NAU coach Murphy couldn’t pass chance for return to Arizona
Jack Murphy fulfilled a dream when he was named Northern Arizona’s coach in 2012. He led the Lumberjacks through some ups and downs, was excited about the upcoming season.
Then his phone rang.
On the other line was Arizona coach Sean Miller. The two Grand Canyon State coaches have known each other for years, so when Miller started talking about the vacant associate head coaching job on his staff in Tucson, Murphy figured he would be asked his opinion about a candidate.
Turns out Murphy was the candidate.
“Obviously, my plan was to be back at NAU,” Murphy said. “I felt like we had a really good team coming back. We’re talented, ready to compete in the league and excited for that. It surprised me and threw me for a loop.”
Murphy in turn threw nearly everyone for a loop by walking away from a Division I head coaching job to become an associate head coach at another school.
Earlier this year, Brian Jones stepped down after 13 seasons as North Dakota’s head coach to become associate head coach at Illinois State. Jones made the move so he could be closer to family and spend more time with his kids.
Murphy took the rare step of leaving a head-coaching job for an assistant job for a similar reason.
Though he grew up in Las Vegas, Tucson is a special place to Murphy. He graduated from Arizona and spent eight years working on former Wildcats coach Lute Olson’s staff, starting as a student manager.
Murphy met his wife Michelle at Arizona, and their twin daughters were born there. Michelle also is the daughter of former Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood.
“I’m not sure I would have left my job at NAU as a head coach with the team I had coming back for any other place in the country,” Murphy said. “It just feels like home.”
Murphy was hired at Northern Arizona after spending three seasons as an assistant under Josh Pastner and a three-year stint as a scout for the Denver Nuggets.
Northern Arizona’s program was in disarray when Murphy arrived in Flagstaff and he gradually built the program back up, setting a school record with 23 wins in 2014-15.
Injuries decimated NAU over the next three seasons and the Lumberjacks won a combined 19 games.
Northern Arizona made some progress last season, winning 10 games, and Murphy was excited about the 2019-20 team with a solid core of returning players and some talented recruits coming in.
Once the opportunity at Arizona came up, Murphy had a tough decision to make: stay for the final year of his contract at Northern Arizona or return to the place where his career began.
“If I didn’t have the feelings have I for those young men at NAU or our staff, it would have been a no-brainer and probably would have happened quicker,” he said. “It took some back and forth, my wife and I, my high school coach, to weigh the pros and cons because the pros were dramatic, but the biggest cons of coming down here were leaving those young men.”
Murphy’s timing was not great for Northern Arizona.
The Lumberjacks are in position to continue the recent upswing, but Murphy’s late move causes a bit of a scramble.
Shane Burcar was elevated to Northern Arizona’s interim head coach and he’ll have some continuity with the returns of assistant Jason Sanchez and Gaellan Bewernick, a graduate assistant last season who was elevated to full-time assistant coach.
But with any new coach, there’s an adjustment period for everyone and Murphy leaving could have an impact on recruiting.
“Nothing’s changed for those guys,” Murphy said. “They’re coaching for their job, just like every coach in the country is. The only difference is they have a one-year audition and I would not be shocked if they hit it out of the park.”
Murphy will be keeping track from afar — now that he’s back home.