The success of Charli Turner Thorne: How she has become one of ASU’s greatest coaches
by Ariana Diaz, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism Class of 2022.
For 25 years, Charli Turner Thorne has been changing the trajectory of women's sports at Arizona State University, exemplifying what it means to be a successful coach impacting the lives of those who have had the opportunity to work with her.
Turner Thorne has been the head women's basketball coach at ASU since 1996, marking her 24th season this year. She reached her 500th career win milestone in January 2020 and is the winningest coach in Sun Devil women's basketball history. Named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2001 and 2016 and with 14 NCAA tournament appearances under her direction, Turner Thorne has demonstrated a continued streak of success year after year.
So how did she get where she is today?
When you talk to those who have known Turner Thorne since she first arrived at ASU, you begin to envision how she has set herself up for a successful career all these years.
One person who was there from the beginning is Sandy Hatfield Clubb, who was the associate athletics director for Sun Devil Athletics in 1996 when the department was conducting interviews for the head women's basketball coach position. Today, she is using her expertise in intercollegiate sports to consult athletics departments nationwide.
"[When I first met Charli] the thing that stuck out to me the most, first and foremost, was her integrity, her commitment to her program, her commitment to quality and to doing things right," Hatfield Clubb said.
Turner Thorne was making impressions on everyone she met even before she was hired as head coach for the team. Hatfield Clubb says that she will always remember that during one of the several interviews that they conducted, Turner Thorne told them that in five years, she would take the team to the NCAA Tournament.
What seemed over-ambitious at the time due to the condition of the program (the team was 20-60 in the three seasons prior to her arrival), came true in 2001 when she led her team to a share of the Pac-10 title.
"People were critical about her approach to coaching and subbing early on, but she didn't listen to anybody. She knew that what she was doing was the right thing. And sure enough, it paid off," Hatfield Clubb said.
This accomplishment would be just the start of a continued streak of success for Turner Thorne, and it's clear that from the very early years, she had high expectations for herself and her team.
From this, came her willingness to continue learning and growing as a coach, which has been integral to her success and is shown through her interactions with other coaches.
Linda Vollstedt, ASU's head women's golf coach from 1980 to 2001 and now development director for Sun Devil Athletics, says that early on when Turner Thorne was hired, the two of them built a friendship and would often talk about some of the coaching strategies that Vollstedt used to have an incredible coaching career herself.
During these conversations, she says that Turner Thorne would always have great ideas to help develop the team, but would often fall short on the budget to execute them.
One of the ways that Vollstedt thought she could help her out with this was to create a program to raise money, named 'Charli's Angels'.
The program was created to support the team financially, but Turner Thorne also used it as a vehicle to connect the team, the staff, and the fans with one another.
Not only would this help Turner Thorne's student-athletes, but it also allowed for the community to be able to see what kind of culture she was building around the women's basketball team and all who were involved.
For Vollstedt, this is one of the reasons why she has been so effective at her time at ASU.
"It has to do with building a culture within your program," Vollstedt said. "Charli is very much into teaching leadership skills and she does that really well. She expects all of her players to become good leaders and to know the characteristics of that. It's about building a culture of success."
Part of building this culture of success around a basketball program is being able to pick out people who align with your vision and want to go after the same goals that you do.
Rhonda Lundin, who was the head media relations contact for ASU's women's basketball team from 1999 to 2005 and is now the senior associate athletics director at the University of Nevada, Reno, says that one of the ways to find success in coaching is to know what kind of student-athletes and staff you need in your program, which is something that Turner Thorne excels at.
Lundin has been around and knows what makes great basketball coaches. She was on the NCAA women's basketball committee from 2014-19 and served as the chair in 2018 and 2019. She was asked to return to fill a vacancy this year and will be on from January-August 2021. She helps select the teams and travels to sites. She has watched thousands of games over the past decade. She knows her stuff when it comes to women's basketball.
"She's so humble and she'll tell you that it wasn't her, but the reality is that a lot of it is her," Lundin said. "It's her ability to find people who can help support what she wants to do and set that vision. She's a really special woman."
One of the people who have shared the same vision as Turner Thorne for the program for 17 years is Sun Devil women's basketball play-by-play announcer, Jeff Munn.
Munn has been working with Turner Thorne since 2004, and ever since then, he says that their work relationship has been founded on a level of deep respect, trust, and loyalty for one another.
