Writhing in pain on the floor of a Topeka, Kan., basketball court, Mark Turgeon grabbed his wrist, clenched his teeth and slowly got back to his feet.
After jumping for an overthrown pass, the sixth-grader had been undercut by an opponent, and he fell to the ground awkwardly. But the Capital City Youth Basketball League championship game meant too much for him to leave.
So, broken wrist and all, Turgeon played the rest of the game, leading his team to a championship victory.
Growing up, no one questioned Turgeon’s desire. The competitive fire, absolute confidence and borderline cockiness that fueled him as a youngster in the basketball-crazed state of Kansas set him apart even when his slight frame and small stature suggested he’d get lost in the crowd.
Not much has changed in the decades since.
Entering his first season at the helm of the Terrapins men’s basketball program, Turgeon has the utmost confidence in himself. He has no doubt he can accomplish what he set out to when he started coaching as a graduate assistant at Kansas in 1987. It doesn’t faze him that he follows a legend in Gary Williams and inherits a roster barren of much experience or talent.
Turgeon’s been told time after time what he could and couldn’t do. Reclining in his seat one late September afternoon and looking around his office in Comcast Center, surrounded by reminders of Terps basketball history as he remembered his own, the basketball lifer cracked a wry grin.
“I’m going to be Mark Turgeon, and it’s been good enough all my life,” he said. “All I needed was an opportunity at a great school, and now I have it.”
n GREEN ROOTS
Somewhere in suburban Topeka sits a basketball court with green-painted backboards, a decades-old refuge for neighborhood kids with an affinity for the game.
Turgeon spent countless hours lofting shot after shot toward those rusty rims. After all, the court did rest in his backyard. And when winter came, he and his friends would shovel snow off the pavement to play pickup games in the freezing cold.
Even as a young kid, Turgeon hated to lose. As a fourth-grader, he once spent all night on that court practicing his shot after missing a potential game-winning free throw.
In the eight years following that missed game winner, Turgeon’s teams lost 10 games, including just three as a high school point guard. In a family of five, including an older brother and two younger sisters, basketball was life for the scrawny kid.
Ben Meseke, Turgeon’s basketball coach at Hayden High School, still remembers the moment he first learned of the young player. Picking up the Saturday edition of the hometown newspaper, Meseke noticed a photo of the high school basketball team sitting on the bench listening to their coach during a timeout.
Just a row behind, a young boy peered as far into the huddle as possible, hanging on the coach’s every word.
“He’s leaning so far in that his head is actually in the huddle with those guys,” Meseke recalled. “All his friends are up there in the balcony, throwing popcorn and chasing the girls — the things that third- and fourth-graders do.”
“He was a kid that just lived for that,” said Bob Turgeon, Mark’s father. “He didn’t have the physical talent, but he understood the game when so many kids never got it. There’s a big difference there.”
Despite measuring in at a skinny 5 feet, 6 inches — “He looked like a toothpick out there on the floor,” Meseke said — Turgeon led Hayden to two state championships and an undefeated record his senior season.
Meseke had never seen a player so confident in himself. When his team faced a two-point deficit with two seconds remaining during that final year, Turgeon walked into the huddle and coolly said, “This is ours.” It was.
“He really toes the line between confidence and cockiness,” Meseke said, “but he doesn’t cross it.”
“He had a confidence about him, and he just knew he could play,” said Mark’s older brother, Jim. “Mark’s never failed at anything in his life.”
n A NEW PATH
Within months of taking the head coaching position at Kansas in 1983, Larry Brown went out for ice cream with that same brash high school player and his coach. His prep career over, Turgeon was hoping to walk on at the school of his dreams. Brown, Turgeon remembered, didn’t think he had a chance.
“What makes you think you can play for the University of Kansas?” Brown asked him.
“It’s because I’m better than any guard you got right now,” Turgeon responded, his confident tone belying the fact not even smaller, local programs had thought much of him.
“I was very cocky,” Turgeon said. “I wanted to be a player at Kansas so bad, no one was going to stop it.”
Brown gave Turgeon his wish — a one-year scholarship offer to prove himself. He didn’t need very long. In his freshman season, Turgeon started 18 games, leading the team with 138 assists and helping the Jayhawks to their first winning record in three years.
“The Surgeon,” as he came to be known during his playing days, didn’t have the physical tools to play in the NBA, but Brown quickly recognized his potential as a coach. He sat the point guard down after his freshman season and broke the news that he would never play professionally.
