Coach’s Chair: Charli Turner Thorne, Arizona State University

Charli Turner Thorne is in her 20th season as Arizona State head coach. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics.
Charli Turner Thorne is in her 20th season as Arizona State head coach. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics.

Now in her 20th year as Arizona State’s head coach, Charli Turner Thorne reached 400 career wins in December, 2015, and is second all-time in Pac 12 wins. She has lead the Sun Devils to the NCAA Tournament 16 of the last 17 years, which includes two Elite Eight appearances and a pair of Sweet 16 finishes. She has been named Pac 12 coach of the year twice.

In 2006-2007 Turner Thorne guided the team to a 31-win season, which ended with an Elite Eight run. Earlier this month the team reunited at Arizona State, and former Sun Devils Aubree Johnson and Emily Westerberg addressed the current team prior to their game.

A 1988 Stanford graduate, Turner Thorne played for Tara VanDerveer for three years. She was an assistant coach at the University of Washington under coach Chris Gobrecht before beginning her head coaching career at Northern Arizona in 1992. In 2009, Turner Thorne was head coach of the USA Women’s World University Games Team, who went undefeated and captured a gold medal at the Games.

Turner Thorne and her husband are the parents of three sons.

You graduated from Stanford and then from Washington with a Master’s in education. Was it your intention to become a professor or a teacher?

It was my intention to become a sports psychologist. I did a bit of research to get into a Phd program, and the average age was 27. So I thought I’d try to get GA position, and I had an unbelievable time at the University of Washington with Chris Gobrecht. The coaching thing just happened, but I’ve always absolutely loved coaching. I was 14 or 15 years old and there was an 8-9-year-old basketball team that no one wanted to coach, so they asked me. It’s interesting to think back on it. I said, “sure, I’ll do it,” and I loved it. Then I worked different college camps.

What was it like playing for Tara VanDerveer in the 1980’s?

I was part of her transition years, arriving one year before she got there. Andy Geiger was the athletic director at the time, and a lot of the team went in to complain about the coach we had. I was one of the players to meet interview the new coaches. I played for Tara, and we went to the Sweet 16 my senior year. My second year at Washington, Stanford went to the National Championship, and we were only team to beat them in the regular season.

You are known for your competitive fire and intensity. Where did that come from?

I think I was just born with it. Having my own children, one thing you learn is that you kind of are born with your temperament All my kids are like that too; they are who they are. I’m almost unhealthy-competitive.

Are you competitive in other arenas of your life?

My husband would let the kids win in games. I wouldn’t go all out, but I wouldn’t just let them win. Growing up in our house and with our kids, I was like, “no you got just beat at chess.” When they were little I’d let them win at Candyland. My husband was much nicer than me.

Charli Turner Thorne conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics.
Charli Turner Thorne conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics.

What keeps that fire going for you?

It’s who I am. I only know how to do this job one way. I give everything I have. That’s how we try to be in our program, to be the best in everything we do. We establish core values in our Sun Devil family, and I try to do the same myself. We have very high standards. I try to be positive bring a lot of energy, and I work really hard but I’m not perfect. At the end of the day, I’m trying to grow strong characters – strong young women.

Seeing how well they’re doing at our recent Elite Eight tenth reunion was so special. It was a year when we had injuries and were not where we wanted to be, so it really filled me up to have them reunite. Emily and Aubree gave our pregame talk, and I have only allowed two people in our program in my entire life to come into our bubble and do that. You hope you can bring  a group together like that.

We wouldn’t have made the Elite Eight without Aubree’s brother dying on the road. We went through the most awful circumstances, and basketball was so secondary. The whole season that whole team never played for themselves. But leading up to that year, we had some egos.

I know you are big on supporting your player’s education and growth long after they leave you. Can you talk about that?

That’s really important to me that I’m there always to help them transition. We have our own life coach, who helps them. Your freshman year and your senior year are your most intense emotional years. The freshman year, it’s a major life change leaving your home. As a senior, a player is preparing to take her next steps into life. A lot of our players play pro, but they’re coming out of our bubble. There is not as much money as there is for men, and things aren’t taken care of for them like they are with us. Once you’re a Sun Devil, you’re a Sun Devil for life. I just like to help them take that next step. I’m proud that in 20 years at ASU I can tell you what almost every former player is doing now.

I don‘t get to talk to them as much as I would like to. I try to text them on holidays. I know coaches that once you graduate, they wish you luck, and that’s not us.

The biggest thing isn’t about the basketball; where it’s the best is when I hear back from them about how they’ve used something I taught them.

Basketball has changed a lot since you played. How have you changed to keep pace?

That‘s kind of a fun thing with basketball in that the older I get, the more I am thinking out of the box and being more open-minded, as well as trying to have a bigger vision of the game. I enjoy that part of being able to motivate kids in this newer generation. That’s a bigger challenge than the X’s and O’s. I mean, who runs motion anymore? Who has the patience and selflessness to not get a shot? The game is becoming a lot more prolike in many different ways.

What is a Charli Turner Thorne practice like?

Efficient, very fast-paced, and hopefully people come in and notice lot of talk. It’s intense but positive, and if I do raise my voice, it‘s not individual but collective. I’m quality over quantity, so we don’t have really long practices. We recruit kids who can focus, so we don’t need more than two hours. Every once in a while, if I have slow down teaching day I might. We‘re all about playing hard, and we love to outwork teams and play hard. We believe in team play and a lot of team touches.

If you need to have an honest conversation with an athlete, how do you deliver your message?

That‘s a huge part of being an effective coach, and if your players enjoy their experience, you have to be in tune with them, and know what they need. Do they need some love? One of my better strengths as a coach is I have a good sense for that, and I work hard to try to build trust with my kids. If they’re not in a good place and I need to have a different conversation with them, I will. I‘m very thoughtful with them. I don’t know if all coaches know how impactful our words are to our players. You say one wrong thing or have one bad conversation and they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives. Coaches have a lot of power, and we need to use out words to help and support. I think I just try to be really thoughtful and tell them what they need to hear at the right time. The best part of being a coach is you have to sometimes tell people what they dont what to hear. You have to deliver it. Not telling them is not doing them a favor.

What are your keys to getting through Arizona weather, especially in the summer?

I like warm weather. I still drink my hot chocolate in the summer – my comfort food. I work all the time so I’m usually indoors, but I like the heat.