By Niki D’Andrea
It’s the start of a Sun Devil Women’s Basketball practice on the court at Wells Fargo Arena on a recent weekday afternoon, and sitting in upper-level seats, we can’t distinguish longtime head coach Charli Turner Thorne from her players.
Part of our difficulty is that she’s doing some of the drills and exercises along with them, including push-ups. But another thing that’s making it hard to spot her among the college players is that she looks so young, especially dressed in Sun Devil athletic gear, rather than the all-business skirt-and-jacket ensembles with matching tights and high-heel shoes she usually wears on the sidelines during a game.
Then we see the big hand gestures – large, overhead motions with the arms, like the swaying branches of a tree – and a voice yell “Pick up the pace! Push!”
There she is. Now in her 22nd season coaching the ASU women’s basketball team, Turner Thorne, 52, is the winningest Sun Devil coach since the team was established, with a record of 343-208. She’s led ASU to the NCAA Tournament seven times (including the Elite Eight twice) and coached the team to a Pac-10 Tournament Championship in 2002 – the year after the Sun Devils won the Pac-10 Championship and she was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year. So far this season, she’s seen her team achieve a No. 5 ranking and establish a 16-6 record in an extremely competitive Pac-12 Conference.
She’s done all this by being a “pusher” – someone who drives herself, her coaching staff and her players to always try to take it to the next level. Turner Thorne is also a big-time planner – “meticulous,” she repeatedly tells me, when it comes to pre-game prep. She watches a minimum of about 10 hours of film of the opposing team’s games, more if she has time, and also films every ASU practice, which she says she watches almost every evening, making notes as she goes.
“So I can get the game plan ready, I’ll keep watching and watching,” Turner Thorne says. “Just so it’s like I own that team, like I know everything. We’re never really surprised and all my coaches at ASU pride ourselves on being really prepared… it’s incredibly meticulous. We’re going to outwork you. We’re gonna know how to beat you.”
Turner-Thorne builds lifelong skills and long-term mentorships with her team, including notable players like point guard Briann January, who played for ASU from 2005-2009 and set multiple records before being drafted into the WNBA by the Indiana Fever. January signed with three-time WNBA Champions the Phoenix Mercury in 2017, simultaneously taking an assistant coaching position on Turner Thorne’s staff in the WNBA off-season.
“One of the reasons I want to coach is because (college is) such a pivotal time in a young woman’s life, and Charli is one of the reasons I’m here today,” January says. “The time I was at Arizona State, she really impacted my life. She pushed me to levels I didn’t know I could get to.”
Courtney Ekmark, who currently plays guard and forward positions for the Sun Devils, grew up in Phoenix and attended Turner Thorne’s basketball camps as a young girl. She was drafted by women’s college basketball powerhouse University of Connecticut after graduating high school in 2014, winning two NCAA Tournament Championships with the team before transferring to ASU in 2017. She says she wants to coach after college, and that Turner Thorne has been a huge help and inspiration.
“We’re both really competitive and so I love her passion and intensity and nobody works harder than Charli,” Ekmark says. “Nobody watches more film than Charli – on the bus, on the plane, on the train, in the car, anywhere. She definitely has us prepared for every game.”
Turner Thorne’s scholastic background and experiences as a college basketball player at Stanford – where she played from 1984-1988 and says she was “more of a playmaker than a scorer” – helped prepare her for coaching. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then transferred to the University of Washington, where she coached as a graduate assistant while earning a master’s degree in education. She went on to work as an assistant coach at Santa Clara for a few seasons before taking a head coach position at NAU in 1993, and then at ASU in 1996.
She says some of the hallmarks of a great coach are “knowing how to read people, how to motivate them and inspire them, how to relate to them – all are important things. And then just being a teacher.”
Ekmark considers her coach not just a great teacher of basketball, but also of “life lessons.”
“One thing that is really special about playing for Charli is that she really, truly cares about us not only as basketball players, but as humans,” she says. “She treats us like her daughters. She has 14 daughters.”
She also has three sons (the youngest of which is a freshman in high school) with her husband, Will Thorne. Asked how she’s maintained a work-life balance over the years, she says, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance for coaches… you just work every day. There have been sacrifices. I’ve missed a lot with my sons growing up. My husband has been here, and they’ve gotten taken care of.”
“The thing I always told myself is, as long as my kids are doing well, then okay,” she continues. “If they’re not, then I would reevaluate, but they’re happy, they’ve done well, and they’re definitely the most important thing in my life.”
Meg Sanders coached with Turner Thorne at NAU and followed her to ASU, where she works as special assistant to the head coach. She tallies a total of 18 years they’ve worked together and calls Turner Thorne “the Energizer Bunny.”
“She pushes herself to learn and become better, and she has that expectation of everyone around her,” Sanders says. “So you know you’re going to be challenged to really bring your best, as well.”
Sanders emphasizes it’s very important to Turner-Thorne to develop players off the court as positive people who can be successful in whatever they choose to do after college. “She’s a super-positive person and that’s hard to do in a stressful environment,” Sanders says. “And she’s just a master at it and it’s genuine.”
Positivity is important, Turner Thorne says, “Because toughness is important. And the essence of toughness is being able to stay positive when things aren’t going your way, being able to stay positive and get the job done. As soon as you go sideways, as soon as you go negative, the energy changes and the focus changes and you’re not going to play as well.”
Does she see that as a struggle for some players?
“For sure,” Turner Thorne says. “I mean, it’s just human nature to be disappointed. Human nature is, 80 percent of our unconscious thoughts are negative. So as coaches, we’re dealing with these young women that are pretty Type A, that are really driven. They want to be great, and there’s all this negative self-talk with themselves. We’re teaching them how to be tested, teaching them how to be more positive with themselves, understanding that sometimes there are mistakes, and you just stay with things and you evaluate and you adjust.”
When it comes to evaluating the rest of this season, which includes home games against the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the Pac-12 (the Oregon Ducks on March 3, and the Oregon State Beavers on March 1, respectively), Turner Thorne says, “It’s just going to be an absolute bloodbath. In the Pac-12, there’s not an easy game. There is not a bad team in our conference.”
But of course, she’s keeping a positive outlook. “I’m excited for this year, this team. They have very high standards, so I’ve been able to really get on them and push them,” she says. “Championship culture is just being incredibly positive and incredibly relentless – relentless hard work and being a selfless team.”
“We have the depth, we have the experience and we have talent,” Turner Thorne continues. “And anytime you have those three things, you have a chance to have a special year.”