Northern Arizona University is located in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is quite a bit different than most of Arizona, particularly Tucson. It’s cold, but it’s beautiful.
It’s not exactly known for its basketball program, though.
The Lumberjacks have been to two NCAA tournaments in their history — once in 1998 when Ben Howland was the head coach, and again in 2000 with Mike Adras. But, NAU lost both games, albeit in close contests (in 1998 by three to Cincinnati, and in 2000 by six to St. John’s).
NAU reached an all-time low in the 2011-12 season when it finished 5-24 and 1-15 in conference. Obviously, it was time for a change at the top of the program — longtime head coach Adras left he program in the midst of the mediocre season. Now, enter Jack Murphy.
He has never been a head coach, but Murphy has a lengthy resume and impressive pedigree.
“He’s someone who loves our basketball program and loves the university,” said UA head coach Sean Miller. “He has one of those personalities that you can’t help but like, and you can really sense that, with him taking over the NAU program.”
Murphy spent eight years (1998-2006) at the UA on former head coach Lute Olson’s staff as a team manager, recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, video coordinator and director of operations. In his eight years with the program, Arizona went 199-66 (.751), won three Pac-10 championships, one Pac-10 postseason tournament title, made eight NCAA Tournament appearances that included the 2001 national runner-up finish and two other Elite Eight (2003, 2005) appearances.
He then moved on to become an advance scout with the Denver Nuggets for three years before joining former Arizona assistant Josh Pastner in Memphis, where he was named the head coach in 2009. In his three years at Memphis, the Tigers posted a 75-29 record with three 20-win seasons. Then, last year, NAU tabbed Murphy as its new head coach. In his first year with the program he doubled the win total from the year before, although that still meant finishing with an 11-21 record
Arizona-Sonora News Service sat down with Murphy in the stands at an empty SkyDome (the Lumberjacks home basketball and football stadium) and discussed his life, career, what the future holds for NAU, plus some fun anecdotes about people he’s encountered (like staying at Bill Walton’s house for weeks at a time).
ASNS: I guess to start off, can you talk about your first season at NAU and how it went?
Murphy: I thought it went really well. We won 11 games, but I didn’t think the season should be judged by wins and losses but by the effort on the court. Guys played hard night in, night out and were competitive on most nights. We played one of the toughter non-conference schedules in the country and I thought we battled through that to finish pretty strong in the league and make the conference tournament. All in all, I thought it was a very successful year.
We played 21 Big Sky conference games, including the Big Sky conference tournament. Now, of those 21 games, 19 of them were single digits with five min to go. We were 1-5 in overtime games. It’s one of those things where, for me as a young coach, it was a great experience to coach in those tight games and as a team it showed how competitive we were. We didn’t really get blown out often, twice in league and when youre competing like that you’re letting everyone else in the conference know that you’re gonna be a tough out.
With so many young players getting significan minutes last season, how valuable do you think it was for them to play in such a tough non-conference schedule where you faced teams like Arizona, Oregon, Colorado and UNLV?
I think it definitely helps because any road enviornemnt you go to in our league isn’t going to be daunting after you’ve played at McKale or at Matt Court in Eugene or wherever else. It was really intense, you’re not going to be afraid or unprepared going into any other enornvemnt so it helped us in the league. We played maybe five a little too many (laughs), no maybe one or two too many but other than that I thought it was great. The guys are gonna have that memory for the rest of their lives, playing at Thomas Mack and Mckale and whatnot.
Did you pick that non-conference slate or was it already in place? And what’s in store for next year’s non-conference schedule?
That was already in place, that was in place that wasn’t talked about during the interview process. They left that out.
Yeah we have 3 really good non conference road games, we have amulti team event in fresno where Fresno State is going to be participating so we’re exited but we’re at USC, at Texas Tech, at Arizona, so you know not as bad but still very difficult.
Speaking of Arizona, what do you think of their team for next year?
They’re going to be very good, with those freshman bigs coming back they’re gonna be very good. They’re very experienced and talented. And I think T.J. McConnell is going to be huge for htem. He’s a point guard that understands the game. They’re gonna have enough guys that can score, they need somebody that can distribute and I’m sure Sean and his staff are excited about T.J..
Now, back to NAU, you have quite a bit of roster turnover going into next year (losing three of their top five scorers, while bringing in five freshmen and two JC transfers), so how can you get all of the new pieces to mesh with the old ones?
The good part for us is that we have four of our top eight scorers coming back, three returners are starters. I have a balance of experience coming back but then talented newcomers that are going to push the guys that are returning. I think the guys that are returning are going to be able to lead the newcomers and let them know about the standard we set for the program. It’s a good mix and I’m going to lean on those guys a lot to set the tone for the newcomers. I think all in all we’re really excited about the class, it’s a talented class.
