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Jack Murphy leaves uncertain future at NAU to become Arizona assistant

Updated June 24, 2019 - 1:50 pm

Two observations to be made about the Northern Arizona men’s basketball coaching job based on the past 25 years:

— It has become a bastion for guys from Las Vegas.

— But like that old Kenny Rogers song, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

Since the 1994-95 season, NAU’s Lumberjacks have had three full-time basketball coaches. Two were from Las Vegas.

The one from California had the shortest tenure. Ben Howland’s third NAU team went 21-7; his fourth and fifth, 21-8. After which he left the cool pines of Flagstaff for the grimy smokestacks of Pittsburgh to become head coach of the Pitt Panthers.

Ben Howland knew when to fold ’em.

His assistant Mike Adras, who had built a powerhouse at Bishop Gorman, replaced Howland as NAU coach. In his first season, Adras guided the Lumberjacks to the NCAA Tournament where they nearly upset second-seeded St. John’s. Adras wanted to build on that. But he was fired after 13 seasons at NAU having never matched the success of his first team.

Mike Adras did not know when to fold ’em.

He was replaced at NAU by fellow Las Vegan Jack Murphy. Murphy did not build a powerhouse at Bishop Gorman. He washed socks and jocks as Al La Rocque’s student manager at Durango High. In his third season, Murphy coached the Lumberjacks to a school record 23 wins and a runner-up finish in the College Insider.com tournament. He stayed four more years, going 5-25, 9-23, 5-27 and 10-21.

Approaching the last year of his contract under a new athletic director, Murphy thought he might have a nice team in 2019-20 and save his job. He had almost convinced himself of it when his phone rang recently.

It was embattled Sean Miller at Arizona. Miller’s top assistant job was open amid the maelstrom that has seen one of his former aides go to prison over NCAA recruiting violations and a second placed on administrative leave.

Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

Parting sorrow

Murphy discussed the opportunity with his wife, Michelle, and La Rocque, who sat on his bench during his first season in Flagstaff. Father-in-law Jim Livengood, the former Arizona and UNLV athletic director, also may have added .02 or a nickel of advice. He elected to walk away from uncertainty in Flagstaff to run into turmoil in Tucson.

While the investigation of Miller’s program was considered, Murphy said it wasn’t what made the decision difficult.

“The hardest part was leaving my guys at NAU,” he said during a telephone conversation Friday before departing on a recruiting trip to Chicago. “The student-athletes that I recruited, the bonds I formed with them and their families, that was the most difficult part of this decision, leaving them.”

As for the dark cloud enveloping Miller and the program from whence he came, Murphy said he believed the Arizona coach to be “a man of great character.” Those who heard Miller’s name referenced on FBI wiretap may draw another conclusion.

“We had very open and frank discussions — the reason why he’s been able to kind of power through these tough times,” said the 39-year-old Murphy, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arizona and spent eight seasons as Lute Olson’s manager, recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, video coordinator and operations director.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said of his alma mater. “Dark days have been here the past couple of years but there’s light at the end.”

Although contract terms were not disclosed, Murphy is replacing Mark Phelps, who was making $275,000 annually when Arizona put him on paid leave in February. Murphy was earning $184,500 at NAU. A man has to feed his family.

And should the light in the tunnel to which Murphy referred be attached to a freight train? Well, he might still be well positioned. There probably would be an interim coach, and that was what Steve Fisher was at Michigan before winning the NCAA championship. The court at San Diego State, where he spent 18 seasons, is now named for Fisher.

Like the song says, there will be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done. But Jack Murphy says Arizona has a great recruiting class coming in. For now, he seems delighted to be sitting at Sean Miller’s table.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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