Jack Murphy talks about his life, coaching inspirations and where the team is headed next season
Jack Murphy was recently named the head coach of the NAU men’s basketball team this spring, succeeding the position previously held by interim coach Dave Brown. Murphy previously was the assistant coach for the University of Memphis, and before that, worked with the Denver Nuggets of the NBA and the UA Wildcats. We recently sat down with Murphy to talk about summer in Flagstaff, his interests and where he thinks the team is headed next season.
The Lumberjack: How’s your summer going, coach?
Jack Murphy: I’m enjoying it. Obviously, the weather’s been beautiful, and Flagstaff is a great town. [I’m] getting acclimated, but I’m enjoying it. Summer school just started today, so it’s good to have the guys back.
LJ: How different does the town look than it did when you used to visit?
JM: It looks a little bit different. I’m a little bit older, so I’m probably more aware of things. But, when I used to visit, I kind of just stayed on campus. My friend at the time lived in Tinsley Hall, and Tinsley has been redone. Two of our freshmen are living in there right now, so it was interesting being in there, helping them move in after having stayed there before. But, the town in general doesn’t seem like it’s changed much, but obviously the campus has quite a bit.
LJ: What do you think about the new Walkup Skydome?
JM: It’s beautiful — I think it’s fantastic. Just recently, over the weekend, I got to go in the new training room — the new locker room in the Skydome — and really see all the changes they’ve put into it. They’ve done a phenomenal job. Utilizing the space that was there and maximizing it not only for men’s basketball, but for football and the entire athletic department, it’s really great.
LJ: What are some of your favorite restaurants in town?
JM: The staff and I love Pita Pit downtown. I absolutely love Pita Pit, and that’s been a favorite of mine that we didn’t have in Memphis. I love being in a town where we have a Pita Pit. Some old standards: we like to go to Chilli’s as a staff, but we really like Oregano’s and Diablo Burger. Those are some good spots. My staff loves Bigfoot Barbeque, but I haven’t been there yet. The other one of course [is] Granny’s Closet [and] Mike and Ronda’s The Place for breakfast. There are just so many great restaurants in Flagstaff.
LJ: You mention Bigfoot Barbeque. Is barbeque going to be the one thing you miss about Memphis? What will you miss most about Memphis?
JM: I’m going to miss the people from Memphis. My wife and I had great friends back there. Obviously, the fans back in Memphis, the players that I left behind. Obviously, being involved in a lot of their recruitment — I’ve known a lot of them since high school. It’s tough to go on and leave those guys behind. And yes, I mean, central barbeque is fantastic in Memphis. That is one of the things we will miss most, both Coach Dunn and myself talk about it often.
LJ: What’s your favorite thing about Flagstaff?
JM: Right now, probably the energy and enthusiasm around town. Everybody I run into is excited about the Lumberjacks — they’re excited about NAU [and are] looking forward to the season. Not only basketball season, but football season. Also, the weather. Living back in Memphis, it was very hot and muggy in the summer time. The weather couldn’t be any better here over the summer, especially May has been fantastic.
LJ: What are your hobbies when you’re not game-planning, coaching or practicing?
JM: I like to be with my family. That has been tough since I got hired, they’re back in Memphis. Hopefully, they’re going to move out the first week of July. Really, my number one hobby when I’m not doing anything basketball-wise is to be with my family, my wife [and] my kids. Just playing with them. It sounds silly, but whether it is watching a Disney movie with them, or reading a book to them, just hanging out with them. And my wife, of course.
LJ: Who is your favorite athlete?
JM: That’s a really good question. Now, or in the past?
LJ: How about now, then in the past?
JM: My favorite basketball players growing up were Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson from UNLV, and then-football player was Randall Cunningham. Growing up in Las Vegas, those guys were icons in Las Vegas, those were my favorites growing up. Now, it has to be the guys that I have been with, the guys that I have coached. So, Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson, Elliot Williams from Memphis, guys that I’ve been around. Those are the guys that I really root for.
LJ: With that being said, who has been your favorite guy you’ve been with or coached?
JM: Boy, you’re asking the hard questions. I’ll tell you what, my first year at Memphis, I haven’t been around a guy more coachable than Elliot Williams. I mean, he was fantastic for us. He came in dealing with family issues with his mother’s illness. He had just transferred from Duke, and [was] kind of thrown into a new team, a new atmosphere. We had a new coaching staff there, and he was just fantastic. I loved spending time with Elliot. He exemplified what a student-athlete should be and what a hard worker should be. He was the hardest worker on the team, and it’s paid off dividends with a NBA career.
LJ: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from a player? Something maybe they taught you?
JM: The most important thing I’ve learned from players is just to listen to what they have to say, because a lot of [the] time their perspective is different than the perspective off the bench. They’re actually out there on the court, getting stuff done. They’re involved in the game and they see things sometimes. As coaches, we just want to look off, think we know it all, when the players, especially the very good ones — the ones that truly care about winning and losing, they’ll be damned. So, just learning to listen, learning to get a feel for what your strengths and weaknesses are. A lot of times no one knows a strength and weakness better than an individual.
LJ: What’s “Selection Sunday” like?
JM: Selection Sunday is an exciting day. Especially, when you know you’re going to be in the tournament after winning the conference tournament, like we did the last two years at Memphis. It is a lot of fun — it is a lot of fun to go through different scenarios, think about where you might go and play. Once your name pops up, though, you don’t even get to enjoy the rest of the show. You’re usually back to the office, trying to scout and get ready for the games. It is an exciting time, and I look forward to bringing that here to Flagstaff.
LJ: What is the NCAA Tournament atmosphere like?
