Tim Murphy has always been a do-it-yourself coach.
With a hands-on approach, he has built an Ivy League empire during two decades at Harvard. The Crimson’s first league championship under Murphy came in 1997. Last year, they won their seventh.
After all that success, Murphy has decided to make a few changes. He wants to be more of a chief executive officer than a chief operating officer.
Heart surgery can make a man reassess the way he works and start delegating more duties.
“I just realized that’s something I have to do, something I should do, and I’m very comfortable that we have the people in place to maintain our success,” said Murphy, the winningest coach in Harvard history with 138 victories.
Murphy begins his 21st season in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Friday night against Holy Cross. He turns 58 in October, but had triple-bypass surgery on Feb. 10 and was away from football for eight weeks. He had never missed a day of work in 27 years as a Division I head coach, and hadn’t missed a daily workout in three years.
When he asked his doctor, “What type of super-fit, 57-year-old guy has this type of surgery?” The response was: The type with stressful jobs.
Never did Murphy consider retiring.
“When you find yourself in this situation you do a lot of soul searching, and in the end I realized that a big part of my identity is as a competitor, and I’m not ready to stop competing,” he said. “My first time away from football in 40-plus years also made me realize how much I love being a coach, and especially coaching these kids at this school.”
Murphy has been at this school for so long he hardly ever gets asked about leaving anymore. It used to come up a lot. He’s had plenty of chances to leave for FBS jobs.
But Massachusetts is where he grew up — Kingston to be exact — and Harvard is where he and his wife, Martha, have raised three children. Their son, Conor, is a junior lacrosse player for the Crimson. Daughter Grace is a freshman at the school. Oldest daughter Molly is a graduate.
After missing so much of his kids’ lives because of his “all-consuming profession,” Murphy relishes being able to run into his son at 6 a.m. when Conor is on his way to work out. Or getting a text from Grace to see if he is available to play tennis.
“Those things are priceless,” he said. “They’re absolutely priceless.”
Besides, Murphy has already done the FBS thing. In five seasons at Cincinnati (1989-93), he took a moribund program from one victory in his first season to eight in his last.
When Harvard called, it was a chance to go home for the former 170-pound tackle at Silver Lake High School who went on to become an All-New England linebacker for Division III Springfield College.
“He was an overachiever,” said John Montosi, who coached Murphy and Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens at Silver Lake in the early 1970s.
Murphy’s second Ivy League title came in 2001. Since then the Crimson are 104-25. Only Boise State, Oklahoma and Ohio State have better winning percentages in Division I during that time.
Like Nick Saban at Alabama and Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, Murphy has created one of the country’s most consistent programs, one that reflects the vision of the man in charge.
“One thing is we don’t change our systems,” Murphy said. “I may hire a new defensive coordinator, new offensive coordinator, new strength coach, but we keep our systems the same. It’s a lot easier to teach our system to one person than to reteach 55 people or 100 people or whatever it may be.”
Part two is finding players that fit.
“Everybody thinks of recruiting as someone has to do a great marketing job,” Murphy said. “But at the end of the day what recruiting is really about is evaluations. I think we’ve done an outstanding job of really evaluating the character of people.”
— Tim Murphy
Joel Lamb, Harvard’s offensive coordinator for the last 10 years, said Murphy doesn’t just preach perfection, he gives his assistant coaches and players a road map to achieve it and then instills the confidence needed to execute the plan.
Lamb added that while the health scare might have coaxed Murphy into changing his management style, his passion is the same.
“In terms of energy, enthusiasm, all those type of things, no change at all,” Lamb said.
Teevens said he has encouraged Murphy, his friend of more than four decades, to try to appreciate and enjoy his success.
“That’s my hope, that he takes a deep breath and looks at it,” he said.
What Murphy sees this season is a team expected to contend in the Ivy League again.
The Crimson was picked second, despite heavy losses on defense.
As for the future, Murphy can’t see himself anywhere else.
“Harvard is my home,” he said. “It’s part of who I am. It’s been such a great atmosphere and experience for our entire family. I’ve met so many unbelievable people. No, they’re stuck with me.”