For school officials and fans alike, this coming year was looking like the dawning of a new era in the Northern Arizona University athletics program.
The Flagstaff school has a new athletic director, young and energetic with fresh ideas, and new head coaches for two of its major sports programs that had hit rock bottom last season, men’s and women’s basketball.
But the just-released pre-season polls don’t offer any encouragement that the other high-profile sport, football, will be able to jump-start this new era of high hopes and giddy expectations. The Lumberjacks have been picked to finish seventh by the Big Sky Conference coaches, and ninth by the media.
Those would have been cellar predictions in years past, but now fall closer to the middle of the pack since the Big Sky has expanded from nine to 13 teams, beginning this season.
NAU finished 4-7 last season, but looked pretty good in spring practice and will return last season’s conference rushing leader, Zach Bauman, a junior running back from Hamilton High School in Chandler who averaged 130.5 yards per game in 2011.
The new AD, Lisa Campos, has brought Jack Murphy in from the University of Memphis to take over the men’s basketball program, and hired Sue Darling away from the University of Arizona.
Both were assistants at their respective schools, with Darling’s resume the only one that includes head-coaching experience from three years spent at the helm of the Air Force program.
On the flip side, the football head coach, Jerome Souers, has been the head coach at NAU for the past 15 years – and has enjoyed some real success. In 1999, he was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year, and his 2003 squad won the conference championship.
But the Jacks haven’t finished above fifth place in the conference in the last four years, their only winning season coming in 2010 when they finished 6-5.
And now the projections from their own coaching fraternity promise nothing better than a seventh place in 2012.
Maybe those low expectations helped the administration with its decision to lower the prices on football tickets for the 2012 season. When they made that announcement last month, NAU President John Haeger talked about how community support is more important than ever to the success of the program.
“Making our games more affordable is another way to increase that support,” he pointed out.
The team averaged just 6,277 fans for its six home games last year – about a third of what the Jacks’ opponents averaged when they were on the road. This is a Division I program we’re talking about here.
And that’s after the school spent $26 million to renovate the aging Walkup Skydome, just in time for kick-off last season. Not only did the project provide the team with expanded locker rooms and upgraded training facilities, but it improved the fans’ game-day experience with better views of the field and more comfortable seating.
The one thing it didn’t do was provide a better product on the field.
This year, the Jacks return 15 starters and 39 letter winners, with another 26 from the previous roster, some of whom are coming off redshirt seasons. Bauman will move into his leadership role among the upperclassmen as a candidate for the national Walter Payton award, and they hvae a senior quarterback in Cary Grossart to bring experience to the key position on offense.
As a little added insurance, Souers has added a couple of coaches to his staff this year that have NFL backgrounds. Rich Scangarello, an assistant quarterback coach in the NFL before getting into college coaching, is the new offensive coordinator, and Jeff Lewis was an NAU Hall of Fame quarterback during his college days and also played in the NFL for five years.
They inherit a balanced offense that averaged 28 points a game last season, scoring 19 touchdowns rushing and 17 via the pass.
It’s going to be a concerted effort this season to try to pull NAU back up into the upper echelons of the conference.
Souers has another really good reason for putting more wins on the board this year. He is entering the second year of a three-year contract extension he was given at the end of the 2010 season, riding into 2012 on the backs of a team with rather low expectations.
And he got that extension from the former athletic director, Jim Fallis. Now there’s a new sheriff in town – who definitely isn’t going to be satisfied with a couple more sub-.500 seasons.
The ‘new era’ begins with an uphill climb… against Arizona State Aug. 30 in Tempe.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)