Now, Dewayne Russell got significant playing time as a freshman, what did you see out of him in his first year and what are your expectations going forward?
You need to remind Dewayne of that he thought, I benched him a couple of games. But no, Dewayne was unbelieveable this year, if you’ve ever met Dewayne he’s got slight shoulders and a very thin frame. He put a lot on those shoulders and he responded. He got off to an unbeliveable start to the season and then hit a freshman wall there, then battled back late so he’s who we’re gonna lean on going forward in the future. I think the coaches in the conference would agree he’s one of the more difficult guys to guard, so for him to be coming back as sophomore and have three more years here is great.
I think this year was an adjustment for Dewayne, it was his first time ever playing college basketball and scouting reports are focused on stopping him. I think he’s grown and matured and developed into that lead guy he can be. Obviously, you want your point guard to be your leader, year-in, year-out, and Dewayne being so young, we’re developing that skill in him and he’s doing a great job with it.
Gabe Rogers had an impressive senior year (17.9 points per game led the Lumberjacks), how important was that for you to have a senior like him contribute in your first year in the program?
Gabe had an outstanding year and he battled back from a tough junor year. To have a great year for us, he started off on fire in the two exhibition games then kind of put too much pressure on himself and felt he had to win us games, which wasn’t the case. When he finally relaxed he got on one of the best rolls in school history. His last 20 or so games were as good as any player has ever done at this school and he was awarded with first team All- Conference, which I think was great for Gabe and great for our program because it shows the recogniztion people have for our players. He has a great opportunity to continue his career professionaly. He can shoot, and that translates at any level and at any country.
In your first year you doubled NAU’s win total from the year before (from 5 to 11 wins). Now, obviously 11 wins isn’t exactly the best season, but can you just talk about the rebuilding process and I guess how long it takes? I know when Sean Miller was at Arizona everybody said it was a 6-year job, but he kind of debunked that by making the Elite Eight in year two.
I called Sean and I asked for advice to see if he knew of another Derrick Williams, if he could send me one. But no, we’ve come in here knowing this year, battling with the veterans you wanted to do right by them, and then the next year we’d be young and talented but very young. We’re looking at it like a 3-year thing where we feel like in the third year we’ll be pretty good. Some of those JC guys will be seniors, Dewayne would be a junior, freshmen are sophomores. Year three and four is what we’re building towards. That’s not to say we don’t want to win every game we play, but in building a program and getting NAU back to where it should be that’s the mindset we’ve had.
At NAU, there’s not really a threat of players leaving for the NBA, so how much does that help you as a coach, especially in terms of recruiting?
That helps a lot. Its different because when I was at Memphis you’re always wondering who’s going to leave and when. Arizona was same way, recruiting to replace freshmena and sophomores at times, so here it’s great cause you know guys are gonna be here four years and you can build around them, really build that unity and cohesiveness when youre out recruiting. It helps your evaluations since you know what you’re gonna have.
Can you talk a little bit about your time at Memphis and how beneficial that was for you?
It’s helped me a great deal. Memphis is a pressure cooker. Fans there talk about college basketball 365 days a year. Josh and I used to joke around that in Tucson there were one or two sports radio talk stations, those play maybe two hours a day. In Memphis, it’s four different stations from 6 a.m. to 6 at night. It’s Tigers, mainly Tigers and little bit of [NBA’s Memphis] Grizzles. Pressure is on there.
So you think Memphis is more popular than the Grizzles?
I don’t think I know from living there. Theyre crazy about tiger bball. Pressure is on ot win and win right away. We were following coach calipari who had the best 4 year run in college bball history, there was a lot ofpressure on us to compete and do well from the jump and I think josh did a good job of taking over the program and being right there by his side taught me how to sustain a high level program. Revuild it in some ways because we lost a lot of players there. Im indebted to josh for life for bringing me along with him to Memphis.
Josh [Pastner] just receieved a big extension, how happy are you for him?
I’m very happy for Josh, if I ever have a business idea I know who I’m going to call first. He’s definitely done well for himself, I love the guy and I can still remember when him and I would go into Wendy’s [in Tucson] to get the chicken sandwich, it was 1.50, and Josh could buy a few Wendy’s on his own now. I’m really happy for him, he deserves everything he’s received because he’s just a great human being, great person who cares about people, about players and Memphis is lucky to have him.
When did you first meet him at Arizona?
First time I met Josh, I was down at Arizona about to start my freshman year, I walked into [former assistant] Coach [Jim] Rosborough’s office to see him and I really didn’t know anyone then. Josh had just gotten back from a summer in Houston and that’s the first time I met him and it’s just funny because for the next 7 years when I was at Arizona we’re always in coach Rosborough’s office sitting back, talking about basketball and giving eachother a hard time and that’s exactly what josh was doing when I met him, giving coach Rosborough a hard time. It was the perfect first meeting.
