Photo By: Alex Yee
The Life of a UCI Basketball Coach
By: Ian Massey
At 6’7” and, in his words, “a couple of pizza boxes over 220 pounds,” UC Irvine’s new head basketball coach, Russell Turner, has created a sports buzz at a university known more for scientific research than love of college basketball. Turner succeeds Pat Douglass, the school’s all-time winningest coach, who was let go in March after leading the Anteaters to a below-average, 14 wins and 18 losses season. Turner takes over a program that has never reached the NCAA Tournament, but the rookie head coach brings an impressive resume to the job.
He spent six seasons as the assistant coach of Wake Forest University and four years under the same title at Stanford University. After 13 years of college coaching, Turner landed a job as the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors’ assistant coach. He sat on the bench alongside Hall of Fame Coach Don Nelson for four of his six years at Golden State.
Talking a big game and brandishing an enviable track record, Coach Turner exudes confidence to his players, the media and the community, but there’s a great deal of weight resting on his shoulders. With the attention and hopes of many in the hands of a first time head coach, he’s desperate to win the approval of an apathetic sports town.
The regular season began on Nov. 8 and lasts until March 5. With a record of 4-3 (as of Dec. 2), Turner aspires to maintain a winning season this year, but hopes for something even more impressive over time, perhaps because his own college career as a player and a coach was noteworthy.
“In my first year at Hampden-Sydney we won the tournament and went to the NCAA’s,” he said. “My first year at Wake we won the ACC Tournament for the first time in 33 years and in my first year at Stanford, we were ranked #1 in the nation for the first time in the school’s history. I know it won’t be easy here, but it’s not out of question for us to do something big this year.”
Last year in the NBA with the Warriors, Turner was surrounded by an average of 18,027 spectators in Oakland’s Oracle Arena. In November’s first home game of the 2010-2011 season, his UC Irvine Anteaters’ supporting cast was just a fraction -- 1,873 -- at the team’s Bren Events Center, compared with 1,878 fans a year earlier.
Welcome to Irvine: Shocktoberfest, Oct. 15
Six months after accepting the position at UCI, Turner and his revamped squad put on a show for students at the school’s annual Shocktoberfest concert. Featuring the bands Cali Swag District and Kevin Rudolf, the event also included a preview of Turner’s own men’s basketball team for a building packed with Irvine students.
In a three-point shooting contest, the team looked unimpressive, clanking shot after shot off of the front of the iron and lulling the student audience to sleep. Then the slam dunk contest came around. As players elevated from the wooden canvas and barely managed to get their palms above the rim, fans began to become a little more intrigued. But still, for a crowd filled with students who had grown up watching professional athletes like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Vince Carter skyrocket through the air and throw the ball through the hoop with ease, it was nothing special.
That is until the contest was over and the floor was cleared in anticipation for the first band of the evening to take the stage. The public address announcer interviewed Turner, a former college basketball player, economics and English major at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College.
As he and the announcer stood at the left wing of the three point line, the announcer bluntly asked him, “Could you still throw it down if you had to?”
No longer bored, students in the audience put both feet on the ground and locked their eyes on the spectacle on the right side of the court. “I think I could,” Turner answered confidently.
Starting from the left side of the key, Turner grasped the ball with his paws, stocked the basket, and elevated, throwing down a one-handed dunk with ease. The crowd erupted as his team embraced him.
Being on the court alongside players at Shocktoberfest was nothing new to Turner, who as an assistant coach at Wake Forest University in 1993, guarded future NBA star Tim Duncan in practice. Now 34, Duncan has four NBA championship rings, two Most Valuable Player awards and is likely a future Hall of Famer. According to Mark Whicker of the OC Register, when asked who played the hardest defense against him while he was a college athlete at Wake Forest, Duncan concisely responded, “Russell Turner.”
Turner told Whicker, “We didn’t have many big men back then … My job was to bang on him every day. He was 18 then … What I like to say is, I didn’t screw him up.”
At UCI Turner has continued to coach by example, lifting weights alongside his players throughout the summer, something almost unheard of in the coaching profession. He began an overhaul process of installing a fast-paced offense, which forces players to be in peak physical condition. The previous season Irvine’s best player, junior forward Eric Wise, led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, but lacked something Turner felt was crucial to being a top-notch player: conditioning. So as the team progressed over the offseason, Turner and Wise’s teammates ran alongside their star, whipping him into shape.
Practice, Oct. 30
Two weeks later it was a different scene. At practice on Oct. 30, there were no spectators and no public address announcers. It was just a coaching staff surrounding players who were dripping with sweat. It’s not the amount of time that is being put into practices that is making a difference, but the focus level. Turner was proving to his players that he expects more than Douglass had in years past.
