Mark Turgeon will have to coach against his alma mater now.
Ever since Turgeon, a plucky Kansas University point guard in the mid-1980s, became an NCAA Division I head coach in the late ’90s, he has steadfastly avoided the visitors locker room in Allen Fieldhouse. Back in the late ’90s when Turgeon — everybody calls him Turge — debuted as a head coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State, he could have come to Lawrence for one of those “paycheck” games.
No, thanks. “I don’t think it’s a good game for our program right now,” Turgeon said at the time. “I’d like our guys to experience Kansas fans and the fieldhouse, but now isn’t the time.” Never was more like it.
Maybe I was reading too much between the lines, but knowing how competitive Turgeon was as a player, it sounded to me like there wasn’t enough money in the world to salve the sting of him losing in his return to Allen Fieldhouse. Same thing after he was named head coach at Wichita State in 2000. Turgeon’s rationale was WSU’s schedule was difficult enough without adding a game against a national-caliber team.
Now with Turgeon taking over at Texas A&M, the playing field has finally leveled, and he will have a legitimate opportunity to make a triumphant return. Not until 2009, however. Turgeon’s first game against his old school will be in 2008 at Reed Arena in College Station, Texas. When ’09 rolls around, Turgeon — by my reckoning — will be only the second former KU player to return to Allen Fieldhouse as a head coach. The first to do it was Adolph Rupp, who brought Kentucky here three times, including the 1971-72 season — the 42nd and last of his storied career in the Blue Grass.
Then again, there haven’t been that many former KU players who have reached the Division I level as coaches. Ralph Miller, who played at KU around the time World War II broke out, went on to become a Hall of Fame coach after spending nearly four decades as the head of programs at Wichita State (1951-64), Iowa (1965-70) and Oregon State (1971-89). Yet in all that time Miller never brought one of his teams to Allen Fieldhouse.
Neither did the legendary Dean Smith. The closest Smith came was in January of 1981 when the Tar Heels tangled with the Jayhawks in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.
Only time will tell if Turgeon will achieve the illustrious status of Rupp, Miller and Smith, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does because he is clearly a Type A personality, a man driven to succeed. When Turgeon was a senior at Topeka Hayden High in 1983, he stood 5-foot-10 (or so they said), weighed 130 pounds and had braces on his teeth. He could play basketball — no doubt about that — so Larry Brown, KU’s coach at the time, invited the undersized Turgeon to join the Jayhawks as a walk-on.
What did Turgeon do? He talked Brown into giving him a scholarship. On the floor, Turgeon was a solid reserve. He participated in 134 KU games, starting just 34 and averaging only 3.4 points and 3.3 assists per game. You can’t quantify everything, though, and if KU ever institutes a Mr. Intangibles Award they couldn’t do any better than name it after Mark Turgeon.