Kevin Willard has a chance to show Terps fans why he can succeed where Mark Turgeon didn’t

Maryland men’s basketball opens play against Niagara, and the goal is clear: Instill hope in a fan base that has grown increasingly frustrated.

Published on: November 07, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 07, 2022 12:24 PM EST

This picture shows Maryland men's basketball coach Kevin Willard at a press conference.

Of all the college basketball coaches whose names were mentioned during the months between Mark Turgeon’s sudden resignation last December and Kevin Willard’s hiring in March, the one whose resume, reputation and playing style most resembled Turgeon’s was — you guessed it — Willard.

It was almost as if athletic director Damon Evans had traded in one leased car for the same make, with fewer miles on it and certainly less wear and tear. Now, with the Terps set to open play tonight at home against Niagara, fans will have the chance to see how the program has changed. Willard deserves and will be given time to build the program his way, but it is fair for fans to already be looking for signs that he can take the program where a similar coach could not.

It’s easy now to forget that Turgeon arrived with a resume that might not have wowed fans, but it did suggest he could thrive in College Park. In 11 seasons prior to coming to Maryland — seven at Wichita State before a four-year stay at Texas A&M — his record (225-130, five NCAA tournament bids and one Sweet 16 appearance with the Shockers in 2006) was better than Willard’s 12 seasons at Seton Hall (225-161, five NCAA tournament appearances, a sixth wiped out by the pandemic and only one NCAA tournament win).

Turgeon’s 10 years (plus eight games last season) at Maryland were also better in terms of record (226-116) and NCAA tournament performance (five trips in the last seven full years, a sixth wiped out by the pandemic in 2019-2020, and a 5-4 mark, with one Sweet 16 trip in 2016). As much as you really can’t compare the two schools in terms of resources (and it should be acknowledged that Willard’s best team lost a chance at making a deep tournament run due to COVID-19), I agree with the old line from Bill Parcells, who famously said, “You are what your record says you are.”

Sure, the 47-year-old Willard came off at his introductory news conference as a confident, even cocky, New Yorker who promised the same fan base that helped run Turgeon out of College Park that he was going to bring back “the swagger” that Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams had infused in the program during their combined 39 seasons. The eminently likable Willard seemed appreciative of getting the opportunity.

Many, including me, forgot that Turgeon showed a similar bravado when he was hired after Wiliams’ out-of-nowhere retirement in the spring of 2011.

“Gary Williams was Maryland basketball,” Turgeon said that day. “I hope in 15 or 20 years or however long it lasts, I hope you all will say that Mark Turgeon was Maryland basketball.”

After 10-plus seasons that more than a few Maryland fans derisively and a bit unfairly called “Turgatory,” we all know that isn’t the case.

But will anybody be mentioning Willard in the same reverential tones often reserved for Lefty and Gary a decade or longer down the road?

With Willard about to embark on his first season at Maryland, a program that is more than 20 years removed from winning the 2002 National Championship in Atlanta is at an obvious crossroad, its immediate direction uncertain. Maryland is coming off its first losing season in 30 years.

Asked before practice Friday about his Maryland coaching debut and making a good first impression, Willard said, “Yeah, I am excited. It’s been a long seven months to get to this point. I’m proud of the staff to work as hard as they did to put together a good roster. Yeah, [I’m] a little nervous, to be perfectly honest with you. More excited to get this journey started.”

After rebuilding a Seton Hall program that had four coaches in the 14 years since P.J. Carlesimo left for the NBA (five years after leading the Pirates to the 1989 NCAA championship game,) Willard is coming into a program that has demonstrated great coaching stability, with just six head coaches since Bud Millikan took the reins in 1950.

Only Frank Fellows, who lasted two seasons after Millikan was fired in 1967, and Bob Wade, who replaced Driesell in 1986 in the aftermath of Len Bias’ tragic death, were short-timers. In Willard’s mind, it doesn’t make a difference that he is replacing a coach who was criticized more for his postseason shortcomings than celebrated for his overall success.

“You could replace anybody and this job is going to have immense pressure,” said Willard, who added that he has spoken with Turgeon since taking the job. “I’ve known Mark forever. I respect the heck out of him. I think he did a phenomenal job here. He’s been really good … he’s been a good friend, let’s put it that way.”

Having covered Maryland basketball during Lefty’s last season, through the three-year Wade Error and for much of Gary’s 22-year tenure, I was more than a tad skeptical of how Turgeon would fit into the pantheon of Terps coaches when he replaced Williams.

To be totally honest, that skepticism is there again, and it has more to do with the depleted fan base and the overall state of college basketball. The path to bringing the Terps back to national relevance, let alone prominence, proved narrow and full of obstacles under Turgeon.

It isn’t going to be easy under Willard, either.

The last thing Williams told him before he was introduced to the media back in March was to focus on the fan base.

