Loree Payne takes over the graveyard shift at Northern Arizona University, signing on to run the women’s basketball program that has been struggling for so long it has become a way of life. She was announced on Friday as the 12th head coach for the Lumberjack program.
In recent years, it has become the graveyard for aspiring assistant coaches hoping to use the small D-I FCS school as a stepping stone to bigger things. Instead, they’re rewarded with a tombstone that marks the latest entry in the program’s history book. Charli Turner Thorne was the last NAU head coach to use her experience in Flagstaff to get a better job, leaving to take over the Arizona State program 20 years ago.
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 did it during the 1997-98 season and Laurie Kelly won 22 in 2005/06 and 20 the next year. But Kelly couldn’t win more than 11 games in any one season for the final four years of her nine-year tenure.
Next up was Sue Darling, who was an assistant coach at University of Arizona when she was hired to take over in 2012. Darling had double-digit wins just once in her four years at NAU and was relieved of her command last September following a 6-24 season that included just two conference wins.
When Darling left, the administration decided to turn the team over to Robyne Bostick, who had been an assistant on Darling’s staff for the previous four years, and give her the “interim head coach” tag for the fast-approaching season while a national coaching search got underway. Bostick finished 9-21, won five conference games, and her team was eliminated in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament.
So now Payne gets her turn to try to shake up a moribund program that others before her have failed to do.
And, like those before her, the enthusiasm for a new challenge is there. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be the next women’s basketball coach at Northern Arizona University,” she said in a statement that accompanied the announcement of her hire by VP for Intercollegiate Athletics Lisa Campos. Maybe she didn’t take a close look at what she is stepping into.
Campos hired Darling, one of the first coaching hires she made when taking over as AD at the beginning of 2012. After Darling failed to get the job done, Campos needs a win on this one.
Payne comes from a D-III program at University of Puget Sound, which means she will be taking a big step up the coaching ladder. But Campos is counting on her success in Washington translating to competence at the Division I level.
At least Payne shouldn’t be bothered by the Flagstaff climate. Puget Sound gets as much rain as Flag gets snow, and cold temperatures are no stranger to that area.
Campos appears to be catching a rising star at the right time. Payne just completed a season which culminated in the program’s first-ever outright regular-season Northwest Conference Championship. A 26-3 overall record and undefeated conference season earned Payne her second consecutive conference Coach of the Year award. The 26 wins set a new school record.
She spent seven seasons at Puget Sound, compiling a 130-58 overall record. Over the last three seasons, her teams have won 80 per cent of their games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA D-III Tournament twice. This past season, the Loggers ranked as high as No. 6 nationally and finished the season sixth in the country in scoring at 79 points a game.
Prior to taking over at Puget Sound, Payne was an assistant coach for three years at Washington, where she played college ball and was named twice to the Pac-10 First Team. She helped the Huskies to an Elite Eight appearance in 2001 and is still listed in the program history books in six career categories.
“All of the components for a championship-winning program are here at NAU,” Payne said in meeting the media.
That may be true, but so far none of those before her have been able to put the pieces together in the right order.