GREENSBORO, N.C. --- The shouts cascaded down during Maryland’s last few road trips, unhappy fans in the rows behind the Terrapins’ bench irked at the man blocking the view of the court.
“ZOOLANDER!,” came the screams. “ZOOOOO-LANDER!”
On his feet --- at long last --- was John Auslander, unworried and mostly unaware of the griping until teammates fill him in on the details later.
As long as the game is unfolding, Auslander has other things occupying his mind as he functions as a de facto coach who happens to be listed on the roster. The junior has not played since December after breaking his left leg, but has remained active in the program.
It’s especially obvious when the forward is an animated presence during games.
“I guess since I got out of the shirt and tie, they decided because my name’s on the back [of the warmup shirt] that they can start yelling at me because they know who I am now,” Auslander said.
The Terps (20-11) know exactly who Auslander is. He was an end-of-the-rotation player early last season before Alex Len became eligible. He’s the most recognizable of Maryland’s scout teamers, although the former Division III player is on scholarship for the second straight season.
He stands out. He spent much of the season on crutches, but he remained demonstrative at the end of the bench. He added extra opposition film study when the chance of playing again this season disappeared. And he evolved into an even greater conduit between coach Mark Turgeon and his staff and a youthful roster.
“He’s really another coach,” guard Logan Aronhalt said. “He knows the game. He just cares so much that he can’t contain himself. He’s out there at practice and during the games just screaming and yelling and letting guys know ‘This is where you need to be.’ It’s just another set of eyes, really. It helps us.”
Auslander was back on the floor Wednesday at the Greensboro Coliseum, where seventh-seeded Maryland begins ACC tournament play tonight against Wake Forest. He was running a bit himself.
But mostly, he was talking.
“Let’s go bigs,” he barked. “Let’s go Padge.”
Rest assured, teammates were listening to one of the few holdovers from former coach Gary Williams’ last season.
Auslander sat out that season after transferring from Greensboro College. He averaged only 7.4 minutes as a freshman, but got a head start of sorts on his current role.
“I was definitely up yelling, but probably not as much,” Auslander said. “Knowledge is quickness, they say, and I’m more knowledgeable about the game [now] so I’m able to say more.”
He’s found an outlet with a team littered with underclassmen in significant roles.
Auslander, who roomed with Len when the Ukrainian arrived last season, saw two pupils arrive over the summer. Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell are unpolished post players, though both enjoyed solid moments as freshmen.
All along, Auslander was offering insight.
“John has been teaching me the game since I’ve been here and I’ve learned so much from John,” Cleare said. “Sometimes John gives you tough love. I know he has the passion and fight in him of a champion. I’ll never mind listening to John. I listen to John over the coaches sometimes.”
Cleare grinned as he considered his words.
“Don’t tell them that,” he said sheepishly. “But John’s great.”
The latter sentiment is telling, considering Auslander’s opportunities for critiques. Turgeon stressed to Auslander the importance of remaining upbeat with players, though his criticism is generally constructive enough for the Terps to individually take in with minimal complaint.
“The players have learned to accept his coaching, which is not easy sometimes, so that shows you how much they respect John,” Turgeon said. “I’m sure there are some times when they want to say ‘John, would you just shut up. I’ve got coach on me, I don’t need you on me.’”
Yet of everyone in the program, Auslander might be more closely connected with both coaches and players than anyone. It provides him with a unique perspective, one that can make matters behind the scenes easier to handle.
Sophomore guard Dez Wells, himself a boisterous presence, knows he can come across too strong, so he often runs ideas past Auslander to see if he’s missing something and help figure out the best way to discuss situations with a coach or a teammate.
“He’s another reasonable voice,” Wells said. “Sometimes, a coach doesn’t get through to you. Having one of your players and one of your peers come to you and say ‘Hey, this is what coach is trying to tell you to do, so just do this and you’ll be fine. Just listen to the message behind what he’s saying.’ … What he brings to our team can’t be replaced.”
Auslander makes little secret of his coaching aspirations, acknowledging he hopes to spend three more years in College Park --- one as a player, two more as a graduate student.
If a coaching gig doesn’t emerge with the Terps, Turgeon has promised to help him find a spot to get a start on a career. For now, Auslander maintains a journal, keeping track of situations he might encounter down the road.
After Maryland’s defeat of Duke last month, he asked Turgeon why he called a timeout in a certain situation and why he didn’t order Seth Allen to miss a free throw up one point in the closing seconds.
“The same questions I used to ask coach [Larry] Brown,” Turgeon said, referencing his own career at Kansas. “I think he has a chance. He’s really passionate about it.”
Auslander’s future plans received an unintended head start during a December practice. He was showing on a ball screen and went to plant as he sprinted back and his left leg jammed up above the ankle. He dealt with a stress fracture over the summer, and it felt somewhat similar.
This, though, was a lot worse.
Auslander was on crutches and off the floor for months. His chance to play --- and Turgeon likely would have used him a few times as regular rotation players struggled --- beyond the 16 minutes he logged early in the season disappeared.
And suddenly, Auslander needed to figure out his place on a fast-evolving team.
“The toughest thing with the injury is dealing with your role changing and feeling like you might lose your voice or might not have as much of an impact,” Auslander said. “I’ve just wanted to come in every day with energy. I know our system defensively and offensively and I know what coach Turgeon wants.”
He also knows what he wants: A path to coaching, a chance to teach and one last season to savor with teammates once he’s fully healthy.
“I’ll be here one more year, for sure,” Auslander said.
Consider the ACC warned. There will be some obstructed view seats behind the Maryland bench next winter, a quietly valuable asset in the Terps’ locker room and a roster certain to listen to the persistent voice who stands far from where coaches are usually seen.
For now, anyway.--- Patrick Stevens