K.T. Turner’s Road to the Hilltop
Coaching was in K.T. Turner’s blood. Ken Turner Sr. was an assistant coach for six Division I teams, so K.T. grew up with basketball. Naturally, 7-year-old K.T. decided he wanted to be like his dad and become a coach. He often came to practice with his dad, eager to learn the game inside and out.
“I always would go to practice after school and on Saturday mornings,” Turner said. “Once a year, he would even let me go to a road game.”
But when K.T. was 16, Ken Sr. died unexpectedly. He was coaching at Ohio State at the time. K.T. was all of a sudden left without his role model.
Now 36, Turner enters his second season as one of Larry Brown’s three trusted assistant coaches on a team with big aspirations while also living the dream his dad instilled in him. Brown earns much of the praise for engineering SMU’s turnaround, but Turner is essential in recruiting Brown’s next players.
In mid-October, four-star guard Shake Milton surprised many by spurning his home-state Oklahoma Sooners for SMU. Turner had recruited Milton for more than two years and developed a strong relationship with him. He was a huge reason why Milton picked the Mustangs.
“He’s a great young coach,” Brown said. “He’s going to be unbelievably successful as a head coach real soon, but he’s a great part of our program. The kids like him, he’s knowledgeable, he’s hardworking. I think I hit a home run.”
When Brown arrived at SMU in the spring of 2012, he hired two young up-and-coming assistant coaches, Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi. But Howard took a job at Kansas after one season at SMU, and Brown started searching again.
Turner had some connections to SMU’s coaching staff. He played for SMU assistant Tim Jankovich at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Ken Sr. coached under at Randy Ayers at Ohio State, who coached under Brown.
“[Ayers] spoke really highly of K.T.’s dad, as everybody did,” Brown said. “Tim was aware of K.T.’s dad and K.T…When I considered Tim had a relationship with him, and my relationship with Randy, he was the perfect guy to bring here.”
In June 2013, Turner accepted the offer.
“I really wanted to work for Larry Brown,” Turner said. “Tim was there, and Ulric was a good friend of mine, so I felt comfortable with the staff.”
Turner came to SMU with a history of winning in his eight seasons as a coach. He reached the Final Four in 2013 as a member of Gregg Marshall’s staff at Wichita State, an experience he called “surreal.”
“It was surreal because I was so young,” Turner said. “There’s a lot of guys in this business who are great coaches that haven’t been fortunate enough to go the Final Four. It was an unbelievable experience.”
But he traveled a long road to get to the Final Four and SMU. He played his first two years of college basketball at Hutchinson. He played the next season at Texas-Arlington before transferring to Oklahoma City University, where he earned his degree in criminal justice. Turner then played professionally in Italy for three seasons.
The nomadic ways followed Turner into his coaching career. His landed his first coaching job in 2005 at Panola (Texas) junior college, where he coached for one year before moving to Redlands Community College in Oklahoma in 2006.
Turner made the jump to Division I when he took a job at Northern Arizona in 2007. In his one season in Flagstaff, the Lumberjacks went 12-4 in Big Sky Conference play. He moved to Cowley (Kan.) College for one year before returning to Hutchinson for two years, in which the team went 52-12. Turner moved back to Division I in 2011 at Texas A&M-Corpus; Christi, and then took the Wichita State job in 2012.
“The head coach would leave after a year, so I’d have to go with him,” Turner said, referencing his five years coaching with well-regarded junior college coach Steve Eck. “It was a difficult process, all the moving around, but luckily I’ve been blessed in last couple years to have great jobs.”
Turner says he is grateful for the stability coaching at SMU brings. But Turner’s biggest challenge everywhere he has coached is getting players to play hard and play with an unselfish attitude. He knows from experience that teams that win in March play together and forget about individual performance. And of course, his boss has made a Hall of Fame career preaching the same.
“That’s one of [Brown’s] biggest things is playing unselfish and playing together, making the extra pass and trusting your teammates,” Turner said.
Turner’s age helps him deliver that message to the players, who mesh with young coaches easier than they do older ones.
“You need [younger coaches] on your team [because they’re] somebody you can relate to, [different from] an older coach where they’re back in the old school days,” SMU guard Nic Moore said. “That’s how Coach K.T. is with me.”
Turner coached under successful coaches at his previous stops, but he has learned way more from coaching under Brown, who appreciates the work he does every day.
“He had to start at rock bottom,” Brown said. “For every place he’s been he’s grown, and everybody he’s worked with has had glowing reports about him. I think they all sold him short, because he’s better than I imagined.”
Most of all, Turner still embraces the lessons he learned from accompanying his dad to work. Turner has taken his dad’s words with him every step of his career, and they have helped him grow as a coach and a person.
“[He taught me] you have to hold kids accountable,” Turner said. “More than anything else, you have to really have solid relationships with them, study the game and never quit learning.”