Last Wednesday evening, UCI’s first-year basketball coach, Russell Turner strutted into Gina’s Pizza. He walked in surveying his choices on the menu, but before he could place his order, he was greeted by a warm welcome from numerous community members. From three different directions, the phrase “Hey Russ!” echoed towards the 6-foot-7-inch, self-proclaimed “couple pizza boxes over 220” pound man.
After purchasing his meal, he shook hands with a UCI volleyball player who was joined by a few friends in the restaurant. Turner then proceeded across the room to approach another admirer. Like a scene out of “Remember the Titans,” two residents conveyed their high expectations to the man standing before them. “So how’s our team looking this year coach?” one man asked.
“Practice starts Friday, boys [last Friday], I’m excited,” Turner responded with a grin.
A second man introduced himself, voicing his tall order for the man who hovered at least eight inches higher than he. “All I ask is for you to beat our rivals, Long Beach State, this year coach,” he said.
“Hell, I want to beat everybody,” the personable coach replied. “We’ll see what we can do.”
The basketball program has been hyped up considerably. There’s a buzz surrounding them that can be felt in the athletics office, in the community, on campus and hopefully, when the season tips off … in the seats. And that should’ve been obvious to Shocktoberfest attendees on Oct. 15. The men’s basketball team struggled in the three-point shootout, but keep in mind, it was following the team’s first practice of the season. Turner’s work here is just beginning.
They then transitioned to the annual slam-dunk contest, which unfortunately was rushed this year. I would’ve rather seen them add an additional round to the dunk contest and kept Kevin Rudolf off of the stage that night after his dreadful performance. Let’s just say, he didn’t let it rock.
Senior Darren Moore won the contest for the second straight year, leap-frogging teammate Patrick Rembert on two occasions to rock the rim.
Although many grew impatient at sophomore Daman Starring’s numerous failed dunk attempts in the contest, I saw it as a bright spot. In warm-ups, the left-hander got above the rim with regularity, exemplifying why Turner recruited him. The very fact that his teammates saw his potential and encouraged the announcer and judges to allow him to receive additional attempts, showed a camaraderie and selflessness on a team that needs to play as a unit if they hope to compete for a conference title this season.
After rushing through the final round of the contest, the announcer interviewed Turner. Before Cali Swag District could teach the crowd how to dougie, Turner taught his team how to dunk it. He drove the lane, elevated and put down a one-handed slam before being mobbed by his team. Where else can you see that? Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and the Lakers’ Phil Jackson can’t do that.
Turner, at 39, brings both experience and youth to the program. It may be his first head-coaching position, but he’s been part of winning programs in Wake Forest and Stanford and has coached under one of the game’s finest motivators in Don Nelson.
In addition, he can and has practiced with his players. Turner isn’t allowed to suit up in an Anteater uniform, but his efforts will leave a lasting impression on his team. Although he admits that he’s not as athletic as his players, Turner feels that there’s no excuse for them to complain about conditioning and working out if their coach is doing it alongside them.
He sat with the media for two hours last Wednesday, never shying away from questions. He spoke at lengths about his desire to connect with his new community. He’s making all the right moves to enter the hearts of ’Eater Nation. Give him a warm welcome, Antourage! Have patience and show your support. His new recruits and the eager returning ’Eaters will put on a show this season.
Pat Douglass’ reign is over. As the winningest coach in school history, he earned a great deal of respect for years of service to the program. The change in leadership may have been a tough breakup, but the Anteaters’ new leader brings rejuvenation to a squad that won just 14 games last year.
It’s an uphill battle, but if anyone can do it, it’s Coach Turner. After all, in his first year on campus at Division III Hampden-Sydney College, he led the team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history as a player. At Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons won the ACC title in his first season as the assistant coach, and in his first stint as the assistant coach at Stanford, the Cardinal were ranked first in the nation. It’s a tall task for Turner to turn this program around in one season. Don’t expect too much, but don’t be surprised if he does just that and competes for a conference title.