“He said, ‘You need to spend more time in Maryland than you do anywhere else, to get to know the fan base,’ ” Willard recalled Friday. “That’s probably the best [advice], what I’ve taken most from Coach.”

I knew from the start the fan base was not so excited about Turgeon, then an unknown on the East Coast. Despite getting the blessing of Hall of Famer Larry Brown — Turgeon was a graduate assistant under Brown on Kansas’ 1988 national championship team — fans knew that he was hired after several big-name coaches turned down then-athletic director Kevin Anderson.

I get the feeling that Maryland fans share a similar sentiment about Willard.

Though it’s not clear if Rick Pitino or Bruce Pearl or even Andy Enfield actually turned down Evans as Sean Miller and at least four others reportedly rebuffed Anderson back in 2011, Evans appeared to be locked in on Pitino’s former assistant even before the NCAA tournament began. Willard’s tenure at Seton Hall ended with a 27-point blowout loss to TCU in an opening-round 8-vs.-9 game. He was hired three days later.

Willard has certainly done a great job selling his message to recruits so far, as evidenced by the trio of four-star prospects who have committed for 2023. He quickly bonded with Williams on the golf course and brought in a hundred or so former players for a dinner this summer. He has fans talking about the team’s beefed up non-conference schedule, which includes games against potential top-10 teams UCLA and Tennessee, for years a sore point under Turgeon.

I asked him if there’s anything that could help energize the disenchanted fans aside from winning games. Willard has already mentioned “playing fast,” something his teams at Seton Hall and Turgeon’s at Maryland rarely did.

“I mean, Red Panda does a great job of that, I always skip halftime and watch her,” Willard joked, referring to the popular halftime unicycle plate-spinning act. “No, I think winning cures all. Every fan base is the same. I’m not putting pressure on this team to go out there and all of a sudden energize a fan base. That’s not these guys’ job. These guys’ job is to play ball and go to school, and represent this university at the highest level.

“I think once the fan base sees how hard these guys have worked, and the way they play, I think they’ll be energized by how they’re playing.”

Will a fan base known for being front-runners show up if the Terps don’t have immediate success under Willard? And will Willard have the patience to endure the growing pains that most programs experience following a coaching change, particularly one as abrupt and acrimonious as Maryland’s?

Maybe just the fact that Turgeon isn’t in College Park will be enough for some to jump back on the bandwagon.

Let’s remember that it took Williams, hamstrung by the heavy-handed NCAA sanctions that he inherited after replacing Wade, five seasons and the arrival of an unknown wunderkind named Joe Smith to get Maryland back on track. It took Turgeon, burdened by the pressure of replacing a future Hall of Famer, four seasons and the arrival of Melo Trimble to do the same.

There are no Joe Smiths or Melo Trimbles on this year’s roster, but if there’s anything Willard proved at Seton Hall, it’s that he can do more with less than most coaches. In that way, he is closer to Williams than he is to Turgeon, who was accused by his critics of doing less with more, given the number of his former Maryland players who have stuck in the NBA for more than a tryout. (The answer is six.)

At Media Day last month, Willard talked about how Maryland was playing to win championships every year regardless of who was on the roster.

“No other expectation is allowed in this program,” he told reporters.

He reiterated that Friday.

“Our goal is to win a Big Ten championship, that is what our goal is,” Willard said.

But his lack of post-season wins to this point in his career remains a red flag. All of the coaches who’ve been successful at Maryland came with a history of postseason success.

Millikan played for the legendary Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M and served as an assistant on the school’s 1944 national championship team. Driesell took his last two teams at Davidson to the Elite Eight before coming to Maryland in 1969. Boston College reached the Sweet 16 twice under Williams. Turgeon coached Wichita State to the Sweet 16 before losing to fellow Cinderella George Mason.

Through 15 seasons as a head coach, Willard has not gotten past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Asked if his team is ready to start the season, Willard again demonstrated the kind of honesty and self-deprecating sense of humor that was certainly part of his predecessor’s persona, sometimes to a fault.

“Any coach will always say that they never really feel that they’re on schedule,” Willard said. “It’s been a little bit of a difficult process, but at the same time, they’ve made it easy because they’ve had an unbelievable work ethic. They’ve had a great attitude. My defense is not easy to learn. It’s not complicated. I’m not John Wooden. It’s trying to learn a whole new system in technically four weeks.”

Is Willard the kind of coach that will do what Turgeon never could before the chants to fire him grew in the crescendo that caused him to quit last December? We surely won’t know that this season, and possibly for a couple more after that. As good a start as he and a solid staff of assistants with deep ties in the DMV have had, the main thing Willard must do is win back the fans, and that is going to take a while — if it ever happens.

Just ask the guy he is replacing, whose record and resumé, not to mention playing style and persona, feel eerily similar to his own.

Don Markus covered college basketball at The Baltimore Sun, where he was on staff for 35 years. He is the author of “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and was a producer for the podcast series “Len Bias: A Mixed Legacy.”