Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Al La Rocque surveyed the basketball practice floor last week and noticed he was a little different than the other coaches.
La Rocque, 61, is one of the most accomplished high school coaches in Southern Nevada history after winning nearly 400 games in 34 seasons. For the next six months, he’ll try his hand in the college ranks as an assistant at Northern Arizona University, working alongside three coaches in their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s.
Jack Murphy, La Rocque’s former student manager at Durango, is Northern Arizona’s first-year head coach. When one of Murphy’s assistants unexpectedly quit earlier this month, right around the same time official practices began, Murphy phoned his longtime mentor.
La Rocque, who had retired five years ago to follow his daughter Lindy’s college career at Stanford, had some free time this season. Lindy, after playing in four Final Fours with the Cardinal, graduated in May.
La Rocque agreed to a six-month contract and immediately left for the Flagstaff, Ariz., school. He had worked a summer camp at the university and already was familiar with most of Murphy’s philosophies, making it a perfect fit for the accomplished veteran.
“The game has really evolved, but at the same time it’s a simple game,” said La Rocque, who won two state championships at Durango. “The other coaches here, (assistants) Matt Dunn and Vic Sfera, they are young guys and high-energy guys. I bring a little gray hair to the staff. I’m that calming influence who has another perspective of the game.”
La Rocque and Murphy have more than a student-teacher relationship. Ever since Murphy’s dad died in 2000, La Rocque has been there every step of the way for support. Murphy’s first break in basketball came with an assist to La Rocque, who contacted then-Arizona coach Lute Olson and recommended Murphy for a student manager position. Olson was La Rocque’s college coach at Long Beach State.
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 spent time with the Denver Nuggets and on the coaching staff at the Memphis before landing his first head coaching job last spring.
La Rocque, like he did the past four years in attending each of Lindy’s home and away games, packed up his car and drove to Flagstaff for Murphy’s introductory press conference. So, when Murphy was in a bind with his staff this fall, he knew exactly who to call.
“Coach La Rocque is very close to me personally and professionally,” Murphy said in a statement. “He has been a mentor of mine who got me involved in basketball at the very early stages of my life. He has always been someone I could rely on for advice and direction. Having him by my side this year is really going to help me and our staff. He has experience at all levels of the game and will be a great asset for our program.”
La Rocque couldn’t say no, even if it meant spending time away from Beverly, his wife of 32 years.
“We’ve been married for 32 years and of course I miss her. I hope she misses me, too,” La Rocque said. “But Jack has been like a son to us. I wouldn’t do this for anybody else, and it’s been a real treat for that reason.
“We have that student-teacher relationship, but now the role is reversed. He is the boss and I am the student. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with him as a head coach. He has truly taken things to the next level.”
La Rocque, whose coaching career locally started in the mid-1970s at Western High, posted a 380-227 record and made six appearances in the state tournament. One of those games was against Bishop Gorman at the Thomas & Mack Center.
He’ll return to the Mack Nov. 12 for a game against UNLV — one of the many moments that will make La Rocque’s latest basketball journey something special.
“That will be something really significant in my basketball life,” he said. “We always talk about how short life is and to enjoy the moment. Well, I’m really going to enjoy that night.”