Laurie Kelly departs NAU women’s basketball program

Laurie Kelly must have seen the writing on the wall.  The head coach of women’s basketball at Northern Arizona University has moved on.

Kelly had a couple of 20-win seasons early on in her nine-year tenure, but in recent years it has been a struggle to even get past the .500 mark.  The 11 wins last year were the most in four seasons, and the Lumberjacks finished the 2011-12 campaign 9-20 with just four conference wins.

She was given a three-year contract extension in 2010, despite the lack of success.

But the extension came from the athletic director at the time, Jim Fallis, who decided not to ask for an extension for himself this year.  His replacement, Lisa Campos, arrived on campus less than a month ago.  (See 3/31/12 phxfan article)

Campos’ first major move was to hire a new basketball coach to replace the one that resigned just nine games into last season.  She picked Jack Murphy, an assistant coach at Memphis.  (See 4/13/12 phxfan article)

Her next step would have been to evaluate the women’s basketball program – and that wouldn’t have been pretty.  Kelly would have been hard-pressed to make a good case for staying the course.

So the school announced her resignation today, and Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota concurrently announced her hire.

It should be a good move for Kelly, who is from Minnesota, a native of Rochester.  She will be stepping down to the Division III level, but she has had success with lower-tier programs.

Before taking the NAU job, she had success leading Binghamton University in New York.  She was a head coach for five years there, and had helped the school transition from D-III to D-II, and finally to D-I.  She led the program to a first-ever conference championship and was named a Co-Coach of the Year the first season of D-I ball.

And it appeared she was up to the challenge at NAU.  She became the first coach to led the Jacks to two seasons of 20+ wins, set an all-time record for wins with 22 during the 2005-06 season, and also coached the first NAU women’s basketball team to defeat a ranked opponent (No. 25 Montana in 2007).

But the wheels came off the bus after the 2006/07 season and Kelly hasn’t been able to return the program to the glory years.

This season was expected to be different, even though the Jacks were picked in the pre-season to finish seventh in the conference.  Kelly had a squad that featured a solid core of experienced veterans to go with a better-than-average recruiting class, good height in the post, and a couple of transfer guards with experience.

It all came together for awhile.  They won six out of their first 10 games, but then went into a nine-game losing skid and never recovered.

An 18-point loss to Eastern Washington, a .500 team at the time, in early January seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The squad turned the ball over 31 times in that game, and Kelly had no answers for the implosion.

“We are just not playing good fundamental basketball,” she said after that game.  “We were that great fundamental team a month ago, and I don’t know where we lost that.”

Maybe she’ll find her coaching mojo again at Gustavus Adolphus, where she will be among family and friends.

The basketball experience may turn out to be better.  But, unfortunately, the weather won’t.