Commentary

Turner welcomes challenge at UC Irvine

Originally Published: July 20, 2010
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

Russell Turner wasn't quite getting it.

The point of the drill -- the one he helped run as a young assistant coach at Wake Forest -- was to give an underclassman named Tim Duncan confidence in a particular scoring move. That involved actually letting Duncan score.

Instead, the 6-foot-7 Turner turned competitive when assigned during practices to put a body on Duncan and conceded nothing while trying to toughen up the future national player of the year. In those moments, recalled former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom with a laugh, Turner actually tried to shut down Duncan.

"He had a total sense of fearlessness," said Odom, who Turner served under from 1994 to 2000. "He was unafraid of anybody. You're looking at Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Cremins and Gary Williams, all these coaches we're going up against. He'd look at them and say, 'Why can't we do this?' He motivated me."

[+] EnlargeRussell Turner
UC Irvine Athletics Turner's first head-coaching stop is at a school with zero NCAA tournament appearances.

Turner is facing yet another daunting challenge now that he's a head coach for the first time. He's trying to energize a UC Irvine program that, despite two Big West regular-season titles under former coach Pat Douglass, has never before advanced to the NCAA tournament.

The school decided not to renew Douglass' contract in March, ending his 13-year run after a 14-18 season and later hiring the 39-year-old Turner, with his history of winning wherever he's coached on the college level.

There does exist a tiny gap on that résumé, one that reveals just how much Turner believes in his own abilities. A decade ago, after six seasons as an up-and-coming assistant in the ACC, Turner left it all behind.

His wife, Elizabeth, had finished first in her class at Wake Forest and gotten accepted into the medical residency program at UC San Francisco. In supporting her, Turner was willing to move across the country with no promise of another coaching job and risk stepping off the career fast track.

"Everyone in the business thought I was nuts," said Turner, who graduated magna cum laude from Hampden-Sydney (Va.) College, where he was the runner-up for Division III player of the year in 1992. "It was a ballsy move. I was probably a little too confident in my ability to make it."

Spending time introducing himself to coaches in Northern California while looking for work was a humbling experience for Turner, who at one point settled on becoming an assistant coach with the University of San Francisco women's team.

But after spending only about three months on the job, Turner got his big break.

Stanford's Mike Montgomery, one of the coaches Turner had previously begged for work, called and said he needed an administrative assistant.

Turner accepted and spent the year working as a jack of all trades. He helped with fundraising and writing up newsletters that gave donors an inside look into the program. He arranged team travel. And while he wasn't able to coach, he went to practice every day and watched from the bleachers.

As it turned out, Turner's expertise was needed. The Cardinal, an Elite Eight team that year, played three ACC opponents and was able to get detailed scouting reports from him on Georgia Tech, Duke and Maryland.

"It was a tough year, but a rewarding year," Turner said.

Turner was promoted to assistant coach the following season and spent three more years at Stanford, going to the NCAA tournament and helping develop All-Americans and future NBA players Josh Childress, Jarron Collins, Jason Collins and Casey Jacobsen.

Turner has spent the past six seasons with the Golden State Warriors, coming on board when Montgomery was hired to coach the team in 2004. He was eventually retained by current Warriors coach Don Nelson.

UC Irvine athletic director Mike Izzi, who in his former post at Stanford oversaw the fundraising work Turner had done as an administrative assistant, eventually came calling, citing the knowledge Turner gained from Hall of Fame-caliber coaches as the reason he chose someone without head-coaching experience.

Turner acknowledges there will be a steep learning curve and has sought advice from the man who he won two ACC championships with in his first Division I job. Odom told the usually hands-on Turner to simply give his players and staff the resources they need to succeed and then place his trust in them.

"I'm certain that from a coaching standpoint, he will challenge his players," Odom said. "Whatever the problems at Irvine that the program had, he'll attack them. He will not make excuses for any shortcomings the program may have. He'll work through them. He'll work around them. He won't back off from them.

"He just will not accept losing."

He will not make excuses for any shortcomings the program may have. He'll work through them. He'll work around them. He won't back off from them. He just will not accept losing.

-- Former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom on Russell Turner

Already, Turner has begun laying the groundwork for rebuilding. Eric Wise, the team's scoring, rebounding and assists leader as a sophomore, considered transferring after the coaching change, but the 6-5 forward decided against it after Turner spoke with him.

"If you really are as good as you think you think you are, then you can make us win," Turner told Wise. "I think I'm good enough to make us win."

Said Turner: "I need to instill belief in these players their dreams are possible."

Wise, a Riverside, Calif., native, is representative of the recruit from the Southern California talent pool that Turner would like to build his program around. He also wants to try selling sunny days in Orange County to recruits overseas, and hired two assistant coaches -- Ali Ton and Amadou "Pape" Koundoul -- with international ties.

"The perception right around California [of UC Irvine] is not that great," Turner said. "It might be greater further from California than right here in our backyard."

But what might be UC Irvine's most important recruit for Turner has committed to being there for the long haul. The other half of the power couple, Dr. Elizabeth Turner, will help save lives out of the UC Irvine's intensive care unit after the school put together an attractive package to bring her over from Stanford.

"My wife's big-time, man," Russell Turner said.

Whether or not UC Irvine can attain a similar level of status is being left up to him.

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.

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