Jack Murphy has solid first year at NAUBy JOHN MARSHALL , Associated Press
Jun. 14, 2013 6:32 PM ET
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy is meticulous, has been since his days under Arizona coach Lute Olson, even back to his stint as student manager for his high school team.
He had a great tutor in his previous stop, watching and learning as Memphis coach Josh Pastner navigated his way through being a head coach for the first time.
But no matter how thought out and detail-oriented Murphy was, how much he learned from his mentors, there are just some things a first-time head coach has to learn on his own.
"I learned that you can prepare for everything and still not be ready," Murphy said this week at NAU's picturesque campus.
Murphy was prepared as well as he could be, taking what he learned from Olson, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl and Pastner on the climb toward his first head-coaching job.
One of the biggest adjustments for Murphy during his inaugural season was the responsibility that comes with being the head coach.
As an assistant, he had a part in making decisions about players, plays and strategy, but the final call ultimately fell on the shoulders of his boss.
Moving just a few inches down the bench completely altered the 33-year-old coach's view of the game, his team and his players.
"As an assistant, you have input, but the head coach makes that determination in a split-second moment, and this year when it was on me to make those decisions in a split second," Murphy said, "I realized those decisions affect outcomes, wins and losses — both positively we saw and negatively. It's just understanding when those moments arise and what you feel is right for your team to be successful."
And it wasn't just those tense, in-the-game moments that required an adjustment.
As an assistant, Murphy was someone who often was affected by decisions, not someone who affected others with his decisions. Becoming a head coach shifted all the decision-making to him, a role he embraced but that wasn't always comfortable for someone who's normally a friendly, good-natured person.
"The other thing is there are a lot of tough conversations on and off the court," Murphy said. "You're the one who has to make difficult decisions, whether it's players or staff, you have to tell people 'No' sometimes and it's not always easy to do that."
Despite the learn-as-you-go training, Murphy had what would have to be considered a successful debut.
When Murphy was named Northern Arizona's head coach last year, he inherited a program in disarray.
The Lumberjacks got the 2011-12 season off to a difficult start, coach Mike Adras resigned a month in and they closed on a 16-game losing streak to finish 5-24, including 1-15 in the Big Sky Conference.
Murphy gave the Lumberjacks a boost with his enthusiasm right off and made a difference on the court, helping Northern Arizona more than double its win total from the previous season at 11-21 while changing the culture within the program. He also led the Lumberjacks into the conference tournament, the team's top — and pretty much only — goal for the season.
"We lost a lot of close games and there were some things you'd like to have back," he said. "But whether it's your first year or 10th year, there's going to be things you want to change. But overall, first go-round I thought it went well."
Murphy's decisions so far seem to have set a good foundation for Northern Arizona.
The Lumberjacks improved on the court and Murphy added a solid recruiting class of five high schoolers and two junior college transfers. He's hoping Northern Arizona can become one of the Big Sky's top 5 teams next season and win a game in the conference tournament instead of the one and done the team had this year.
Get through next season and the Lumberjacks should be in good shape, with 12 of 13 scholarship players expected to be back and Murphy's imprint on the program and its players fully ingrained.
"I really feel like we're setting ourselves up for year three and beyond to really have that consistency where you have players in your program who understand what you want and you're able to compete year in and year out with the upper-echelon teams in the league."
Murphy has the Lumberjacks — and himself — off to a good start.