Leaving a great situation is never easy, but for Meg Sanders who came to Arizona State from Northern Arizona as the all-time winningest coach in Lumberjack history, the opportunity in Tempe was too much to turn down.
Sanders enters her 13th season as ASU's associate head coach after spending the previous 10 years at NAU. She served as an assistant coach for then head coach Charli Turner Thorne for three years (1993-96) and then took over for Turner Thorne at the helm for the next seven seasons (1997-2003).
In her seven seasons as head coach at NAU, Sanders turned in a 107-92 record and led the Lumberjacks to three of the four best seasons in the program's history (22-6 in 1998, 17-11 in 1996-97 and 17-11 in 2001-02). In 1997-98, she became the first coach to lead NAU to a 20-win season, the first to win a conference title, the first to be named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year and the first to defeat the University of Montana.
"While my family and I loved Flagstaff and my experience at NAU was terrific, it was time for a new and exciting challenge," Sanders said. "Charli is a person whom I respect, trust and enjoy working with. Under her direction the women's basketball program is on track to compete for a national championship. ASU's staff, resources and facilities are second to none. It is a special place and I want to be part of its incredible future. The players here are highly committed to realizing their full potential. When I added everything together and then factored in the fantastic Sun Devil fans, I knew ASU was THE place to be."
For Sanders, the desire to work with young people was instilled in her from a young age. Raised by two deaf parents, she knew early on that she wanted to be involved in teaching and coaching.
"Growing up, my sister and I helped our parents communicate with the hearing world," Sanders explained. "This was years before computers, pagers and relay services were available. My early interactions with the deaf community inspired the desire to become a teacher. As my focus shifted to athletics, my dream evolved into becoming a teacher and a coach at a school for the deaf."
"Good coaching is good teaching. I view myself as an educator, and it just happens to be in basketball. I enjoy the competition and striving for excellence through sports, and growing up I looked to coaches as positive role models."
Sanders attended Poly High School in Riverside, Calif., where she was a teammate of eventual Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller. She played at Cal State Fullerton for current Yale Head Coach Chris Gobrecht, earning a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1985.
While at Cal State Fullerton, Sanders encountered another sport that would become a big part of her life: team handball. When the Summer Olympic Games came to Los Angeles in 1984, Fullerton was the site of the team handball venue. Sanders had a summer job working at the Olympics and decided that team handball was a sport she would like to try.
"I had never heard of handball but it was fast and physical and very similar to basketball," she said. "After completing my eligibility, I wanted to keep in shape and thought it would be fun to try something new. I played in a club tournament and then was contacted by the national team coach."
Sanders tried out for the U.S. Olympic Festival and was invited to play on the U.S. National Handball Team. She moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., to train and represent the United States at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. She enjoyed her first national coaching experience as handball team coach for the West squad at the 1991 U.S. Olympic Festival. Sanders also remained involved in teaching and coaching by working at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind and volunteering at both Colorado College and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
In September 2009, Sanders guided the USA women's basketball team to a silver medal in the Deaflympics held in Taipei, Taiwan.
Sanders began her basketball coaching career as an assistant at Fresno State (1989-1993), working for Bob Spencer, the first women's coach to win 500 games. During her first year at Fresno State, the 1989-90 Bulldogs reached the National Women's Invitation Tournament. Sanders earned her master's degree in physical education administration from Fresno State in 1991.
The friendship and partnership between Sanders and Turner Thorne had begun on the court when Sanders was playing at Cal State Fullerton and Turner Thorne was playing at Stanford in the days of the Western Collegiate Athletic Association (the precursor of the Pac-10 Conference). The pair worked basketball camps together, and a few years later in 1993 when Turner Thorne was named head coach at NAU, Sanders was asked by Turner Thorne to join her staff.
"I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for the type of leader that Charli is, and it is very difficult to say no to Charli Turner Thorne," Sanders said. "She brings out the best in everyone around her."
At NAU, Turner Thorne and Sanders inherited a program that had turned in a 10-70 record the previous three years, including a 2-24 record the season before, and had lost its last 39 Big Sky games. In their three seasons together, Turner Thorne, Sanders and the rest of the staff turned around the Lumberjack program and produced the team's first winning seasons in nine years and the first back-to-back winning seasons in the program's history.
Turner Thorne took the ASU job in the summer of 1996, and Sanders was elevated to head coach of the Lumberjacks. She picked up right where Turner Thorne had left off en route to becoming the winningest women's basketball coach in NAU history. Sanders led Northern Arizona to the Big Sky Tournament every year of her tenure. Her Lumberjack squads were among the nation's best defensive teams, leading the Big Sky in blocked shots in each of her last three seasons and ranking among the nation's best teams in field goal percentage defense during that span. She also coached eight All-Big Sky Conference selections and 18 academic all-league honorees in her seven years at the helm.
When the opportunity to be reunited with Turner Thorne came up, Sanders accepted the position.
"Meg is the total package as a coach, and I was thrilled to have her join our staff," Turner Thorne said. "We want to get to the NCAA Final Four and win a national championship at ASU, and I think it is an incredible statement for a successful head coach at the Division I level to step down for a chance to be part of winning a national championship. Meg is a big piece in reaching our goals, and I know that we will all accomplish some amazing things together."
Sanders' experiences as a highly successful head coach have and will continue to serve the Sun Devils very well. With Sanders, ASU now has three coaches with head coaching experience as Amanda Levens spent four seasons as the head coach at SIUE.
"When you are a head coach, you are accountable and responsible for all aspects of a program," Sanders said. "It is crucial to have assistant coaches who support and actively contribute to the mission of the team."
"Meg has one of the best basketball minds in the country and really studies the game, particularly on the offensive end of the floor," Turner Thorne said. "Meg is an exceptional teacher and is a perfect fit for the talented players we have in our program."
Sanders and her husband, Mark live in Tempe and have two children, Ryan (18) and Naomi (13).
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