He says that this is a shared experience with all of those that have been involved with her program and one of the reasons why he believes staff members stick around for so long.
"With Charli, the thing about her is that if you do the best for her, she will do her best and then some for you," Munn said. "That's consistent with anyone who is involved with her program."
Treating others with respect and being good to those who work with her comes down to how much of a genuine person Turner Thorne is, which is a trait that Munn believes has helped her get to where she is now.
"She's genuine," Munn said. "There's nothing fake about Charli. Not a single thing about her is put-on or just for appearances. Everything she does, she does with sincerity. She's authentic, and I think that's a big reason why she's been so successful."
Setting goals for herself, continuing to learn and grow, and recruiting players and staff who have the same vision as her have all helped lead her to where she is today, but most importantly, caring for her student-athletes at a personal level is something that has been integral to her success.
"Student-athletes in her program know immediately how much she cares about them as people," Munn said. "She wants them to grow as people. She uses basketball as her instrument to teach life to her student-athletes. You can't spend a lot of time around her without realizing just how much she really cares about the people she comes in contact with. I think that's the biggest factor in her success as a coach."
One of the hundreds of student-athletes who were positively impacted by their time on the women's basketball team is Sun Devil graduate Jennifer Albert Morgan. She served on the team from 2000 to 2004 and has gone on to have a successful career as an education and disability lawyer after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2007.
When it comes down to it, Morgan believes that Turner Thorne's hard work ethic and having a positive outlook has contributed greatly to her continued success for the past 25 years, and she has fully enjoyed seeing her continue to grow the program to this day.
"It's wonderful to see that Charli is still doing amazing things and providing the opportunities for these girls that she did for us when we were in college," Morgan said.
She also emphasizes that even though helping her student-athletes become the best basketball players they can be is a priority for Turner Thorne, she also wants to prepare them for life after college.
"I always felt that she wanted to develop us as strong women and strong female leaders," Morgan said. "She was always very focused on how well-rounded we could be...It wasn't just focused on the four years we were there, that was important, but she was always trying to develop us as strong female leaders."
Part of this lesson extended to balancing motherhood and a career. Morgan says this is something that she was able to see Turner Thorne practice during her time as a student-athlete and something she reflects on now that she is a mother.
Others would agree with Morgan that Turner Thorne has set a wonderful example throughout the years for the many women who went on to have successful careers and children, showing that is it possible to have a work-life balance.
"She shows that you can pursue your career at the highest level and also have a family," Rhonda Lundin said. "It's not easy, but you can do it. You don't have to sacrifice one to have the other."
To this day, Morgan says that Turner Thorne has made it a point to keep in touch with as many former student-athletes as possible by sending them a text during the holidays and on their birthdays, holding on to the strong bonds she has made over the years.
"It's amazing to see how she has covered so many girls, but she still keeps us so close like a family," Morgan said. "And she always calls us her 'Sun Devil daughters'. That's the kind of thing she does, always going above and beyond. We weren't just there for four years, we are there for life."
These strong coach-student athlete relationships have been integral to building a strong culture around her team, and her commitment to student-athletes throughout the years has been crucial to her success.
"She is just tenacious," Vollstedt says. "Hyper focused on her goals. She has an amazing heart for her student-athletes. She really pours into their overall well-being. She wants to help them be great women and she has the sport of basketball to teach them that."
And it is with basketball that Turner Thorne has been able to impact so many women. As Munn says, she takes the same principles that you can apply to be successful in basketball and translates them into real life.
"She is someone who works tirelessly to be successful," Munn says. "The word isn't so much 'win', it's 'success'. Success in life, success in basketball. I've never been around a coach that is as good as weaving those two things together."
Regardless of who you talk to, you will find a lot of people who feel the same way about Charli Turner Thorne: her success starts with who she is as a person.
Today, with her strong confidence and competitive edge on the court, Turner Thorne makes sure to hold her student athletes to a high standard of basketball excellence. She is a tough coach who expects a lot of hard work from her student athletes, but she is able to do so with a kind heart.
Her genuineness, passion and commitment to the sport have allowed her to continue being successful for more than two decades. She continues to learn and cares a great deal about everyone she comes into contact with, making her an incredibly influential woman in college athletics.
Ariana Diaz is a junior in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism who will graduate in the spring of 2022. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she has interned at knoodle, a PR and advertising agency, in her Sun Devil undergraduate career.