How quickly did you become close friends?
It was pretty quick after that because as a manager, Josh was always working out with players late at night. He was still rebounding for guys like Jason Terry, then those guys saw I wanted to work with them too, so it ended up being a lot of nights Josh and I with the players and that’s how we became so close. We had the same vision for basketball. Obviously he’s gone further, quicker, than I have, but I’ve enjoyed my route too.
What were your duties as manager?
I’d do laundry sometimes, wipe the floor, set up the water, do the Gatorade to help the training staff, participarte in the drills and pretty much be on call 24 hours a day if the players wanted to go shoot or do something.
Any players in particular you spent more time working with?
Yeah, Yeah. Well my freshman year at Arizona I came in with Luke Walton and Richard Jefferson, so I’m really close with those guys.
Did you meet Lukes dad (basketball legend, and announcing extraordinaire, Bill Walton)?
I’ve actually lived at Bill’s house in San Diego, well I lived for a month and a half getting Luke ready for the draft in 2003, I went back the next summer for 6-8 weeks working out his younger brother. Different times I lived there in San Diego.
What was the Walton household like?
It was interstesing, but it was great. Bill is the best. He’s a great guy, his wife Laurie is so sweet and Luke’s mother Susie, they treated me like I was the 5th brother. I was fortunate to have spent that time.
What’s Bill like around the house?
He’s laid back, he’s actually what you’d imagine. He’s always doing stuff. He’s got a piano, he’s got the drums, a lot of different stuff.
You were a part of the Arizona program for a long time, can you talk about the direction things have been going in with Sean Miller at the helm of the basketball program?
As an alumni I want Arizona to be succesful and unless they’re playing the Lumberjacks, I root for them quite a bit. Sean Miller is one of the best coaches in the country, he’s been great to me. What him and his staff have been abe to do has been amazing. To make it to an Elite Eight the second year, sweet 16 this year is fantastic. They’re getting that Arizona brand back nationally to where it was. People remember some of best Arizona teams in the past had players from all over the country. Khaled Reeves was from New York, Damon Stoudamire was from Portland, Michael Dickerson from Seattle, Jason Terry from seattle. It wasn’t built on ariozna nd LA kids, although they had some great ones from there, and Sean’s getting that back. He’s recruiting and getting the top talent to Tucson, so it’s fun to see.
I read a story about how you lost your wallet at the Final Four in Atlanta this year? Can you tell me about that?
I did. I either lost it or somebody took it from me. I had to cancel all my credit cards, make my way through TSA. TSA was great in Atlanta but I had to answer some interesting questions, they know a lot about you. So I made it through that then on Monday I kept getting the call from (Fox Sports Arizona’s) Todd Walsh and I’m like ‘why is he calling me?’. I was doing some stuff, ‘why does Todd keep calling me?’. I finally listened to his message and he said ‘Jack, I’ve got your wallet. I said ‘what?’ Iwas thinking was Todd in Atlanta, and he was in Vancouver, Canada with the [NHL’s Phoenix] Coyotoes and his business card is in my wallet, so they called him. Never taking Todd’s business card out of my wallet, ever.
When all is said and done and your head coaching career at NAU is over, what do you want to look back and remember?
I obviously want us to get back to NCAA tournament. They’ve been there twice, they’ve been close a few times but I want to get back and ultimately we want to win our first tournament game. We’ve never won one in history. We want to get over that hump and see what we can do and in order to do that you have to compete and be one of top two teams in league, year in year out. Right now Montana and Weber State are that, and everyone else is kind of chasing them. We want to get ahead of that and be up there with Weber State and Montana.
Can you talk a little bit about how the job with NAU came about and how you pursued it?
When I heard job opened up it was December after the coach resigned, and you just kind of monitor the situation becaue I’m at Memphis and I wanna win there and my focus is that. It was a job right away I knew I wanted to get involved with because of the location. Then as the process moved along, the first day they hired Lisa Campos as athletic director it got going pretty fast. I was fortunate to have some great people support me, behind me. Coach Olson and Josh pushing me. Josh probably called Lisa more times…If Lisa had been a recuit Josh would have been in violation because he called 100 times for me. But I was fortunate enough to get an interview, which was stressful because then you get the final interview and you wait then I got the phone call, it was funny. It was a lot of waiting and time and everything happened really wuick.
Does Lisa ever joke about how Josh called her so much?
I think in hindsight she realized maybe Josh wanted to get rid of me. Shes definitely joked with me about that, she said the best part about hiring me is that Josh wouldn’t have to call anymore.