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NAU athletics

New athletics director Lisa Campos and men’s head basketball coach Jack

Murphy pose with Louie at the Skydome. (Photo courtesy NAU athletics department).

The winds of change are gusting on the campus of Northern Arizona University, and a new era of Lumberjacks athletics is riding the gales into Flagstaff.

The university has recommitted its resources, energy and support into breathing new life into new leadership and buildings. NAU included the new Lumberjack soccer stadium as part of a $106 million Health and Learning Center, spent $29 million to update and remodel the Walkup Skydome and remodeled Rolle Activity Center with new chair-back seats and an updated court surface.

It has reduced football ticket prices and answered the cry of basketball fans by moving the teams' home games back to the Skydome, where the university will show off new courtside bleacher seating.

And it has hired a new department head and two head basketball coaches from universities with much higher sports profiles and budgets.

The aim is to use that top-tier savvy and connections to recruit top-tier players to a school in a mid-major conference, then re-engage the community with winning football and basketball teams.

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

Lisa Campos was hired by NAU in March at a salary of $175,000 when Athletics Director Jim Fallis announced that he would be resigning at the end of his contract, which was up in June. When President John Haeger hired Campos -- who in turn hired men's and women's basketball coaches Jack Murphy and Sue Darling, respectively -- the beginning of the new era of NAU athletics was thrust into high gear.

"I think we were attracted to NAU because of the leadership and direction that Dr. Haeger and Lisa Campos are taking the university; it's a great day to be a Lumberjack," Darling said. "We are excited to be a part of what looks to be an exciting transformation of both NAU athletics and NAU in Flagstaff."

Campos was the associate athletics director at the University of Texas El Paso, where she wore many different administrative hats.

Murphy, who took a pay cut to $180,000 to leave his assistant coaching post at Memphis, said that anytime a university hires a new athletic director, there's going to be a lot of change.

"Dr. Campos has done a great job of coming in to get everyone on board, and coming from UTEP, she knows what it takes to win at a high level," Murphy said. "She came in here with an attitude and a vision of turning NAU into an upper-echelon team in both the Big Sky and the Western United States, and that transformation has begun."

Campos' direct supervisor, Robert Stull, the director of athletics at UTEP, said Campos was directly involved in a number of planning initiatives and major university activities and functions that make her perfectly prepared and suited to be NAU's Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics.

"She's extremely skilled at examining each department, where it is now and helping it develop where it needs to go," Stull added.

THE FACES OF CHANGE

The biggest and most publicly noticeable changes happened in early 2012 when men's basketball coach Mike Adras, athletic director Jim Fallis and, most recently, women's basketball coach Laura Kelly all left their posts.

By bringing Murphy in from Memphis and Darling to NAU from the University of Arizona, Campos is hoping to breed big-time success into the struggling basketball programs.

"There was so much interest in both jobs, and we were looking for the right people who come from big and successful programs, who know how to recruit and who are going to be here for the student-athletes," Campos said. "These two coaches will make sure that will happen, and they're also great coaches. It may not happen overnight or even this year, but they're both going to put very competitive teams on the court."

NEW BLOOD

For both Darling and Murphy, what head soccer coach Andre Luciano likes to think of as an "athletic renaissance" at NAU means some important tasks are going to have to be tackled.

Murphy said it all starts with recruiting talented players who might otherwise end up at universities like NAU Big Sky rivals Montana and Weber State.

"We're going to put in a lot of hard work and get great recruits," Murphy said. "We've gotten a lot of positive feedback, not only in the state but in the western United States, which is the main area of our focus."

NAU's supporters and the university's leaders will be looking for a return on the investment that's been made into the athletics department, which translates into brining fans into the venues by providing winning teams.

Winning games is one of the reasons Darling said she took the job; she sees a lot of potential in the women's basketball program.

"Fortunately, building a winning program is what I'm looking to do, too," Darling said. "I wanted to go to a place where I could win and where people are passionate about basketball, and with the support of the leadership we'll put a good team on the floor and will put people in the stands."

Darling added that with all the buzz that has been created with the change of personnel, recruits have been calling her and her staff to show interest in coming to Flagstaff.

That kind of attraction factor is something that Murphy looks to cash in on.

"The more talented players you bring in, the more successful you're going to be," Murphy said. "I was once told a great coach is someone who can win with no talent, but I don't want to be a great coach. I want to win with talent."