The Golden State Warriors featured an up-tempo style of offense for years with Turner on the sidelines. He has virtually copied their professional offense and brought it to Irvine. With an offense requiring players to sprint up and down the court the entire game, the Anteaters have huffed and puffed much less this season due to their months of dedication to Turner’s style. Compared to last season, the Anteaters are already noticeably improved in terms of conditioning. Encouraging his team to keep the ball moving continuously and striving for quick passes around the court, Turner’s players in just a few months have bought into their coach’s NBA-inspired practices.
When comparing Turner to Douglass, senior captain Darren Moore said, “At times last year it was kind of laid back [under Douglass]. But for the most part, [the focus and intensity didn’t happen] every day. Every day [Turner is] willing to make us better.”
On this day in late October, UC Irvine’s men’s basketball team spent hours in the gym as Turner forced his players to run sprints, work on their ball-handling skills and rebounding. Turner then split the team in half and began a scrimmage. When his leader and co-senior captain, Patrick Rembert, let a ball trickle out of his hands and out of bounds after being nudged by a teammate, he voiced his concern to his coach. Turner retorted, “Don’t make excuses, that’s bullshit!” Rembert played smothering defense on the next possession and when his team scored their next basket, he passionately screamed before embracing his four teammates. He was inspired by a professional motivator in Turner.
“He’s an intense personality,” sophomore Mike Wilder said. “He’s an ‘ooh rah’ kind of guy. A lot of times he’ll be yelling and screaming and it’s not that he’s angry, he’s just into it.”
Following the workout, Turner held all of his athletes who were done with classes for the day for additional work. Before leaving the gym to return home, each player was expected to make ten straight free throws.
Wilder concluded an interview with a reporter following practice and then returned for his free throws. As the sophomore guard from Long Beach Wilson High School toed the free throw line his teammates wandered out of the arena. He hit eight straight, and then clanked one off of the rim. Wilder began to recount as part of Turner’s orders. He made six straight, then missed another. The Anteater stood at the line as the lone player in the gym while Coach Turner looked on.
“Swoosh”, the net whistled as his ninth consecutive slid through the basket in his third sequence of attempts.
“Everybody’s watching you Mike,” Turner said tauntingly in an empty gymnasium. “Don’t get nervous. Everyone in the stadium is counting on you.”
Wilder took additional time, nervously smiled, sucked in a breath of air and then fluidly knocked down his final free throw before exhaling. “Good job Mike,” Turner told Wilder, one of his stronger shooters.
“You can tell he has a great passion for [the game],” Wilder said.
The first home game against Navy, Nov. 19
UC Irvine started off 0-2, losing on the road to the 13th ranked team in the nation, Illinois, and perennial contenders, the University of Southern California Trojans. After a tough trip, the team returned to Orange County for their home opener against Navy on Friday Nov. 19. Despite Turner bringing the packed crowd to their feet at the arena with a show-stopping dunk at Shocktoberfest, the seats were scattered with few bodies against Navy. The 0-2 start was apparently unimpressive to fans.
As the game tipped off, Turner was spotted wearing a blue polo shirt with an Anteater logo on the breast and a tan pair of slacks. He glanced along the sideline as several players rode the bench without shorts and mesh jerseys on, but rather street clothes. Wise started the game, but was hobbled by a groin and lower back injury. His center, senior Adam Folker, was sidelined with a broken hand. Center Peter Simek sniffed up phlegm the entire night, recovering from an illness, but managed to play a few minutes for his inspirational coach.
Navy went to the free throw line in the late stages of the first half. When the Midshipmen missed a free throw, Irvine’s Pavol Losonsky failed to box his man out and gave up an easy rebound. Irate, Turner blew up.
He emphatically raised his hands over his head in the shape of a T. “Timeout! Timeout!,” he screamed, “Pavol you mother[expletive], what the [expletive] are you doing?”
After the timeout, his team responded. Losonsky’s effort improved and the team extended their lead to 24 points with 12 minutes remaining.
“Everything about him is up-tempo,” Moore said of his coach. “He’s all in your face, all the time, but I think that’s what we need as a team. As a culture and as a program that’s what we need.”
With time ticking down, the aggressive coach began to show a different side. “Mike, you alright out there man?” Turner said to Wilder. “If you’re tired let me know.”
When Moore came off the floor in the final minutes of the game with 12 rebounds and 19 points, Turner extended his palm and congratulated his leader. He called sophomore Daman Starring over to the bench at one point, telling him to grab a rebound for him over a lengthy defender. Starring respectfully replied: “Yes sir,” while wiping his brow and making perfect eye-contact.
The clock struck double-zero and Turner stood staring at the scoreboard above his head. It read 76-60. Turner began coaching at the age of 21 and had 19 years of experience under his belt, but until that moment, he had never won a game as a collegiate head coach. Russell had certainly been around the block, but he had never tasted victory as the man in charge. Ultimately the reason why he came to UCI was to begin his head coaching career, whether there were ten people in the crowd or 10,000, it was a relief to emerge victorious.
