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Shift in gears brings focus to ASU coach

03/22/2014, 12:29am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Focus shifts to ASU coach

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said her counterpart in today’s opening round of the NCAA women’s tournament at Savage Arena is “unique.”

Then she paused for a second and amended that.

“Very unique,” Balcomb said.

Well, yes.

Arizona State’s Charli Turner Thorne prefers her players call her by her first name. She has played games outdoors in December, although that is easier done in Phoenix than in, say, Toledo. She may bristle a bit at being called “that hockey coach” who often subs a whole line, five at a time.

There is certainly a frenetic tone to Sun Devil games.

All of that, not to mention her record, makes her interesting.

What makes Turner Thorne unique is that she spent the 2011-12 season on vacation.

That’s right.

She “stepped away” from the sport and from her team. And then came back.

Now, the Sun Devils are back in the NCAA for the ninth time under Charli — remember, we’re all on a first-name basis here. Those nine tourney bids during the 2000s ranks second among out-west schools behind, of course, Stanford.

Charli’s 324 wins as a Pac-12 coach rank second to Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer.

Thanks to Stanford and Tara and their giant-sized aura in women’s college basketball, Arizona State and Charli may be the best program and coach we’ve never heard much about in our neck of the woods.

Still, though, the most unique thing about her is that she walked away. Name another coach in a major sport at a major college who, for non-medical reasons, just took a year off, then blew the dust off her office furniture and settled back in. Did it on her terms. We’ll pause here and let you think about that.

Anybody?

Charli turned the team over to an assistant coach and pretty much disappeared. She and her husband and three sons went north to Flagstaff, where there are mountains and the kind of winter that many of us might recognize, and where the family sledded and had snowball fights. She read books, cooked meals, wrote letters, took up yoga.

She realized there was a considerable difference between joyfully going to work every day and working every second of your life.

“For anybody that knows about coaching, it’s a non-stop career,” Charli said Friday at UT, where her team faces Vandy today at 11 a.m. “You work every day. I was able to take a step back and review my work with the program and get some clarity. I was on a treadmill not knowing how to not work and [how] to relax so I had to shift gears and do things a little differently. I have made some adjustments that have been good for me and, in time, hopefully good for the program.”

She found the clarity and the balance she needed. It may have come at a greater cost than she anticipated — her absence disrupted a full recruiting cycle and when she returned a season ago the Devils dipped to a 13-18 mark. Charli and her team are getting the last laugh this time around after a preseason Pac-12 poll tabbed them for a 10th-place finish.

The 22-9 Sun Devils are as unique as their coach. There is but one player, Deja Mann, averaging in double figures and that a modest 11 points per game. They have nine players who average in double figures in minutes played and seven of them score seven or more points per game.

Yes, Charli is rather liberal, perhaps even radical, when it comes to substitution patterns. In a game last month against Utah, a 60-40 win, Arizona State employed 71 substitutions, including six occasions when she swapped out five players at a time.

She insists “line changes” are not part of her philosophy, but simply the best way to get the most from her troops and developing a deep bench while playing up-tempo at both ends of the floor.

“As coaches we adjust to what we have,” she said. “In 2009 we lost our starting point guard and leading scorer and were still able to make it to the Elite Eight without her. That was because we continued to develop our bench and find opportunities for people to play.

“It’s a philosophy of splitting time for every player. It’s the kind of team we have this year, and we will continue to find opportunities because it served us well.”

As did a year away from the game for the Sun Devils’ coach.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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