Greg Hansen: NAU gets a Darling to rebuild program

2012-06-19T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: NAU gets a Darling to rebuild programGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 19, 2012 12:00 am  • 

You can almost picture NAU athletic director Lisa Campos tearing through dozens of resumes - too young, too old, serial applicant, get serious - from those who wanted to be the Lumberjacks' women's basketball coach.

And then this:

I've coached in the Ivy League, the Pac-12, the Big Ten and the pros. I was mentored by the former coach of the Detroit Pistons and was a head coach in the WAC. I've survived breast cancer, been a police officer, got a master's degree from a Big East school and, at one time, coached a junior college team and a high school team at the same time.

I'm only 50. I live 260 miles from your office door. My glass is not half full, it is overflowing. There is nothing I haven't seen in college basketball. Call me.

So Campos called Sue Darling. On Monday, Darling resigned as the UA's top women's assistant basketball coach and became Ms. Lumberjack.

Home run.

"Sue is high energy," said Campos.

"Sue is enthusiastic," said NAU president John Haeger.

"Sue is fun and energetic," said former UA all-conference forward Ify Ibekwe, now a WNBA player.

"Sue positively affected my career," said Tucson High girls basketball coach Annette Gutierrez, once an all-city player for Darling at Salpointe Catholic.

"Sue gets the big picture," said Princeton women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart, who played at Dartmouth, one of Darling's 11 coaching stops.

Darling gets the big picture because she has starred in all the little ones. After 28 years of coaching, she sees the Northern Arizona coaching vacancy in a context that few of her peers would understand: Flagstaff is a beautiful, vibrant, growing city, and NAU has new leadership and a commitment to athletics unlike any time in its past.

After going 61-33 from 2004-07, the Lumberjacks have gone 44-103 over the last five seasons. They've never won a Big Sky regular-season title and, according to most, are irrelevant. This does not deter Darling. When you have coached at Air Force, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Pima College, Cholla High School and a lot of other places that basketball cognoscenti view as off the beaten path, you see opportunity where others see grim, hard work.

"I'm pinching myself," Darling said Monday. "I'm walking on air."

Darling is probably the most compelling figure in the history of Tucson women's basketball. She was an all-city player at Canyon del Oro, team captain at the UA, head coach at Salpointe, Amphi and PCC. Sure, she sat on the ASU bench, coaching Sun Devils for five seasons, but that became inconsequential when she returned to McKale Center in 2008 as Niya Butts' lead assistant.

Her story is irresistible.

"My first job was as the JV coach at Cholla," she remembers. At 19, Darling worked ex-Pistons coach Herb Brown's Tucson summer camp, mixing with Tucson Hall of Fame prep coaches Joe Acker and Roland LaVetter, among others.

Brown was so impressed by Darling's basketball acumen, and by her people skills, that he set her up to coach Tucson's Basketball Congress International summer all-star team (a forerunner to AAU hoops) and sat in the stands, available for on-the-job advice.

This is what you need to know about Darling's spirit of adventure and the willingness to take on the most difficult challenges: In 1998, coaching for the old Seattle Reign in the women's pro league, she pursued a job that no one would touch.

The women's basketball coaching job at Air Force was such that the Falcons had gone 1-29 in WAC games and had successive seasons of 5-21 and 4-22. She jumped in, determined that the inherent recruiting difficulties for women's hoops at AFA would be a worthy learning experience.

Her teams went 12-70.

"I wouldn't trade those three years for anything," she says. "I was good for Air Force, and it was good for me. People asked, 'Can anybody win there?' and I believe you can. People said I wouldn't win any games, but we won some."

From Air Force she went to Northwestern where, struggling with breast cancer, she discovered there were many things worse than losing a few basketball games. By 2005 she was out of coaching, graduating from a Colorado police academy, chasing bad guys on the overnight beat in Boulder, Colo.

You would assume her coaching days had ended.

"I wanted to take a step back and figure out who I was and why I was: What was I doing with my life?" she says. "In my first year as a police officer, I was totally focused. It was awesome. I was on track to be a detective. But a friend of mine coached basketball at Denver University, and I would go to games and practices. I knew I would coach again."

Four years ago, when Niya Butts became Arizona's head coach, Darling called, got an interview, traded her gun and nightclub for a coach's whistle and came home. Now she's on the road again.

"I got a parking ticket after being on campus for two hours," she said with a laugh. "Once I learn to park legally, I can start coaching basketball again.

"I can't wait to get started."

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