Like with all other coaches and athletes I’ve covered during my career as a host and columnist in my hometown, I’ve done my best to never make anything about my coverage of Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon personal.
That’s not a difficult concept, of course. I believe my job is to try to reasonably reflect the greater feelings of a collective fan base, not to forcefully suggest that my own opinions are more meaningful than anyone else’s. I do my best to avoid “hot takes.” I try to speak reasonably, even if not everyone always agrees with what I say. But I’m rarely critical for the sake of being critical. If an athlete or coach is a popular figure who has objectively done a good job, I don’t feel the need to take shots at them just to offer a differing opinion. I try to reflect (within reason) a collective voice.
With that in mind, I don’t think that in the last decade there’s been a more difficult figure for me to analyze and discuss than Turgeon. I’ve certainly been tough on him during his eight years, but no more so than the many Maryland fans who have grown frustrated with the program’s lack of tangible accomplishments during his tenure. I’ve also done my best to present Turgeon’s more positive qualities.
He’s been a solid representative of the University of Maryland. His teams have seldom produced truly embarrassing performances and have never really “bottomed out” in a season. He’s helped develop Kevin Huerter, who may be approaching NBA stardom, and a solid pro in Jake Layman. He’s pretty well-liked among his former players. His tenure has been almost entirely scandal-free.
Those aren’t backhanded compliments. I believe they are all qualities that are commendable. It is most certainly unfair to call Turgeon a “bad” coach.
So every time we get around to basketball season in these parts I genuinely find these conversations uncomfortable. How do I juxtapose those positives with the absolute lack of real on-floor achievement? What is a fair standard to judge this? Sure, Turgeon has been a fine coach, but is that enough at a program that has experienced great success and finds itself in the center of a talent hotbed?
I’ve attempted to honestly ask this question of a number of the sport’s foremost experts, some of whom are ardent Turgeon supporters. ESPN’s Jay Bilas — who has, in a way, become the conscience of the sport — was incredulous when I presented it to him a season ago, telling me, “I don’t know how to tell you how to handle your expectations.”
For what it’s worth, Bilas is among those who believe in Turgeon, telling me in the same conversation he believed Turgeon could win a national championship within a decade at Maryland.
And there’s the rub, right? I have absolutely zero reason to believe that’s true, and yet I still can’t say with certainty that it isn’t. And until SOMETHING happens that gives us more clarity, our conversations about Maryland basketball continue to be clouded by our doubts about the coach instead of our faith in the players.
This should be a very good Maryland basketball team! Sophomore big man Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph) appeared to move to the cusp of stardom as last season went on. The last truly great run by a basketball team centered around a superstar from Baltimore (Juan Dixon). How wonderful would it be if this could play out again?
Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. offers the type of veteran leadership in the backcourt most teams aren’t able to hold on to. And the backcourt depth on the roster will hopefully lead to the emergence of a true nightly scoring threat, either one player individually or a different wing player every night. Talented freshman Donta Scott would seem most likely to become an impact scorer immediately, but any of the group could take on the responsibility in a game-by-game circumstance.
The talent is there. The roster can easily be double-figure deep. While Michigan State might be the apparent class of the conference, things appear pretty open behind them.
And honestly, it’s starting to feel personal. No one wants to keep having these conversations about the coach. No one wants to keep asking about hot seats and contracts and fair expectations. (For the record, he’s still probably not on one.)
We just want to see the team … do something. Anything of significance. Anything that suggests Bilas might be right long term.
Hopefully this is the year opinions start to shift.
Issue 258: October 2019
Originally published Oct. 15, 2019