Special to the Sun
Friday, April 27, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Jack Murphy wasn’t a good enough basketball player to make the team at Durango High School in the mid-1990s.
But he still was involved in the sport he was passionate about, serving as the team’s manager his final two years in starting a journey in basketball that continues to reach new heights.
Murphy, 32, was hired two weeks ago as the Northern Arizona University basketball coach to become one of the nation’s youngest head coaches.
Former Durango coach Al La Rocque was so impressed with Murphy’s dedication and knowledge of the game during his time as the Trailblazers’ manager, he called Arizona coach Lute Olson — whom he played for at Long Beach City Junior College in the early 1970s — and arranged for Murphy to become Arizona’s manager.
Murphy spent eight years at Arizona in quickly rising up the ranks, starting as the manager and being promoted to the recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, video coordinator and director of operations. He proved to be a tireless worker with unquestioned dedication — such as helping players train after practice or late at night.
His career has included jobs in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets and the past three years as an assistant at the University of Memphis. At each stop, he’s continued to impress — just like when he was a teenager at Durango.
“For as young of a guy as he is, he already has had a storied career,” La Rocque said. “He set the bar real high (for high school managers). He had an unbelievable work ethic.”
When NAU hosted a press conference to announce Murphy’s hiring, the now-retired La Rocque made the drive to the Flagstaff, Ariz., school from Las Vegas to show his support. Ever since Murphy’s father unexpectedly died in 2000, La Rocque went from basketball mentor to more of a father figure.
“It was very meaningful having him there,” Murphy said. “Even before, but especially ever since (my father died), coach La Rocque has been like a father to me. Throughout the years, he’s been a father figure to so many of us. Having him there really did mean the world.”
Following the press conference, La Rocque stayed to watch Murphy train a few players during offseason conditioning. One of the exercises was a defensive drill La Rocque used at Durango that he learned while playing for Olson more than 40 years ago.
“It was pretty nostalgic for me to see that because I got that from coach Olson,” La Rocque said of the drill. “It goes to show you basketball doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is the players out there playing.”
At every stop in his career, Murphy has helped teams qualify for the postseason. Arizona won 20 or more games in Murphy’s eight years with the program to reach the NCAA Tournament each year, including in 2001 when they played in the national championship game.
At Memphis, where he was in charge of the defense and instrumental in Memphis securing a top-10 recruiting class in 2010, the Tigers won a pair of Conference USA titles and twice played in the NCAA Tournament.
“Jack Murphy is a high character and high integrity guy and has a high moral compass. He knows what it takes to win and has been around winning at the highest level,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who like Murphy got his start at Arizona, said in a statement. “He has a very good basketball mind and is an excellent recruiter and a people’s person. He is an energy giver.”
Murphy will have his hands full rebuilding the NAU program, which won just five games last year. One of the first things he told the players was he didn’t plan on taking spring break off next year, meaning the Lumberjacks would be playing in the postseason.
Murphy is quick to point out that next year’s team will have seven seniors on the roster, several of whom were part of the team two years ago when they took third in the conference and lost to the league champion by three points.
“(The players) understand they aren’t far off,” Murphy said. “My whole mantra is building confidence. If you are on the floor, go out and play with confidence and have fun. I didn’t come here to lose. I told the guys I have never had a spring break off and I don’t plan on it any time soon.”
Murphy credits his time with the Nuggets, where he worked as an advanced scout, for helping his career blossom. Just like he did at Arizona while working as a manager, Murphy helped train players in his off time, earning the respect of the players and coaches alike.
“I got hired in my first job in the NBA when I was 33 years old, and Murph has similar qualities to me,” Denver coach George Karl said in a statement. “He’s very passionate, he’s an incredibly hard-working guy and he’s a sponge for the knowledge of the game of basketball. I told him that Northern Arizona is a perfect fit. It’s at a level where he can have success and he can move quickly.”
Murphy credits the lessons taught by Nuggets’ coaches — such as former UNLV assistant Tim Grgurich and Rebel player John Welch — for helping advance his career.
“It was like being at a coaching clinic 24-7,” Murphy said. “For three straight years, my entire focus was basketball. I was around coaches who wanted to teach — not only the players but the younger coaches. Those guys took me under their wing.”
It was comparable to how La Rocque advised him at Durango. It’s a bond between player and coach that will never be broken. La Rocque plans on taking in more than his share of NAU basketball games in the upcoming years.
“A lot has been written and published about him and his 24-7 work ethic,” La Rocque said. “I was a high school teacher and had him in class. That’s a very smart kid. He is very intelligent and just a sharp guy. If he didn’t pick coaching, he could have succeeded in anything he wanted.”