When Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson announced in May that Mark Turgeon would become the Terrapins’ next men’s basketball coach, it seemed an odd choice.
Unlike his predecessor, Maryland alum Gary Williams, Turgeon had no connection to College Park or the ACC. And he wasn’t as well known as Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon or Villanova’s Jay Wright, whose names led the speculation within hours of Williams’s resignation after 22 seasons.
Yet in a sense, Turgeon’s hiring represented a homecoming for a Kansas-bred coach who has been around the sport his entire life, marking his return, after four seasons at Texas A&M, to a campus where college basketball is king.
“I was lucky enough to be at the University of Kansas for nine years,” Turgeon, 46, said of the school where he played for four seasons and coached for five, “and this is the closest thing, or equal, to the passion they feel at Kansas.”
Never short on confidence and with clearly defined goals, Turgeon has prepared for this moment since grade school.
The middle child among five in a basketball-crazed family from Topeka, Kan., he could dribble at age 2. From grammar school on, he played nearly every day on the full court that his father, who played at Creighton, installed in the back yard.
“If it was snowing, we’d get shovels out and play,” says Rob Reilly, who grew up one block away and played on the same basketball team with Turgeon from third grade through high school.
When it was just the two of them, they would pretend they were Darnell Valentine or Rolando Blackman, announcing the games as they played and taking turns hitting the game-winner at the buzzer.
Turgeon was a fixture at Hayden High School games as a youngster, sitting directly behind the coach’s bench, two rows up, with his father and older brother. He would crane his neck forward like a baby giraffe each time the coach spoke to his players on the bench, trying to listen in on the conversation.
Turgeon eventually enrolled at Hayden, where his diminutive stature — he was just 5 feet 8 and 125 pounds as a senior, and that was after a growth spurt his sophomore year — belied a basketball IQ that was off the charts, according to his former coach, Ben Meseke.
“Size had nothing to do with it; it was the size of his heart and his brain,” said Meseke, 63, a legendary figure in Kansas sports who won six state titles. “He just knew what to do and when to do it. Coaches always look for that kid who’s going to be a coach on the floor. I’ve had some pretty good teams over the years and yet he has got to be the finest coach-on-the-floor that I’ve ever had or seen.”
So when no college extended a scholarship, Meseke arranged a meeting with Kansas Coach Larry Brown, who was looking for players to pad the thin Jayhawks roster he had inherited when he arrived in Lawrence in 1983.
“He was about 5-7, 5-8 and 130 pounds and walked into my office and basically said he was as good as any of the guards we had in the program, and I should give him a scholarship,” Brown recalls, still chuckling over Turgeon’s pluck.
Turgeon quickly earned a prominent role on the team as a freshman and was the Jayhawks’ co-captain his last two seasons. And after Brown dashed his dream of playing in the NBA, telling him he was just too small, Turgeon became a coach-in-training at Brown’s suggestion, sitting beside him on the bench whenever he wasn’t in the game.
“If we had leads, especially, he would ask me what I thought he should do,” Turgeon says. “He’d ask me why. Then he’d tell me why he was doing it his way. It was amazing.”
Turgeon studied Brown like a biology student dissects a frog. He did the same as an assistant to Roy Williams — who took over at Kansas in 1988 — while also taking on the grunt work expected from a young assistant. Among the tasks: selling pizza at basketball camps to augment his entry-level salary ($929 a month after taxes).
“Every year I gave him more responsibility,” Williams says. “He was inquisitive; he wanted to soak up as much knowledge as he could. And when I let him coach our JV team, he was in the dog pile at the middle of the court every time they won.”
As Turgeon tells it, Williams grabbed him by the throat and taught him that a coach’s life is far more difficult than that of a player.
“I was 23 going on about 17 or 18 because I was a spoiled player,” Turgeon said. “Life was easy; life was good. I was a Kansas basketball player! Adored. I hadn’t grown up yet. So I run my office today and treat people the way I want to be treated because of Roy Williams. I work hard because that’s the way I was born. But I also realize, because he taught me, how hard you have to work to be successful in this business.”
Had Turgeon stayed at Kansas for 15 years, he might have succeeded Williams. But his plan was to become a Division I head coach by age 35 and — after five years on Jerry Green’s staff at Oregon and a season working under Brown with the Philadelphia 76ers — he finally landed a top job in 1998 when he was named head coach at Jacksonville State.
But it was the turnaround he engineered at Wichita State that launched him. After going 24-34 over his first two years, Turgeon’s Shockers reached the postseason in four straight seasons starting in 2002-03, including a Sweet 16 run in the 2006 NCAA tournament.
The move to Texas A&M in 2007 was a major step up in prestige and facilities.
With nearly 50,000 students, Texas A&M so dominates life in College Station that it’s called Aggieland. And nothing dominates the skyline and conversation like Kyle Field, the Aggies’ 83,000-seat football stadium.
Turgeon’s teams were disciplined and prepared, known for unrelenting defense and rebounding. In each of his four seasons, they won at least 24 games and made the NCAA tournament. Yet the basketball team labored in shadow of Aggies football, selling out 12,500-seat Reed Arena for games against Texas and Kansas but struggling to drum up spirited support against lower-profile conference foes.
“There were times when [Turgeon] didn’t understand why we didn’t have a full house,” veteran Aggies basketball broadcaster Dave South said. “We’re still developing a following for basketball. It’s getting stronger every year. But even though we were winning, we were still looking to fill it up.”
That’s partly why Roy Williams urged Turgeon to consider Maryland, where basketball is center stage. Brown flat-out begged him to go, convinced he’ll be able to compete for top recruits and contend for a national championship given the university’s rich basketball tradition.
So when Turgeon left for College Park, few who knew him were shocked.
“This is a guy who knows where he’s going,” said Reilly, the childhood teammate who remains Turgeon’s best friend. “There is nothing wishy-washy. He has confidence in his ability, and success follows.”