REACHING OUT

So now that NAU has updated its facilities -- Luciano said the soccer stadium was a beneficiary of the university's need to meet compliance standards -- and brought fresh faces to a number of its programs, what does that mean for Lumberjack fans and the community of Flagstaff?

Campos said that with a little strategic planning and community outreach, NAU athletics will become a staple of the way of life in Flagstaff and northern Arizona.

"First of all, our whole season ticket structure is helping us engage the community," Dr. Campos said. "There was a sense we didn't have an affordable ticket price for everyone in Flagstaff, so we changed that. Now anyone and everyone can come to NAU games."

Campos also added that the atmosphere of events like home football games will be more energized.

"We're also trying to provide a more exciting atmosphere, like a carnival, for football games," she said. "People will have a great time from the time they get on campus until the time they leave the game."

For basketball, drawing people to games will be easier, according to Murphy, because of the uniqueness of the building.

"If you're a little kid you want to go to games in the Dome," Murphy said. "Rolle is a great place for us to practice, but you can walk into almost any high school gym and it would be very similar.

"We have 7,000 kids living on campus and I want to get some of them in here and into an atmosphere where there's excitement about the games and the process involved, and we want to make our games a place to congregate," Murphy added.

PUTTING ON THEIR GAME FACES

While teams like cross- country and track and field get a lot of local and national recognition for their success, Luciano, the women's soccer coach, said it's time for the rest of the Lumberjack programs to step up to the challenge.

"The key thing for us is to get people to realize we're a Division I program and that we can compete with the best programs in the country," Luciano said. "Everything we do, from scheduling to our facilities to how we treat our student-athletes, is first-rate."

Soccer will flex its competitive muscle by hosting both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona during the opening weekend of the fall semester. Campos said this kind of competitive attitude is only going to help the university attain the goals it has set out to reach.

"All of our coaches are competitive and want to win and are all going to work to get the best product out there," she said. "They know with the direction we're trying to head we want to be held accountable for how we're performing, both on the field and academically. We need to make sure we're putting our coaches into the position to be competitive."

Because the university is giving so much support and such a large amount of its resources, there's no question that teams and coaches will be evaluated on a regular basis and changes will continue to be made as necessary.

Campos used the NAU football team as an example. The Lumberjacks lost five games by a total of 20 points during the 2011 season, and although NAU football was competitive the team didn't produce the results the university, fans or supporters expected.

"We're always evaluating our coaches, but when you look at the margin of losses last year and how competitive they (the football team) were in the conference, we have to wait to the end of the year to see how the season plays out," Campos said. "We really need to evaluate the program based on how competitive we are with the teams in the Big Sky, and we won't know that until the end of the season."

Luciano said one of the biggest parts of becoming and maintaining success is being positive about the future.

"It's easy to be negative and it takes a lot people getting behind something and believing in it and backing it for it to be successful," Luciano said. "Having people like Lisa and Jack and Sue coming in from big universities is going to help change the perspective of NAU athletics and prove that we're a Division I school."

 

A LOOK INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL

Under its new leadership and heading in its new direction, the university hopes to put struggling programs like men's and women's basketball and football on the right paths. Fans remember the men's basketball team finishing the season on a 16-game losing streak, the women's basketball team going 11-16 (and 6-10 in the Big Sky) and the football team's five disappointing losses.

Campos and Murphy both said that the idea of this new direction dictates that within five years the athletic programs should be competing for Big Sky championships across the board.

"I think we'll have more national exposure through football and both basketball programs - at least that's the expectation - and some of our other teams are competitive now," Campos said. "They know what it looks and feels like to be competitive. I envision that'll continue athletically, and on the academic level we graduate student-athletes and have good GPAs. We're going to win games, but not at the expense of giving a good education."

Murphy added he expects NAU's teams to be talked about on the same level as Big Sky rivals Weber State and Montana, teams that have dominated Big Sky play in recent years. 

"We'll be one of the top programs in the conference, at least that's our goal," Murphy said. "Teams like Montana and Weber have set the standard in the Big Sky for a number of seasons and we don't see any reason we can't be right up there with them. Year in and year out we should be competing with these teams for the conference championships in men's basketball."

Murphy admitted that - at least for basketball - it's not going to happen overnight, but he said fans would still see an immediate difference in the team and how it plays. 

"It could be a bit of a struggle at times, but it's not going to take away from our goal of being an upper-echelon team in the Big Sky."

Bill Harris can be reached at bharris@azdailysun.com or 556-2251.

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