What could Jack Murphy have said to Shane Burcar to get the Mesa High School basketball coach to give up a 12-year career directing a highly-successful prep program to join Murphy’s floundering Northern Arizona basketball team?
How do you sell a seat on the bench for a program that hasn’t had double-digit wins in any season over the last three years?
Murphy is 68-128 since arriving in Flagstaff in April of 2012, a record that would look even more dismal if not for a big 2014-15 season in which the Lumberjacks went 23-15, setting a school record for most wins in a season. But that triumph three years ago is the only winning season during Murphy’s tenure.
His last three teams went 5-25, 9-23, and 5-27.
To say that he’s on the hot seat would be an understatement. Burcar has to have that uneasy feeling of stepping onto the deck of a sinking ship. So, how was he convinced the job at NAU was going to be better than the one he has now — where a 16-2 JV team and a 15-3 freshman squad are waiting to move up and help produce more 20-win seasons?
It certainly wasn’t a promise of better weather. Yes, Burcar will give up the triple-digit summer temps on the desert floor. But he spends much of that time in air-conditioned gyms.
Instead, he will be trading for winter months at 7,000 feet that can hover around 15 degrees at night and snowfall that can begin in October and last until April. In that environment, just getting to the gym can be a challenge.
And it can’t have anything to do with increased exposure. Mesa High draws more fans to its games than the Jacks, who averaged just over 600 fannies in the seats for its 12 games at Walkup Skydome last season.
Murphy has been in Flag for six years after being hired away from University of Memphis where he had been an assistant coach the previous three years. But Murphy was very familiar with basketball in this state. He spent eight years on Lute Olson’s staff at University of Arizona before leaving Tucson to work for the NBA Denver Nuggets.
He is the 10th head coach in the program’s 40 years. But, like every coach before him, Murphy is caught in a catch-22 that is hard to escape. In order to win, you need better talent. But in order to attract that talent, you need a winning program with some promise. Murphy enjoyed recruiting success at Memphis, but recruiting to a mid-level program in a town that goes into a deep freeze every basketball season is something else again.
The assistant coach that Burcar will be replacing, Matt Dunn, is the last man out the door. He was the one remaining assistant from Murphy’s original staff, having followed Murphy from Memphis where they worked together on Josh Pastner’s staff.
Dunn worked primarily with centers and forwards, but it’s not clear yet whether Burcar will assume that same role.
Maybe Murphy is a better recruiter than we realize. After all, Burcar bought in to his pitch.
However, the two coaches share a friendship that they began when Murphy first took over the Lumberjack program. So, when Murphy called to ask him about his interest in the job, the sale was already half made.
“Five wins…but I’m a believer, I’m a dreamer,” Burcar told Richard Obert in an Arizona Republic article, saying he feels there is enough talent in the program to begin turning things around. “I think we can flip it and do a lot of good things.”
It’s reasonable to assume that Burcar can recognize talent. A number of his players, during 12 years at Mesa High, have gone on to play Division I basketball.
And he certainly knows how to get the most out of his players. Burcar has had just one losing season in his more than a decade at Mesa and has posted six seasons of 20 or more wins. His 2016 squad won the Division I state championship and the individual honors have flowed for a man who was named region Coach of the Year six times.
With those credentials, maybe Burcar just wants to get on board a train that may soon need a new conductor. Right place, right time.
Or maybe Burcar just needed a change of scenery. He will certainly get that in Flagstaff, where the community of 70,000 is surrounded by mountains that climb to 12,000 feet.
But it’s the mountain he will have to climb with Murphy that will be the real change from what he’s used to in Mesa.