On one account, at least, Jack Murphy has to be considered a lucky man.
Yes, that Jack Murphy. The head coach of the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team that last year set a school record for losses and finished the season in last place in the Big Sky Conference.
Murphy’s good fortune came with the arrival of a new athletic director at the Flagstaff school, a man who was willing to give the coach another season to try to turn around a program that has languished through a three-year stretch that would have resulted in the dismissal of most coaches at any level.
NAU’s last respectable season was in 2015 when that team won 20 games and made it all the way to the title game of the CollegeInsider.com post-season tournament. Since then, the Lumberjacks have won just 10 games – total, not just one season.
Last year’s record of 5-27 set the school record for losses. The year before that, they had ‘just’ 23 losses – but failed to win a single game. And that was after another five-win finish in 2015-16. Count ’em up…. 10 wins.
Mike Marlow knows all that. It was the main topic of discussion when he and Murphy met after the 2017-18 season ended, which wasn’t long after Marlow took over the job as athletic director back in January.
That meeting went well for Murphy, who is getting ready for his seventh season running the Lumberjack program. Marlow, who was hired away from Washington State where he was the deputy director of athletics, decided he wasn’t ready to turn the program upside down with a coaching change. At least not yet.
However, to say that Murphy is on the hot seat this season would be understatement on a grand scale.
At this point, there is only one thing that will save Murphy’s job: winning games. Marlow knows that Murphy’s players worked hard for him and that key injuries played a major role in the lack of success the last few seasons. But it’s still the numbers on the stat sheets that define a coach’s future with a program.
Marlow also knows that putting an exciting brand of basketball on the floor is what it’s going to take to bring the fans back into Walkup Skydome. The arena seats 10,000, but last year the men’s home games averaged a little more than 600 fans per game. Based on that, the men’s basketball program isn’t holding up its end of the revenue stream the athletic department needs to operate.
That, too, gets an athletic director’s attention. Really fast.
This year’s squad, which has 10 returning players and has added a D-I transfer and three JUCO transfers for depth, just returned from a foreign road trip to the Caribbean that will be used as a tune-up for the coming season. The ‘Jacks played three games against Bahamian opponents and won all three.
While the wins mean little at this point, they do help build some confidence in a team that lost 10 of its last 11 regular-season games last year and was tossed from the Big Sky Tournament in the first round following a 23-point loss to Northern Colorado.
Over the last 40 years, the NAU men’s basketball program has had 10 head coaches. And during that time, they have produced just three 20-win seasons. One of those belongs to Murphy.
And it’s going to take another season like that to prove he can still get the job done in Flag.
It’s safe to say his job depends on it.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)