RICK CLEVELAND: Death of USM’s Turk leaves void




Don’t you love it when younger coaches get it? Don’t you love it when they appreciate the legends who became before them, the people who created a situation they enjoy?

Donnie Tyndall, the fine young basketball coach at Southern Miss, gets it. He recently paid special tribute to M.K. Turk, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer who died on Dec. 6 after a long illness. Turk, a great coach and friend, was 71.

In the first USM game after Turk’s death, Tyndall left the chair at the end of his bench empty, except for one of Turk’s trademark blazers. And when USM had clinched overtime victory, Tyndall held up the coat and showed it for all around Green Coliseum to see. Tyndall paid proper homage to a man who took a program, dead on the side of the highway like Mississippi road kill, revived it and took it places it had never been before.

Here’s hoping it was one of those blazers Turk had ripped off and hurled in protest of an official’s call back in the day.

He would do that, you know.

This one’s personal to me, because M.K. was not only someone I covered, but someone I came to know well, a great friend to my father, my brother and me.

I was a young sports editor at the Hattiesburg American when Turk took the USM job in 1976. He took the job for $19,000 a year, which was not much more than I was making and I was poor.

I told him he was a fool. That nobody could win at USM, a struggling independent. Not long before, USM had gone 0-24. And Turk had taken a pay cut to come from his assistant’s job at Memphis State. Only three years before, Memphis State had played UCLA for the national championship.

Meanwhile, at USM, you could have a conversation with someone sitting across the court from you during the games. The loudest sound was sneakers squeaking.

The first thing Turk did was upgrade the schedule, replacing teams like Southern Benedictine and Spring Hill with teams like Marquette and DePaul. You’re nuts, I told him. You’ll get yourself fired.

Instead, he won.

Then he helped another Hall of Famer, athletic director Roland Dale, move Southern Miss into the old Metro Conference. You really are crazy, I told him. No way. You can’t compete with Louisville and the like. So then he beat Denny Crum and won the league.

He won the NIT back when winning the NIT meant something. He took USM to its first two NCAA Tournaments. He recruited small-town Mississippi kids such as Randolph Keys, Casey Fisher, Clarence Weatherspoon and so many more and not only won, but won big.

M.K. did it with class. There was never a hint of scandal where his USM program was concerned.

He was always accessible and glib with the media. Heck, he was happy to have any attention at all when he got the job. He was funny. Oh, he was funny.

Hey, ref …

Once at Marquette, Turk wasn’t getting any calls in the first half, so he lit into one of the Big Ten officials, Don Shea, who called a technical.

At halftime, walking off the floor Turk asked Shea what he thought he’d said when he called the T.

“Well, Coach, I sure thought you called me a blind SOB,” Shea said.

Said Turk: “That’s exactly what I said. I just wanted to make sure you heard me right.”

Shea couldn’t help laughing. And USM got some calls in the second half – and won the game.

They won 301 while he was the coach. And they won some big ones. Learning the history, Tyndall made sure he called on Turk when he first came to Hattiesburg.

“He was always there when I needed advice,” Tyndall says. “Such a gentleman. I am going to miss that man.”

We all are.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Click video to hear audio