UCI men’s basketball coach Russell Turner
“I guarantee you we’re going to do everything we can to improve,” says new UCI men’s basketball coach Russell Turner. “We’re going to be unified, unselfish and really, really competitive.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

When UC Irvine athletics director Michael Izzi started searching for a new men’s basketball coach, he turned to a place few expected – the NBA. There he uncovered an ambitious, young assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, Russell Turner, who was looking to get back into the college game.

Hired April 9, Turner, 39, may be a perfect fit at UCI, where the athletic department’s goal for the men’s basketball team – its first-ever NCAA tournament bid – matches his. He also found a welcoming community for his family. His wife, Dr. Elizabeth Turner, has joined the intensive care unit in the Department of Medicine, and their children – daughter Devlin, 5, and son Darius, 3 – are excited to play in the spacious University Hills parks and, of course, meet Peter the Anteater.

Q: Why UCI? Why now?
A: This campus has tremendous momentum. And as I’ve learned more about it, it’s been overwhelmingly impressive, from the academic side to the athletic side. Clearly, athletics are important, and as we’ve seen with men’s volleyball and baseball, UCI teams can succeed. The opportunity to be the first men’s basketball coach here to take his team to the NCAA tournament is something that’s really, really attractive.

I’ve always wanted to come back to college athletics. I never played pro basketball, so as much as I’ve loved it, the NBA never felt like home. College athletics is home.

Q: What about coaching in the NBA has prepared you for the college game?
A: I tell everyone that college basketball and NBA basketball are like two separate sports. But I don’t think you can be better trained to relate to players than by being in the NBA. My six years there show I know what I’m doing, and that allows me to connect better with my players here. I’m really well prepared.

Q: How did the UCI players take to you?
A: At first, they were very cautious, and I understand that. It’s difficult to go through a coaching change, and they’ve never experienced this before. I’ve been incredibly pleased with their work ethic. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the men in this program. I told them on the first day I was here; the fact that they chose UCI tells me a lot about their character.

Q: How will you achieve your goal of making the NCAA tournament for the first time?
A: We have to win the Big West Conference tournament. That’s the way into the NCAA tournament for our conference. I told the guys in our first meeting that this is what we need to be focused on all the time – to be able to play our best in March for three straight games. Basketball is a tournament sport, and that’s what I’m reminding the guys right now. They’re going to hear me talk about the Big West tournament constantly. I guarantee you we’re going to do everything we can to improve. We’re going to be unified, unselfish and really, really competitive. And if we can do this, people in the community will be excited about what we’re doing on the court.

Q: What type of student-athlete will you seek to recruit?
A: Ideally, we’re going to increase our presence in Orange County, and California will be where we’ll get a large portion of our roster. But the perception of the team is better internationally right now than it is locally. There are so many schools around here seen as ahead of UCI, and that’s OK. We’re going to change that. I hope to build with international players. A number of programs around the country have really elevated themselves by recruiting abroad, and we want to tap into that. One or two great players can change the entire outlook of a program. I’m assembling a staff that can find those types of players, and I’m going to go get them.

The location here is one of the best in the world, and that alone will attract student-athletes. Combined with the quality of the university and community, it can be really powerful.

Q: What are your early impressions here?
A: People have been fabulous. It’s a friendly place, and there’s genuine excitement about being among UCI’s culture of excellence. My wife is joining the medical school faculty, and we’ve moved into a beautiful new home in University Hills. We’re really thrilled to be part of the UCI family.