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None of the players on the Maryland men’s basketball team have known Mark Turgeon for as long as Eric Ayala. The guard from Wilmington, Delaware, is the only senior and player from his recruiting class still on the team, and his return this season helped Maryland receive a No. 21 preseason ranking in the AP Top 25 poll. Ayala knew the pressure of winning at Maryland weighed on Turgeon, but he did not think that Dec. 3 would be Turgeon’s last day with the program after more than 10 seasons as its head coach. The school announced that day that Turgeon would step down “in a mutual decision.”
“It was definitely tough. Nobody really expected it,” Ayala told reporters Sunday after the team fell to Northwestern, 67-61, for its third straight loss. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here without Coach Turg. It’s still kinda unreal to describe it. Emotions, I felt, was kind of like when we heard that we weren’t going to be able to play in the NCAA Tournament due to COVID [in March 2020]. It kind of had that feel to it, that shock. And [we’re] still trying to get through it, and we got to keep fighting, keep trying to win games.”
Turgeon leaves Maryland with a 226-116 record, one NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance, and five trips to the NCAA Tournament, but the Maryland fan base never fully embraced him after several disappointing postseason performances. Perhaps the most promising season in 2019-20, in which Maryland won a share of the Big Ten regular season title, was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Turgeon signed a three-year contract extension in April and the deal stipulated that if the school fired Turgeon before May 1, 2022, he would be owed $5 million. Even though the athletics department has described the move as a “mutual decision,” a team spokesperson tells City Paper that Maryland will honor the terms of Turgeon’s contract, including paying him the $5 million.
The Terps currently sit at 5-4 after starting the season with four straight wins. The team has lost to George Mason, Louisville, Virginia Tech—Turgeon’s final game—and Northwestern, and has yet to find an offensive identity. Maryland shot 17 of 59 from the field against Northwestern, and fans began leaving Xfinity Center in droves with under a minute to go in Danny Manning’s debut as interim head coach.
“I feel like [Turgeon’s] tenure could be summarized as slightly underwhelming,” season ticket holder Ryan Earle tells City Paper. “It always kind of left you wanting more.”
Earle, 34, graduated from Maryland in 2009 and has been a season ticket holder since 2013, the year before the university moved from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten Conference. The Baltimore resident bought single game tickets before then and went to almost every game as a student. He calls Turgeon a “very good coach,” but believes the “Turgeon era had run its course.” Enthusiasm among the fan base, Earle says, is at the lowest level he can remember.
“There’s a lot of apathy amongst the fan base, and I think there’s just not a clear path to ever truly contending with [Turgeon],” Earle says. “That’s kind of how everyone felt. So I think that’s why a lot of the fan base was celebrating the fact that we decided to move on.”
That’s not to say Turgeon didn’t have supporters. In his post-game press conference on Sunday, Northwestern head coach Chris Collins praised Turgeon. “I hope Coach Turgeon is being celebrated for what he did here,” Collins said. “For 10 years, I’ve competed against that guy … and I can tell you trying to prepare to play against his teams, the kind of players he had here, the winning, the way he did it, the kind of person he is, he’s a good basketball coach, and a good man. So I hope that everybody around here will celebrate him for his standard as you guys move forward.”
Manning, who was teammates with Turgeon during their college days at University of Kansas, considers Turgeon a friend, coaching peer, and mentor. He told reporters Sunday he reacted to Turgeon leaving the program with “complete and utter shock.” As Manning understands, Turgeon made a decision “he felt was best for himself, for his family, but more importantly, for this team. He thought that our team needed a different voice.”
“He was like, ‘Danny, we’re close. We gotta fine tune some areas and we can string together some games. I think a new voice can help move in that direction a lot quicker,'” Manning added. “And to me, that’s an extremely unselfish piece for him to recognize that in his eyes, but also to follow through with it.”
And then there are the Turgeonites, the Maryland superfans who dress in suits like Turgeon. The tradition started in 2011, and on Sunday, half a dozen fans showed up in the lower bowl of Section 102, where the Turgeonites typically sit, wearing suits and paper bags over their head. They removed the paper bags during the game and held up a banner that read, “Open to Work @Manningites” to announce their rebrand.
“We adored him as a coach,” Zach Arter, one of the Turgeonites, tells City Paper. “We knew he wasn’t the absolute best … He wasn’t perfect. No one is.”
Arter is a senior economics major from Annapolis, Maryland, and has been a Turgeonite for two seasons, not counting last year when fans were not allowed at games due to the pandemic. He plans to continue going to games even as the confidence in the team wanes, and hopes that the Turgeonite tradition can live on.
“We’re not too sure what the future is gonna look like, but we’re hoping for the best,” Arter says. “Honestly, I would like to see more support, and I’m going to graduate next year, so I really hope this continues the tradition. I don’t wanna let it go.”
Ayala, too, believe there are better days ahead for the Maryland men’s basketball program.
“As a team, we kinda got to still keep fighting, because nobody’s gonna have sympathy for us,” he said. “We go out there, playing games, nobody’s gonna care that we just lost a coach and somebody that meant a lot to our program … So, as a team, we kind of got to just keep fighting. Just find a way.”