Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on March 12, 2000.
Mark Turgeon’s mother, Linda, remembers dropping her son off every morning for first-grade classes in Topeka. His entrance usually came with a little fanfare.
“He always had a lot of people around him, “ Linda said. “He had a lot of friends. One little boy used to even come up to hug and kiss him.”
Wichita State athletic director Jim Schaus didn’t go quite that far when he introduced Turgeon as the Shockers’ coach Saturday morning.
But the fanfare was back.
At 35, Turgeon is one of the hottest young coaching prospects in the country, a man Schaus said perfectly fits the profile of what Shocker basketball needs. Some of the biggest coaching names in the sport took it upon themselves to call Schaus, giving Turgeon personal endorsements.
Schaus feared that if he didn’t hurry and hire him, Turgeon would surely get snatched up by a school with more name recognition.
Who exactly is this guy, and why is he so popular?
He’s a boy who shoveled snow off the driveway so he could shoot baskets in the dead of winter, tried to beat his big brother in one-on-one, and whose life goal was to play in the NBA.
He’s a kid who played major-college basketball at Kansas, stretched his height an inch to 5-foot-11 on the team roster so he wouldn’t seem so short, and married the team manager after starting his coaching career as a Jayhawk assistant.
He’s a man without a real enemy, who made a name for himself by coaching all over the country so he could get a Division I job in his home state.
Mark Turgeon is still the first-grader everybody wants to be friends with.
That’s what Schaus discovered last week.
“I don’t know if there was a negative thing that was said about me,” Turgeon said. “Except maybe how ugly I am.”
That’s Turgeon, too. He’s someone who never misses a chance to make fun of himself, as he showed during his first news conference as a Shocker.
“When I was interviewing, Jim kept talking about this profile, that I fit this profile,” Turgeon said. “I said, ‘Jim, if you talk about my nose one more time.…”
True, Turgeon doesn’t have that made-for-television face, and he isn’t 6-4, and maybe heads don’t turn when he walks into a room.
But people don’t want to leave the room, either.
“I do always make people laugh,” Turgeon said. “It’s something I’ve always tried to do. When people like being around me, it makes me feel really good. I think I’m a guy who cares about the right things: family, God and treating people the way you want to be treated.”
Turgeon’s father, Bob, said his son has always been a perfectionist.
“He’d see something like an old (Pete) Maravich clip or something,” the elder Turgeon said, “and the next thing you knew, he’d be down in the basement practicing it.”
Turgeon once missed the front end of a one-and-one that cost his youth team a victory. The next day, Turgeon shot 200 free throws.
That drive made Turgeon a star for Topeka Hayden, which won Class 4A championships his junior and senior years.
It also landed him a scholarship to Kansas.
The first game of his collegiate career, and Kansas’ first under coach Larry Brown, was against Houston. That Cougar team featured Clyde Drexler and Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon.
“Turg got to play in that game, “ said Chris Piper, Turgeon’s former teammate and roommate at KU. “Here was this scrawny kid from Topeka with braces. His uniform was falling off, and here he was playing against Akeem the Dream and Phi Slamma Jamma.
“We got beat pretty good in that game, but Turg was tough and he didn’t back down.”
In fact, Turgeon played his way into a starting role that season and set a school record for assists.
Then he had a meeting with Brown that changed his life.
“He told me, ‘Turg, you’re never gonna play in the NBA,’ ” Turgeon said. “I was crushed. But I made the decision right then and there that I was going to be a coach.”
From then on, Turgeon made it a point to sit next to the coaches whenever he wasn’t playing.
“I really studied Coach Brown,” Turgeon said. “And he always asked me, ‘What are you going to do here?’ I’d tell him, and he’d say, ‘Well, this is what we’re going to do, and here’s why.’ He would do that in close games in sold-out arenas. He even did that in an NCAA Tournament game.”
After he graduated, Turgeon assisted Brown, and then Roy Williams, at Kansas – coaching the junior varsity for four seasons – until 1992. He then became an assistant at Oregon for Jerry Green.
Turgeon interviewed for the coaching job at Missouri-Kansas City in 1995 but didn’t get it. He wanted the Oregon job when Green left for Tennessee two years later but didn’t get that one, either.
But Turgeon landed a pretty good gig anyway, spending the 1997-98 season as Brown’s assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Turgeon took a significant pay cut to become a Division I head coach the next season, taking over at Jacksonville (Ala.) State.
He established himself right away as a player’s coach. He raised money to renovate his team’s locker room and weight room. He went 8-18 his first season and 17-11 the next, making Schaus believe Turgeon was somebody who could do a lot with a little.
So Schaus made Turgeon a Shocker, and he wasted no time doing it.
Turgeon will live just two hours from his mother, brother and two of his three sisters in Topeka. He’ll also be closer to his father, who lives in Omaha.
He and his 28-year-old wife, Ann, had a son six months ago, which greatly cut into Turgeon’s favorite hobby – watching basketball on television.
Once a coach, always a coach.
“We went to a parent-teacher conference once,” said Mark’s mother, again reflecting on her son’s grade-school career at Most Pure Heart of Mary. “And one of the nuns told us that out on the playground, Mark was always giving the other kids instructions on how to play ball.
“Mark was a very loud, ornery kid. But when he’d give these instructions, he’d whisper. I thought that was very interesting.”
Turgeon smiles fondly when reminded of the story.
“Yeah, well, I’ve always been a leader,” Turgeon said. “And I’ve always been a terrible follower.”