded from the negativity, and the emotional toll on him and his family played a role in this decision, multiple people said.

When Turgeon told the team of his decision last Friday, the players were shocked. Senior guard Eric Ayala compared the feeling inside the meeting room to the day they heard that the 2020 postseason had been canceled because of the coronavirus. But those who had been part of this team for years understood how even the past three seasons — which included two trips to the NCAA tournament’s second round and the Big Ten regular season title the year they didn’t get to play in the postseason — had bred criticism.

“We kind of knew that he went through a lot with everything going on and the fan base,” Ayala said. “He wanted to put his family first. We all respect that. I’ve been with Coach Turgeon the longest and been able to build that relationship with him. I know how much he loves his family. I admire him as a man for making that decision.”

After a second-round exit in 2019, when Ayala was a freshman on that young Maryland team, Turgeon squirmed a bit in his seat as he explained that he felt bad for his players because “people are so critical of me and my team.” A year later, the Terps won a share of the conference title, and Turgeon yelled with glee inside Xfinity Center, referencing a “thousand-pound gorilla” no longer on his back.

Turgeon’s oldest son, Will, who’s now in college, occasionally engaged with disgruntled fans on social media, defending this team and his dad. In response to a now-deleted tweet last week, Will Turgeon wrote: “I love every single one of those guys behind the scenes… please support them better [than] you supported my family.”

Interim coach Danny Manning, a longtime friend of Turgeon’s who was fired as Wake Forest’s head coach in 2020, said when describing his initial shock and ensuing conversation with Turgeon: “Our families go through a lot. And it gets tough at times. It’s no secret.”

Turgeon still had considerable support inside the program’s top groups of donors. Multiple people who are part of the Friends of Maryland Basketball group, which has roughly 100 members, said they appreciated Turgeon’s honesty and straightforward approach. They felt they had a more intimate relationship with the former coach, and Mike Freiman, a past president of the Terrapin Club, said, “I hope he knows that most of the fans appreciate the work he did.”

Maryland fans will celebrate Mark Turgeon’s departure. So will Mark Turgeon.

During a long-scheduled event Tuesday, Manning helped calm these donors after dealing with what Freiman described as “a shock period and almost a grieving process.” These are the type of fans who feel it’s their duty to support the program, its coaches and the players in any circumstance.

“Everybody that I knew that was in that group of Friends of Maryland Basketball were rock solid behind Mark,” Jaklitsch said. “They knew what we had with Mark Turgeon and loved him for what he did for that program. … The support he had from the inner group, the core group that’s putting down a lot of money for Maryland basketball, they loved Mark for good reason.”

Marcos Bronfman, who is a member of Friends of Maryland Basketball and a past president of the Terrapin Club, said: “Everybody that I’ve talked to in the group was very supportive of Mark. … I’m sure there are people that are giving lots of money that weren’t happy, but they just didn’t voice it the same way.”

“Yet,” said Fabian Jimenez, the president of another booster club called the Fastbreakers, “there was a growing number amongst the standard fan base, ticket holders, who were expressing their concern for one reason or another, on the current state of the program.”

Turgeon built a résumé in College Park that managed to reinforce the arguments of fans with opposite views. His teams had consistently solid seasons; the Terrapins reached five of the past six NCAA tournaments, and Turgeon, who had the second-highest winning percentage in school history, led Maryland to a Big Ten regular season title in 2020. Supporters lament how that championship team never had its chance to play in the postseason, which could have led to Turgeon’s best run in March.

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Critics think about that same team and remember how it started to fade down the stretch, winning just two of its final five games and clinging to the shared conference title that the team failed to win outright. Turgeon’s teams became regulars at the NCAA tournament, but Maryland advanced to the Sweet 16 only once. That appearance came from a team that ascended as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press poll but was pummeled by Kansas in its tournament exit. This is a program with tradition that went to back-to-back Final Fours and won a national title two decades ago, so that leads to grander expectations.

When Turgeon and the school negotiated a contract extension this past offseason, the deal included a buyout that started at $5 million and would have decreased with time or increased with conference titles and trips to at least the Sweet 16. The deal required the school to pay the buyout if it terminated the contract in the best interest of the university, and athletic department officials said the school will honor the $5 million buyout.

Turgeon has said in the past that, as a coach, “I always think I’m going to figure it out.” Before this season, he brought in six transfers and two scholarship freshmen. Newcomers filled the rotation, and they haven’t meshed into a strong unit that matched the potential of the individual pieces and the lofty preseason hopes.

“He thought that our team needed a different voice,” said Manning, who played with Turgeon at Kansas and is now tasked with leading the Terps.

“Mark's an honest guy,” Bronfman said. “If he didn't think it was working, he would say so.”

And that’s what Turgeon did, just after he walked off the court for what turned out to be the final time.

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