Turgeon, who said he would’ve scoffed at the notion had anyone else told him, listened. For the next three years, he soaked up everything he could from Brown on the sidelines.
After a four-year career at Kansas, Turgeon spurned offers from local semi-pro teams to become a graduate assistant under Brown. During his first season on the staff, the Jayhawks won a national championship.
n THE ‘FIREBALL’
Ten years later, in the months leading up to his first career game in charge of a Division I basketball program, Mark Turgeon was spent. He’d expended all the energy he could muster on recruiting, training and coaching his downtrodden Jacksonville State program.
But hours before his introduction at his first game as Gamecocks coach, he saw he’d forgotten one important thing: new uniforms.
So, Meseke recalled, Turgeon taped numbers on the back of his team’s practice jerseys. No matter how hard he tried, coaching almost never seemed to come easy at the start for Turgeon, who was an assistant for Oregon and the Philadelphia 76ers before taking the Jacksonville State job. His frustrations showed on the court in his two years with the Gamecocks and his early years at Wichita State.
After a loss in 2001, his debut season with the Shockers, the fiery coach unraveled after yet another technical foul, sounding off on players, the fans, the program and the referees.
“I’m going to be the [hottest] fireball on this damn sideline that I can be,” Turgeon said afterward, according to a report in The Wichita Eagle. “If I get thrown out of every damn game, I’ll get thrown out of every damn game. I’m getting things changed around here.”
Said Andrew Darko, a former player under Turgeon at Texas A&M: “He just gets so into the game. We used to make fun of him because he would mark up the floor with his shoes stomping.”
The 46-year-old said he’s since toned down his tirades.
“I’ve always had an edge to me,” Turgeon said. “I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older, but I just hide it better. It burns inside.”
When the energy he exhausted tirelessly building two relatively unknown programs at Jacksonville State and Wichita State finally started to pay off, those frustrations began to disappear. After his first two years with the Shockers, Turgeon guided the school to five straight winning seasons.
In 2006, his squad stunned the country with a run to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. Just a year later, he had Wichita State on the cusp of a top-25 ranking at the start of the season.
“He’s never lost at any place he’s gone,” Bob Turgeon said.
n LEAVING HOME
Turgeon’s dream to climb to the top of the coaching profession never left. Despite all his accomplishments in Wichita, he wanted more.
“He’s just got this burning desire to be the best,” Bob Turgeon said.
So he bolted from his hometown state for a position at Texas A&M in 2007. As he fought to both captivate a football-crazed and largely apathetic fan base and remake a team set in its own ways, heartbreak struck.
In his second season, Derrick Roland, a senior guard and the vocal leader of the team, broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a gruesome fall near the end of a game.
Just months later, the first recruit Turgeon ever had contact with at Texas A&M — Tobi Oyedeji, a 6-foot-9 forward — died in a car accident.
“It was such an ugly deal,” Bob Turgeon said. “To keep those kids together, that could have totally ruined the year.”
It’s those moments, Darko said, that make Turgeon truly stand out as a coach.
“I remember there were times when my family was going through stuff and I would go into his office and just talk to him about it,” Darko said. “He has an open-door policy, and you can just go talk to him about anything.”
“Like the kids say, ‘He keeps it real,'” Jim Turgeon said. “He’s a straight shooter.”
n MR. RELIABLE
Turgeon will tell you himself that he’s a competitor, that he was born that way.
But Texas A&M never offered the atmosphere he craved and came to know growing up in Kansas. He won at least 24 games in each of his four seasons with the Aggies and guided the program to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and it hardly seemed to matter.
Friends said Turgeon slowly became disenchanted with the direction of his basketball program, one that was largely overshadowed by the football team and saw Reed Arena filled to the rafters only against the Big 12’s premier opponents.
That, Turgeon said, is why he’s in College Park, a place that puts basketball above all else. With him comes the competitive fire and cockiness that has resonated his entire life. Another thing, too: a clear goal to win a national championship. After a life spent defying expectations, nothing else will do.
“He told me when he was a freshman in high school that we were going to win a state championship, and we did,” Meseke said. “He told me he was going to play for the University of Kansas, and he did. He told me he wanted to be a Division I coach by the time he was 35 years old, and he did.
“Everything he has said, he has backed up.”