He exhaled, proceeded to shake the opposing coach’s hand and left the arena for the locker room. Following a postgame talk with his players, Turner completed a radio interview and then sat down with reporters. When asked if he felt relieved to win his first game, he emphatically responded, “Oh hell yeah! It had been a while since this team had won.”
The clock showed 10:00 P.M. as one of Turner’s assistant’s placed a Chipotle burrito on the table in front of his superior. Turner glanced down showing his hunger, but finished the interviewing process and dismissed reporters before he unwrapped the tin foil and digested.
It's a lifestyle
Where had the day gone? With his wife working at Stanford University’s medical center until January, Turner is virtually a single father with the help of a nanny. His day started with waking his children, six year old Devlin and three year old Darius in the early morning. He made sure they were properly clothed, made their breakfast and drove Devlin to elementary school and Darius to preschool. Turner then arrived at the UCI athletics office at 10 AM to review film of Navy’s previous games and converse with his coaches over that night’s challenge. Stepping away from the film room and sitting down at his desk, he then returned several emails and wrote letters to donors, hoping to amass capital for a growing program.
“I don’t have a secretary so I always have a bunch of messages to return,” he said.
Checking on the health of his players, he then visited with the trainer, leaving the room disgruntled by how injury prone his short-handed roster had been in the early season. At 2 PM, Turner arrived at the basketball arena for the team’s shoot-around. But before he attended, Russell phoned the National Collegiate Athletic Association, checking on one of his player’s eligibility. A young Frenchman named Maxime Chupin was Turner’s prized possession when he first recruited him over the summer. At 6’9”, Chupin was expected to bring height and versatility to a team that annually lacks size. Every day Turner places a call to the NCAA to check to see if they’ve made a decision as to whether Chupin can play this season or not.
“Tomorrow I’ll call again. That’ll probably be frustrating, but you never know when that breakthrough’s going to come,” Turner said.
Between the 2 PM shoot-around and the 7:30 PM game, Turner was on the phone with recruits, trying to acquire future talent to help bolster his team’s roster.
“After watching that USC game, I could tell that we could really use some shooters,” he said.
He was on the phone with parents of his current players as well. Continuously keeping a watchful eye on his team’s academics, the coach holds his players accountable in the classroom. Turner sat down with Wise after practice, one day, pleading with him to take care of his studies.
“Have you set that appointment with your English teacher yet?”, Turner said.
“Not yet,” Wise responded.
“When are you going to do that?”, the coach followed up.
After hours of phone calls, film evaluation, checkups, letters and scheming, the coach prepped his team in the locker room. Before breaking the huddle, he joined hands with his players and said, “I want everyone in here together. Family on three. One, two, three – family!”
A wadded up piece of tin foil banks off of a nearby trashcan as Turner exits the arena close to 11 PM. He returns home, relieves the nanny and checks up on his sleeping children before hitting the hay.
The expectations weigh down a single father attempting to engross a student population and win games for a skeptical fan base. In January, Elizabeth Turner will join her husband in Irvine and complete the family that moved from Northern California’s Menlo Park in the spring.
“Her job will be as demanding as mine,” Turner said. “She’s going to be the director of the intensive care unit at University Hospital, so that’s a hard gig. But we’ll work it out. I definitely don’t want to paint a picture that I’m in any way complaining, because this is what we signed on for. I’m really proud that my kids can see that I’m working hard and trying to build something here. That’s what I want them to know. Anytime that I don’t get to spend with them, I spend committed to something that’s really good. They’ll figure that out, that’s what it was for me when I was a kid.”
For Russell Turner, becoming a successful head coach is crucial and it consumes his life at times. He exemplifies his passion for the game and his impressive motivational abilities on a daily basis. But he's also flawed, spewing vulgarity when the game gets the best of him. A committed individual who has prior success with turning teams around, Turner hopes to put the city of Irvine on the map in the college basketball world. His task is daunting, but Turner rarely lets his insecurities show. Only time will tell whether his stress will mitigate, and whether he'll be able to grasp the attention of the Irvine community, attract exceptional high school athletes to his team and manage to have an impact in his family's lives.
“Each job that I’ve had, whether it’s been with the Warriors or at Stanford or Wake that’s become my identity, a part of my life,” he said. “That’s what coaching is, it’s not just a job. It becomes what you do and who you are. I like wearing my UC Irvine basketball stuff around and bumping into people and having conversations with people who are interested and want us to do well. I can see that all being a great thing here. In order for it to be a great thing though, we have to be good. Sports is a tough business, it’s not like it’s going to be easy to be good. I worry a little bit about people expecting us to be better just because there’s been a coaching change. It’s hard to be good.”
2 - 45 minute interviews with Russell Turner
3 - 10 minute interviews with Russell Turner
1 – 3 minute interview with Darren Moore
1 – 4 minute interview with Michael Wilder
5 hours of observation at practices
6 hours of observation at games
20 minutes of observation at Shocktoberfest Concert