Maybe Jack Murphy just couldn’t adjust to the freezing winters in Flagstaff.
Maybe he really did miss what he had in Tucson, where he spent eight years on the coaching staff at University of Arizona.
But one thing for sure: the former head basketball coach at Northern Arizona University, who just announced his resignation, must have had even more trouble adjusting to losing.
Murphy, who is rejoining the UofA basketball program as Sean Miller‘s top assistant, discovered what so many of those before him have experienced: Winning in Flag is like climbing one of those towering mountains that look down on the small community of 72,000 that includes a small cadre of semi-enthusiastic basketball fans. The men’s team averaged just a shade over 1,000 per home game last season – and that was a 40 percent increase over the year before.
It’s entirely understandable that Murphy and his family really do want to return to Tucson, where the children grew up and old friends still reside. Murphy went to school at the UofA, where he got his undergraduate and masters degrees.
But would he have been so eager to leave a head-coaching job at a D-I school to go back to being an assistant if he had been able to turn the Lumberjacks program into a consistent winner?
Murphy is well-liked and respected by those in his coaching community and recognized as a solid recruiter. But try to recruit to a program that offers crowds that are often smaller than what they have been used to in high school.
And you can’t sell it on tradition, an advantage that the two Pac-12 schools in the state enjoy. 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.
Murphy owns one of those 20-win seasons. His 2014-15 squad won 23 games. But it’s been all downhill since then.
The next year, the ‘Jacks won just five games. The year after that they didn’t win a single game. Over the three-year period following the 23-win season, Murphy’s teams won just 10 games – total, not just a single season. Their 5-27 finish in 2017-18 set a new school record for losses.
Murphy knew what he was getting into. He took over a program in chaos after head coach Mike Adras walked away from his job just nine games into the 2011-12 season and the team had to turn to their broadcast booth, where former coach Dave Brown had been calling games, to find someone to finish out the season on the bench. That team closed out a 5-24 season by losing the final 16 games.
Shane Burcar also knows what he’s getting into, but is willing to audition for the head coaches’ job next season on an interim basis. Burcar joined the coaching staff prior to last season as an assistant coach, but prior to that he was a high school coach, spending 12 years at Mesa High School.
Again, like Murphy, no college head-coaching experience. But Murphy at least had extensive experience on a college bench after eight years at UofA and three years as an assistant at Memphis. He also spent three years in the NBA, working under George Karl at the Denver Nuggets.
Murphy didn’t leave the cupboard bare when he left, so Burcar will have some talent with which to work next season. The ‘Jacks return their top six scorers from last year, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the team’s offensive output.
However, that stat needs an injection of reality. That squad finished with just 10 wins overall.
Next season is not going to be an easy audition for Burcar.