Sue Darling is finding out what so many before her in the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball program have learned: Flagstaff is a tough place to recruit to – and a really tough place to build a resume.
Darling is into her fourth season as the Lumberjacks’ head coach and still looking for her first winning record. And a 4-7 finish to the non-conference part of this year’s schedule isn’t looking too promising.
There have been 10 head women’s basketball coaches in the Lumberjack program over the past 40 years – and only two of those coaches have posted at least one 20-win season. In truth, there have been just three 20-win marks among the entire run of 40 seasons.
Meg Sanders finished the 1997-98 season with a 22-16 record and Laurie Kelly posted back-to-back seasons of 20 wins, going 22-11 in 2005-06 and 20-12 the next year.
But that’s it, folks.
The wheels came off the bus after Kelly’s two 20-win seasons and the remainder of her tenure was spent struggling to push her teams over the .500 mark. In the final four years of her nine-year run, 11 wins were the best she could do. She finished the 2011-12 campaign with a 9-20 record before resigning to take a head-coaching job at a small college in her home state of Minnesota.
That’s when Darling stepped in, leaving her job as an assistant coach at University of Arizona to try her hand at digging the Lumberjack program out of mediocrity. Four years later, she’s still digging.
The ‘Jacks just wrapped up the non-conference portion of their schedule with just four wins out of 11 games, and are coming off two straight losses as they prepare for Big Sky Conference play. That doesn’t provide any momentum going into the games that really count – and success in conference would go a long way toward righting a listing ship.
Last season, the team posted a 9-9 Big Sky finish, the best in her first three years. It took a top-25 recruiting class and the addition of several seasoned JUCO transfers to reach that mark.
The Jacks were 7-13 in conference play in Darling’s first year, followed by a 6-14 record in 2013-14.
But the program has shown continued improvement, even if it’s just a gradual sign of progress. Last year they beat defending Big Sky champion, North Dakota – the first time the program has beaten that conference foe. And that group also won a berth in the Big Sky Tournament, the first time that has been accomplished in six years.
However, a 13-17 overall finish marked the third straight year without a winning record. That was four wins better than the year before, but still not over the hump.
This year’s non-conference line-up has been challenging, designed to help prepare the team for the grind of conference play. The Jacks took on a number of upper-tier schools in the early going, including road games at UTEP (Conference USA), New Mexico State (WAC), Colorado (Pac-12), and Nebraska (Big 10). So that has to be factored into the won/loss record.
The NAU program has provided a path to a bigger, more successful program for two of the coaches that preceded Kelly and Darling. Charli Turner Thorne held the reins of the Lumberjack program for three years (1993-96) and was followed by Kelly’s predecessor, Meg Sanders.
Turner Thorne took over an NAU program that was at the bottom of the well, having won just one game in the three previous years. Turner Thorne got the turn-around process under way, producing the first winning seasons in nearly a decade and posting a .500 record before being hired by Arizona State as the Sun Devil head coach.
In 1996 she turned the program over to Sanders, whom she had hired three years earlier for her staff at NAU. Sanders spent seven years continuing the rebuilding work, and then followed Turner Thorne to ASU, to take a spot on her coaching staff.
But in her seven years as head coach at NAU, Sanders accomplished more than just becoming the first coach in program history to post a 20-win season. She was the first to win a conference title and the first to be named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year.
Sue Darling still has a long road ahead of her as she tries to return the program to those heights. She’s hoping that a challenging start to this season will pay dividends as her team opens conference play with a road game on Thursday against Montana.
“We’re focused on being strong at the end of the season, and our goal is to win the Big Sky Conference,” she explained at the beginning of the season. ” (The non-conference games) are absolutely going to prepare us for the Big Sky and more, so it’s going to help us take the next step in becoming the best program we can be.”
Unfortunately, for too many years now, that “best-program” bar hasn’t been set very high.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)