Is Harvard's Tim Murphy the Best Football Coach in America?
Tim Murphy has been quietly leading a dominant Harvard football program for more than two decades.
Photo via U.S. Navy
The automated directory that greets callers to the football offices at Harvard University is daunting. Not because Crimson football ranks among the most prestigious college football outlets in the country or because the league titles, nine since 1993, are rattled off in slow succession. There's that, of course, but mostly it's daunting because it seems to take so long, which is stressful for callers that want to ensure they're on "Murphy Time." In the world of Harvard football, few things are more important.
Some years ago, Harvard football coach Tim Murphy took to starting meetings five minutes earlier than scheduled, to make sure his players and staff knew that early was on-time in his world. Given the brief preseason time allowance of 15 minutes for our own interview, there was little time to waste on automated messages.
Finally, "This is Tim Murphy."
I was three-minutes late. I felt compelled to apologize.
To be considered the best in anything, there's often at least the suggestion of subjectivity. In sports, though, there is tangible evidence of greatness. Wins, losses, and championship seasons mark success. In college sports, statistics like graduation rates and players-turned-pro warrant mention, as do less easily quantified components like the respect of your peers and regard from the community.
Murphy, who begins his 23rd season at Harvard on Friday, has a claim on the title of best college football coach in America. He's won, a lot—153-63. As for graduation rates, well, it's Harvard. It's hard to find a coach or former player who'll do anything but shower praise on Murphy.
More than that, though, he has succeeded in building a program in his own image. Before becoming the greatest football coach in Harvard's history, Murphy had to create a culture. He wanted his program to reflect the relentlessness and resiliency inherent in the student-athletes of an Ivy League program. "We are specific in what we bring [as coaches]," Murphy said. "We're gonna set the bar high, we're going to work hard year round. [We] challenge these kids to reach potential because their careers will extend well beyond Harvard. [We] make sure it's academics first. The nice thing for these kids is that they're already highly motivated."
"I'm always really impressed with what he's done there," said Rob Ash, an offensive analyst at the University of Arkansas. "To be the top academic school in the country and get the level of players he does never ceases to amaze me. Everyone knows what a difficult job he has. They know what high standards Harvard has and how rigorous the competition is, but he's always won at the highest level."
He really has. In the last nine seasons, Murphy has led the Crimson to six Ivy League titles, a feat he's accomplished nine times in his 23 years; In his tenure, every single graduating class has won at least one Ivy League crown; Harvard's winning percentage is eclipsed by only Boise State since 2003; They've won nine straight against arch-rival Yale and haven't lost two straight games in a decade. They haven't been shutout since Bill Clinton was President; 10 of Murphy's Crimson players have played in the NFL.
Winning wasn't new to Murphy when he took the job in 1993, and neither was turning around a program. He'd just left the University of Cincinnati, which was in the throes of NCAA purgatory when he took over. In five years, Murphy turned a struggling, violation-riddled program into a winning one. "It's one of the great all-time coaching jobs," said Rick Taylor, the school's Director of Athletics at the time. "It's not hyperbole. It's fact."
"When I left Cincy to take this job, people were incredulous," Murphy told me. "It was a great fit for me. It was a great fit for my family. More so than I could have thought."
As the first and only member of his family to attend college, Murphy admitted that he took the job partly because he was still what he called a "frustrated student." At the very best, he thought, he could do a "good enough job that maybe one of my kids could go to Harvard." All three have.
Matt Birk, Harvard class of 1998, and a six-time Pro Bowler in the NFL, was part of Murphy's first class. Before Murphy, Harvard football was an afterthought, or, as Birk called it, a "mild inconvenience," to the players; just 12 of the 36 players who came in as freshman finished all four years with the team. "It was bumpy early on," Birk told me. "[Murphy] had a way of challenging us so that we wanted to earn it the hard way. We relished the fact we're playing football and that we were competing for grades."
"He brings a professionalism," said Kyle Juszczyk, class of 2013 and now a Baltimore Ravens fullback. "He commands a room. He's a guy you want to perform for. He doesn't give compliments easily, so when you get one, you've earned it."
His coaches and players have their entire 12-months planned out for them, including games, practices, and strength training; He assigns a voluntary reading list that ranges from finance to history. He's embraced progressiveness in the sport of football, eschewing live tackling and blocking during the season to further eliminate unnecessary risks.
Rusty Burns, now the wide receivers coach at TCU, played football with Murphy at Springfield College in Massachusetts and coached with him through the resurgence at Cincinnati. He believes what helps Murphy succeed at such a high level is his involvement at a fundamental level. "There are a lot of head coaches that will delegate," he said. "Murph will be in everything. He wants to know what's going on with everyone: the coaches, the quarterbacks, the linebackers. He knows what he wants and he wants everyone headed in the same direction."
And while Murphy can be tough on his players—"My job isn't to be my players' BFF," he says—he isn't cruel for the sake of cruelty.
"I got into coaching because coaches have had such a big impact on my life," said Murphy, who then listed half a dozen coaches who made a difference for him. "Those guys really cared. When you're a young kid, boy that has an impact. Caring isn't something you can fake. That's why I got into this business.
"A lot of guys want to get in this industry thinking they're going to make $9 million a year. It's not gonna happen."
On the phone, the winningest coach in Harvard history is engaging, charming even. Despite 15 minutes of media availability, we spoke for more than 45 minutes. He's the kind of guy who interviews his interviewer, asking about my life before I could get in a question about his. I got the sense this wasn't some well-rehearsed charade and that this was how he interacted with players and their parents, assistant coaches, alumni, or faculty. "That's him," said Juszczyk. "He's interested in you as a person. You feel like you can trust him."
Murphy's ideal of why he wanted to coach— mutual respect and care; discipline; attention to detail—seems to be working. His program is winning, and winning without scandal. And his relationships with his players carry over to their professional lives.
His players carried their respect for him over from their playing days into their professional lives.
"There are two sides to [Murphy]," said Juszczyk. "As a coach, he's professional and down to business. It's all about football. But since then, I've had the opportunity to hang out with him at cookouts and go to his house. He's such a caring guy. He reaches out every couple of months and we talk more about life than football."
Sports talk will always involve a level of debate and subjectivity over who's best, but Burns believes his old teammate is one of the best coaches in the entire college football landscape, not just the Ivy League.
"Absolutely I think that [he's one of the best coaches in the country]," he said. "Sometimes the Ivy League coaches don't get the most publicity, but I don't care where Murph is—he's gonna win. He could go to Notre Dame next week and win."
In early 2014, Murphy suffered a heart attack. Since then, he's won back-to-back Ivy League crowns, and has moved on campus into a new home 200-feet from his office. He'll keep going until he cannot go anymore.
"I'm an optimist," he told me. "I feel great. I signed a nine year contract a year ago. I moved onto campus so that I could go at it hard. [That was] part of the motivation. Hopefully I can be here for however many years I have left. I just want to put into it as much as I can."