Next season is going to have a very different feel for Arizona State women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne.
Kind of a hollow feeling, like something’s missing from her life.
What’s missing will be her longtime assistant and friend, Meg Sanders.
After 17 years of working side-by-side, first at Northern Arizona University and then at ASU, the two old friends will be watching games from different locations. Turner Thorne in her usual place on the Sun Devil bench, Sanders from the stands or in front of her TV at home.
The school just announced the departure of Sanders, who has decided to step away from the game to spend more time with her family.
Sanders was an assistant coach on Turner Thorne’s staff at NAU for three years, then moved into the head coach’s seat when Turner Thorne left to take over the Sun Devil program. After seven more years running the Lumberjack program in Flagstaff, Sanders moved down to the Valley to re-join her mentor as an assistant at ASU for another 14 years.
But even before NAU, their relationship goes back to their college days when the two worked together at Stanford’s basketball camp.
There was more than friendship that kept the two together. Sanders’ success at NAU was a valuable asset at ASU. The winningest coach in the history of the women’s basketball program at NAU, Sanders earned Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year honors during the 1996-97 season. Together, they have taken the Sun Devils to 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, twice advancing to the Elite Eight, and set a school record with five straight 20-win seasons.
There’s no telling whether Sanders will return to coaching. She says she’s going to take it “one year at a time” as she devotes more time to her family – something that’s hard to do when you are dealing with the demands of a college coaching job. She and her husband, Mark, have a daughter in high school and a son who is a junior at ASU.
Here’s how Turner Thorne is shuffling the deck to accommodate the loss of Sanders:
Jackie Moore, who has been on staff for the past five seasons, has been elevated to associate head coach. The 20-year coaching veteran has been an assistant at six different colleges before landing in Tempe, including a six-year run as a junior college head coach.
Angie Nelp was hired away from Rice University to fill the vacancy left by Sanders. As an Owls assistant coach, Nelp helped guide last season’s team to a WBI Championship, which was the school’s first post-season title, and set a Rice program record with 13 home victories on the way to a 22-win season.
But Briann January was the high-profile addition to the staff. She was hired just two weeks ago to replace Amanda Levens, who left to accept the head-coaching position at Nevada.
January, a former Sun Devil who is the career leader in assists and free-throw percentage, is still an active player in the WNBA. An arrangement with the school will allow her to continue to play for the Indiana Fever, where she has been the team’s starting point guard since 2011.
Her WNBA job will mean she will miss summer training and recruiting. But the assets she will bring to the ASU program outweigh the downside. As a two-time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, January will provide valuable experience to that aspect of the game, while also offering professional-level mentoring to develop the team’s guard play.
Turner Thorne notched her 400th career win during last season. Perhaps Sanders figured she’s done her part in helping reach that milestone and it’s a good time to step away from the hectic life of college coaching.
But, for her old friend who will be back for her 21st year leading the Sun Devils next season, it’s just not going to be the same.