M.K. Turk's legacy at USM still amazes
M.K. Turk, the winningest men’s coach in Southern Miss basketball history and a 2005 inductee into your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, died today after a prolonged illness. He was 71. He was a great coach, a great friend. This is the column I wrote about M.K. in 2001 when USM and the City of Hattiesburg celebrated M..K. Turk Day.
HATTIESBURG – Southern Miss and the city of Hattiesburg celebrated M.K. Turk Day here Saturday.
Better late than never.
An overflow crowd turned out at a pregame roast to thank Turk, who advanced USM basketball light years in his 20 years as head coach. Appropriately, the road that circles Reed Green Coliseum was renamed “M.K. Turk Circle.”
Former athletics director Roland Dale, who had the good sense to hire Turk back in 1976, put things in perspective when his time came at the podium.
“Turk, there’s a whole lot more people here at lunch today than there were at your first game,” Dale said.
He was not exaggerating.
As Dale put it, “Before M. K. came, we used to just open the gates and hope some people would show up. Few did.”
A crowd of 500 in 8,100-seat Reed Green Coliseum was huge in those days. Fans could easily hold a conversation across court, needing only to speak above the squeaking of sneakers.
Turk changed that.
He took what was the worst NCAA Division I program in the nation at that time and made it a winner.
He took a vagabond independent and made it competitive in a conference of college basketball heavyweights.
He did it, by and large, with small-town Mississippi kids.
And, he did it with class.
Not once in his 20 years was there hint of a scandal, recruiting-wise or otherwise.
Said Dale, “Before Turk, we were shooting up at the basket against teams that were shooting down at the basket. M.K. went out and found him some guys who could jump up and shoot down at it, too.”
He won 301
Former Turk assistant coaches and players told several stories that had the crowd guffawing.
One of the funniest came from radio announcer John Cox, once a walk-on USM point guard .
“We were playing a close game at Marquette one time, and Don Shea, a long-time Big Ten official, was officiating,” Cox said. “Well, M.K. got a technical foul for arguing with Shea in the first half.
“At halftime, going off the floor, M.K. asked Shea what he thought M.K. had said when he called the tech. Shea said, `Well, M.K. I sure thought you called me a blind SOB.’
“M.K. said, `Don, that’s exactly what I said. I just wanted to make sure you heard me right.’ ”
Cox said USM got every call in the second half and won the game going away.
Turk’s USM teams won 300 games besides that one. In fact, he is the winning-est basketball coach ever at one of Mississippi’s so-called Big Three schools.
He raised the bar
I have my own stories about Turk. I was sports editor at The Hattiesburg American when Turk took the job in 1976. He took a pay cut from his assistant’s job at Memphis State to take the USM job for $19,000 a year.
I told him he was crazy. I told him John Wooden couldn’t win at USM, that it was a dead-end job.
So he started winning.
Then, he started upgrading the schedule, replacing teams like Southern Benedictine with teams like Marquette.
You’re crazy, I told him, you’ll get yourself fired.
So he started beating those teams and was ecstatic when USM moved into the Metro Conference.
You’re insane, I told him, no way you can compete in that league.
So, he won the league.
At USM, Turk kept improving, kept winning. kept raising the bar.
In fact, he finally raised it too high even for himself.
Service Arrangements for M.K. Turk
Monday, Dec. 9 – Visitation from 4-7 p.m., at Parkway Heights Methodist Church (2420 Hardy St., Hattiesburg)
Tuesday, Dec. 10 – Memorial Service at 10 a.m., at Parkway Heights Methodist Church
The family of Coach Turk has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Athletic Foundation for a scholarship in his name. All of us are in contact with friends of the University on a daily basis, so if anyone asks you can refer them to the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation or let them know that gifts may be mailed to:
Southern Miss Athletic Foundation
Attn: M.K. Turk Scholarship Endowment
P.O. Box 15458
Hattiesburg, MS 39404
All checks should be made payable to the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation.