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Redefining Murphy\'s Law

In eleven years as Harvard\'s head coach, every one of Tim Murphy\'s players have won an Ivy League Championship and, more importantly, all have graduated.
by: David Srinivasan
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Harvard coach Tim Murphy is enjoying rare success despite dealing with handicaps many Division I coaches might bristle at facing. He works at the nation’s oldest college, one of the world’s elite educational institutions, so Murphy and his teams must live up to traditions nearly as old as America itself. He must also recruit student-athletes who can handle academic standards that might appear impossibly high. In addition, Murphy has zero athletic scholarships to offer his players.

So how does Murphy deal with these and other constraints?

First, he makes a strong pitch to recruits about the school and his program. As Murphy says, “whether you’re in marketing, car sales or coaching, if you can’t sell yourself in a very sincere, clear way, you’re not going to be successful.”

After he gets his players, Murphy’s teams go out and win. Since 2000, Harvard is 33-6.

In 2004, Murphy led the Crimson to its first 10-victory season since 1906. The Crimson went 10-0 (7-0 in the Ivy League) and Murphy won the Schutt Sports I-AA Coach of the Year award presented by American Football Monthly. It was the team’s best overall record since the 1901 squad went 12-0. The Crimson have had unblemished records seven times in school history. Since coming aboard (before the 1994 season), Murphy has had a hand in two of those perfect runs.

Says Harvard athletics director Bob Scalise: “Every student Tim has recruited has experienced an Ivy Championship. That’s a great experience for a kid – playing for a championship in a tradition-laden conference such as this.”

In addition, every one of Murphy’s four-year Crimson players has graduated.


Harvard-Yale is arguably the biggest rivalry in football. It might not attract the 100,000-plus crowds of Michigan-Ohio State, but these Ivy rivals have played 121 times to UM-OSU’s 101 meetings. Football began at Harvard in 1874-five years after Rutgers and Princeton played the first collegiate game. In 1875, Harvard and Yale played for the first time. A year later these two schools would help found the Intercollegiate Football Association, the group that laid the foundation for modern football’s rules.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry remains intact to this day, but with an interesting twist. Murphy is a longtime friend of Yale coach Jack Siedlecki. Like Murphy, Siedlecki cut his teeth working at strong academic institutions such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Amherst. The two became friends when they were assistants at Lafayette in the early 1980s. Murphy was coming off a stint as a graduate assistant at Brown, and Lafayette was his first full-time job.

“We were both single at the time, and we lived together for a year in a third-floor apartment where you had to climb through the fire escape to get in,” Siedlecki says.

“On paper, we ‘shared’ an apartment,” Murphy says. “We were grinders; we spent a lot of the time in the office and a lot of the time on the road recruiting. We didn’t have much of a social life. One time, we came home from a recruiting trip, and the pipes were frozen. We were so frugal, we didn’t keep the heat on.”

That dedication paid immediate dividends. Along with then head coach Bill Murphy, these future Ivy opponents rapidly turned around Lafayette. They inherited a squad that went 3-7 in 1980 and led them to a 9-2 mark in 1981.

Murphy’s head coaching career began with a 15-8 run at Maine in 1987-88. Murphy moved to Cincinnati in 1989, becoming, at age 32, the youngest head coach in Division I-A. Murphy’s first two Bearcats’ squads went a combined 1-19-1. But in 1993, they went 8-3. It was their best showing since 1976, and the Bearcats were ranked an unprecedented No. 28 in the final AP poll.

Murphy calls his Cincinnati stint a great learning experience.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out that one reason I got the job was that not many people were interested in it,” he says. “NCAA probations caused us to lose nineteen scholarships. Our stadium was condemned; we had no practice fields, and our road schedule included Alabama, Miami, Florida State, Tennessee, North Carolina, Iowa and Penn State. Our first two years we were probably the worst team in the country, but we red-shirted our first class. By the time they graduated, we had a very solid program. We had a plan, and we stuck with it.”

The obvious question is how do you recruit when you have little to offer?

“We had to sell ourselves as people,” Murphy says. “I’d tell (prospective recruits): ‘This is where we are, but this is where we’re going.’ Kids don’t always make intellectual decisions, and we were fortunate enough to get kids who made emotional decisions. By the time they matured, our program had matured.

“We decided then to leave Cincinnati which was a very difficult decision. Although we were offered a five year contract extension my mother was terminally ill in Boston, my father was deceased, my brother was out of the country and my sister lived on the west coast. In addition, my athletic director was leaving to go to Northwestern and I was a little frustrated at not getting a bowl bid even though we finished 26th and 27th in the polls. The combination of those factors and the allure of Harvard were our motivation and though nothing is perfect in life we appreciate Harvard and have no regrets.”

The rebuilding continued when Murphy moved to Harvard.

“Tim was at Brown, Lafayette, Boston University,” Siedlecki says. “He had an understanding of what the Ivy League was all about. He certainly had the background to be a successful Ivy League coach.”

Indeed, Murphy had rare success at graduating his recruits at Cincinnati, and this must have been a strong item in his favor when Harvard was going over his curriculum vitae.

Murphy’s Crimson career began with a Cincinnati-like 10-20 start.

Says Murphy: “Coaching is a lot like parenting. Your goal isn’t to make everyone happy all the time, it’s to help your ‘kids’ be successful and to reach their potential. By taking that approach you develop some great long-term relationships, but it takes time. You have to get players to buy into a ‘team first, me second’ philosophy, and you have to be demanding in an honest, fair manner.”

