Editor’s note: This article is part of the Star’s 2018-19 college basketball guide, which ran in Sunday’s paper.
Just when the Northern Arizona men’s basketball team was set to come together for the first time this summer, beginning a critical year for head coach Jack Murphy, he put them to the test.
NAU was coming off three sour seasons. With an upcoming foreign trip in the offing, Murphy wanted to not only get off on the right start but set the tone.
The deal was simple: If anyone was tardy for the first team meeting, the team would meet the next day at 7 a.m. for a three-mile run.
Predictably, a flight was delayed, someone waltzed in late, and the punishment was doled out.
For this crime, Murphy would do the time.
“I ran it with them,” he said. “I even beat some of our guys. A lot of the guards trashed me, but I beat some of the bigs.”
Up in Flagstaff, over 6,000 feet above sea level, three miles at 7 a.m. is no joke. But it was all part of this wild new coaching strategy, something that has gotten lost somewhere amidst the skyrocketing television rights deals and the million-dollar salaries. It’s something that Murphy has taken from his days in the NBA, coaching some of the greats of the game, guys with names like AI and Melo.
At NAU, the basketball coaches are trying this crazy new idea.
It’s called humility.
“I don’t know if we’re trying to be less scary,” said Murphy, a former Arizona Wildcats student manager-turned-director of basketball operations, “but we want our guys to know: We’re in the trenches with you.”
Watch most Division I college basketball coaches on the sidelines, and the first thing you notice is that large pulsating vein on their forehead, the one that looks like an anaconda after a player makes an egregious mistake.
The snarls you see on a sideline, the spittle flying, the pure rage — it’s enough to frighten a grizzly bear.
Coming off a five-win season, Murphy is taking a different approach.
“We try to spend time with our guys, in the office, in the locker rooms,” assistant coach Wes Pifer said. “We’re trying to lift with our guys in the morning. … You want them to know you’re more than just coach Wes. You want them to see you struggle.”
Today’s players have changed, of course. The poking and prodding that passed for discipline 20 years ago may be going the way of the telegraph.
“The why is so important now,” Murphy said. “They’re going to have to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
It’s not as if Murphy is going to go easy on his guys, he said. There is still fear, and where there is fear — you hope — there is still discipline.
But there is a camaraderie that Murphy and Pifer describe that sounds different than so many other coaches.
The Lumberjacks will need to replace their two best scorers from a team that went 2-16 in Big Sky Conference play. Leading scorer Torry Johnson transferred to Wake Forest and JoJo Anderson bolted for Nevada.
Murphy said 6-foot-7-inch sophomore forward Jonathan Andre, 6-4 junior guard Ted McCree and 6-2 junior guard Davon Bolton will join veterans Chris Bowling, Karl Harris and Brooks DeBisschop to form the core of the team.
The coaches also expect big contributions from Carlos Hines, a sophomore guard who was injured much of last year, and freshman Cameron Shelton, about whom Murphy said, “We think he can be an engine, a driving train.”
Early during preseason practices, the Lumberjacks have emphasized defense.
And that, Murphy knows, is crucial this season. After a program-record 23 wins in 2014-15 — a season that culminated in a respectable championship game appearance in the postseason CIT — the team has won five, nine and five games the last three years. Last year, the team lost a school-record 27 games.
Murphy was given a vote of confidence to turn things around. And he knows to do that, he’s going to have to go back to his foundations as a coach.
“I grew up in Las Vegas and watched the Rebels and I worked at UA with Coach (Lute) Olson for eight years, and that’s the foundation of my basketball background,” said Murphy, who also served as an assistant for the Denver Nuggets from 2006-09.
“The Arizona program under Coach Olson was a selfless program, and I learned from my time in the NBA that you can’t be the drill sergeant. I mean, I was in Denver for three years with the Nuggets, and we had outstanding teams, but you’re not going to tell Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to do it this way. They’ll look at you like you have three eyes.”