JM: It is unlike anything else in sports. I was involved in the NBA Playoffs for three straight years with the [Denver] Nuggets. The playoffs are fantastic, just because they are the best athletes in the world competing at the highest level. But, the NCAA Tournament is fantastic because it’s just one game: win or go home. Anything can happen in a one-game scenario. The buildup and hype to it, the entire country is watching it, I mean, every TV set. People at home, housewives that don’t watch sports are watching it. Bankers that don’t watch sports are watching it. It doesn’t matter, old or young, man or woman, they’re watching the tournament. It’s just the most exciting time in sports, in my opinion.
LJ: Every stop you’ve made, you’ve had someone to mentor you. Lute Olson at UA, George Karl in Denver and Josh Pastner in Memphis. What is the most important thing you’ve come away with from each stop?
JM: Just constantly learning. Every great coach I’ve ever been around continued to learn. I figure I’ve been around some of the greats in the game. I remember being with Lute Olson, and Coach Olson would ask what I learned from a different camp here or there, and he’d want it. Or Coach Karl asked, ‘What’s going on in the college game now, what do I need to know?’ If those great coaches — you have two Hall-of-Famers in Lute Olson and George Karl — feel like they don’t know everything, then how can I think I know everything? I think the mark of a great coach is to constantly be learning. As any great teacher, you just try to learn every single day.
LJ: What do you need to work on most as a coach?
JM: Get comfortable in terms of molding my individual vision. You know, I could emulate Coach Olson in many ways, I could emulate Coach Karl, I could emulate Coach Pastner, Mike Dunlap, John Welch — I mean, all the great coaches I’ve been around. But, I have to come up with my own style: I have to be Jack Murphy. I think that is the most important thing for me right now is to take all those experiences I’ve had and to put them together to be the coach that I am.
LJ: What is your best coaching trait?
JM: I think my passion for the players. I have a great passion for the players as individuals. As good as Phil Jackson [and] George Karl are, you need those five players on the court [or] the arenas would be empty. This game is about the players; as the coach, you are just the teacher and the motivator and a caretaker. I think my biggest trait is that I understand that, and I think when players get to know me, they trust that I’m there with their best intentions in mind.
LJ: Being tabbed as one of the top assistants in the game, why choose NAU, and why now?
JM: I think it was the right time for me and my family. We had been in Memphis for three years and we helped sustain that program — we hadn’t filled it — we helped sustain it at the level fans expected it to be. I was comfortable with the area, Flagstaff and northern Arizona. I was comfortable with the West. Everybody really fought to be apart of this because I knew if I really felt strongly about the staff I assembled [it] could be successful. And early on, I think we have. It’s just continuing that on and keeping up with our connections on the West Coast and really bringing that passion we have as a staff to Flagstaff. I think that the fans deserve that, and that is what drew me to NAU. My past experiences with this part of the country and also my thoughts of [what] could be in the future.
LJ: What was your first thought when you got the job?
JM: I remember my wife had just left the house when I got the phone call, so I just called her up and told her I got it and then I was just in a daze. I talked to Coach Pastner about it and he started to help me walk through step-by-step on what A, B and C should be done. That day and a half or two days I spent in Memphis before I came up to Flagstaff is still kind of a blur. It was an exciting time, and I think I did a good job of moving my career and just getting to work.
LJ: Have you spoken to any of the previous coaches at NAU: Ben Howland, Mike Adras, Jamie Dixon or Dave Brown?
JM: I spoke with Coach Brown, Coach Dixon and Coach Adras — I’ve been unable to get hooked up with Coach Howland yet. Him and I are playing a little game of phone tag. I know the blueprint those guys had, and it obviously worked, so you’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel. Coach Dixon was very helpful, Coach Adras was helpful — they’ve all been great. It is important to them as individuals to see NAU succeed because so much of them and their own success started in Flagstaff.
LJ: Your reputation is that you’re a great recruiter and you preach defense. What is your secret?
JM: Just being open and honest with the kids. I found that teenagers can see through when someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes pretty easily. You just have to be open and honest with them and let them know what your plans are for them: as individuals, for the team in the future. Like I said earlier, just let them know that you are there for them. Sometimes players nowadays can get turned off when a coach thinks it is all about themselves. I understand it’s not, and I do think that resonates with the rest of the recruits.
LJ: For NAU basketball to be better, what must be done?
JM: I think we at NAU can take this program to the next level if we put a product on the floor that is fun and exciting to watch, guys that are playing with passion and students are filling the stands. I think it is vital that the students get out and support the team. 7,000 students living on campus, 22,000 students at NAU — I don’t think there is any reason we can’t have 2,000 students at every game. And that doesn’t count the surrounding community of Flagstaff. I just think that it is so important that we get people coming to our games to make them exciting and give the fans something to cheer about.
LJ: Besides improving the attitude of the team and the play of the team, how do you expect to improve the fan support?
JM: I’ve been getting out and I’ve been speaking at freshman orientations. In the fall, I’m going to be getting around to all the dorms and residence halls. Just letting people know when our games are, how they can get tickets, how accessible it is for students. Getting out with the fraternities and sororities, just letting people know, giving them the information. And what they do with the information is up to them, but if people walk around the next morning and say ‘Hey, I didn’t know there was a basketball game last night,’ then we failed. I think it is important that they know when and where we are playing and how they can support it.
LJ: Is there anything else you’d like the students to know before this upcoming season?
JM: I just think that it is important that they get involved, stay involved and whether it is football, volleyball or track and field, just to support NAU athletics. I think it is important — these are their fellow students and they’re out there competing for their university, it is important that they go out there and support. I beg them to come out and support athletics: any event, any time.