His first taste of true success at Harvard came in 1997, when the Crimson went 9-1 and won Murphy’s first Ivy League title. Murphy struck gold again in 2001 when the team went 9-0.

The Rough Stuff

“The biggest challenge is that we have the smallest recruiting pool of any school in the nation,” Murphy says. “We’ve got to recruit every corner of North America. Because of the size of the recruiting area, the quality of football and the academic standards, our recruiting – and this is true for the entire Ivy League – is very labor intensive.”

Murphy isn’t kidding about the rigors he and his staff face: Last year’s team featured players from 31 states plus a trio of Crimson from Ontario (Canada, not California).

Says Siedlecki: “If you look at Yale 35 years ago, two-thirds of the team came from three metro areas: Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The 1960 team (Yale’s last undefeated squad) had 12 kids from the same high school in Chicago. Today, a huge challenge is finding the kid that’s good enough to play that has the academics we require. We recruit all 50 states. I was in 15 cities in 20 days in December. If you look at the percentage of Yale players who become doctors or lawyers, it’s the same percentage as the general student body. It takes a special kid to play (Ivy League football).”

Another obstacle that many players don’t want to deal with is the fact that Ivy League football players aren’t allowed to compete in the postseason. This appears to make sense on the surface. After all, Dartmouth and Princeton footballers should make like the rest of their brainy scholar-athlete classmates and get ready for their exams, right? There’s only one problem with that supposition: Most Ivy League athletes are allowed to compete in the playoffs.

Says Murphy: “There are 41 Division I programs at Harvard, and 40 of 41 can compete in the postseason.”

Murphy has experience coaching in the Division I-AA playoffs with the Maine Black Bears, and he says his 2004 Harvard team could easily compete with the nation’s other top I-AA programs.

“It’s almost indefensible to choose one sport that cannot go to the postseason,” he says.
“It’s inevitable that we’ll compete in the postseason at some point, but it’s something we’re not losing a lot of sleep about. It might be anticlimactic. For Harvard and Yale, ‘The Game’ is our Bowl Game. Quite frankly, there was nothing we could have done in the I-AA postseason (in 2004) that would have surpassed the feeling of winning that game.”

Philosophically Speaking

“The key to success in the Ivy League is the same as it is in the Pac-10 or the ACC,” Murphy says. “Recruiting is the most important variable. We believe we do a very good job with our scheme and developing athletes and football players. But there is no question that in the Ivy League and college football in general, recruiting is the most critical variable.”

Murphy says it is essential to have tough, motivated players.

“We’ve got bright kids,” he says. “We probably put a little bit more into our game plan because our kids have the capacity to handle it. One thing that’s great about them is they have tremendous internal motivation. We do the same things that they do at Notre Dame, Stanford or Northwestern. But (our) kids have no financial motivation. We have kids on full scholarship, but their aid is based on need, not on football. Kids here play for the love of the game, but they play as hard or harder than any kids I’ve been around.

“You definitely have to motivate kids, but the best way to do that is to recruit kids with a high level of self-motivation. I don’t care if you are a sports psychologist, if you don’t (recruit motivated kids), those kids won’t reach their potential.

Murphy’s well-motivated players like to put the onus on their opponents.

“We are a no-huddle, multiple offense – like a fast-break offense in basketball,” Murphy says. “We keep the pressure on in a variety of ways. We try to snap the ball with 20 seconds left on the 25-second clock so the other team doesn’t have a chance to go in the huddle, rest or do anything.

“Our defense is very similar. We run the Virginia Tech eight-man front. Actually, it’s evolved to more of a 4-2-5, but we like to attack on defense and special teams – in terms of scheme and philosophically.”

Murphy stresses his aggressive system, saying it helps insulate his teams from attrition.

“If you have success, good assistant coaches will move on to bigger and better things,” Murphy says. “By sticking with a system, as we have for the past 18 years at Maine, Cincinnati and Harvard, it’s a lot easier to withstand changes in personnel-both coaches and players.”

Success and a Legacy

Murphy has seen great success in his time as Harvard’s head coach, winning plenty of games. He has also turned the school into a mini factory for pro-football players.

“In the decade prior to 1996, Harvard had had zero players sign NFL contracts,” Murphy says. If you factor in the 2005 draft, we will have had 14 players sign NFL contracts in the past eight years.”

But it isn’t just about players such as Vikings All-Pro center Matt Birk. ...

“One of the nice things about coaching at Harvard is to witness the incredible opportunities our players are afforded after graduation,” Murphy says. “(Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager) Paul DePodesta was on my first team at Harvard in 1994. Another great thing is to see kids from very humble backgrounds see their version of the American Dream realized. Two-thirds of our student body and team attended public high schools and come from middle-class or working-class backgrounds.”

Murphy is in a good place right now. He is recruiting well and winning. His players are graduating and seeing success away from Harvard. And Murphy appears to be in a comfort zone in the Ivy League. In addition to his old friend and colleague Jack Siedlecki, Murphy has been friends with Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens since the seventh grade.

Says Siedlecki: “When I got this job, Tim said to me: ‘You know, there are some people in Eastern Pennsylvania right now shaking their heads.’ ... 25 years down the road that we’re coaching Harvard and Yale is a pretty interesting coincidence.”

It isn’t any such thing.

Murphy, and his friends, have strong credentials. They have the character and a fundamental understanding of the challenges Ivy League coaches face.

Says Scalise: “Tim is a perfect role model; he’s hard-working, diligent, principled, enthusiastic, a great leader. If my son played football, I’d want him to play for Tim Murphy because of the impact he would have on the rest of my son’s life.”


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