Head football coach Tim Murphy has led the Crimson to nine Ivy League championships, three unbeaten seasons, and a 186-83 record in 28 years, becoming the winningest coach in Ivy League history last fall. Not bad for a guy who almost didn’t become a college coach — in fact, for someone who wasn’t even planning to go to college (never mind graduate school). Murphy’s life has had a few twists and spins — married for more than three decades, he still hasn’t been on a honeymoon, and not for lack of trying.
Born in 1956, Murphy grew up outside of Plymouth in Kingston, Massachusetts. Besides Harvard, Murphy has coached at Brown University, the University of Maine, and the University of Cincinnati. With a combined 218-128-1 record, Murphy has earned a reputation as one of the premier coaches in the NCAA. He won the inaugural Ivy League Coach of the Year honor in 2014, has served as president of the American Football Coaches Association, and was a three-time finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award for the top coach in the football conference.
The Harvard Crimson 2022 season starts at Harvard Stadium Friday against Merrimack College. Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football, sat down with the Gazette to reflect on his long career and share his thoughts about lessons he’s learned. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Last year, you became the winningest coach in Ivy League history. What did that mean to you?
MURPHY: It means that we’ve done a pretty decent job here as a team. It takes a village to be successful in a competitive venture, and we’ve had a great village for a long time, especially realizing that this village is ever-changing. There’s always a graduating senior class; there are always assistant coaches who move on. What it comes down to is we’ve done a good job recruiting and developing student athletes and coaches here. We’ve had some really outstanding ones. That has all allowed us to compete at a very high level, consistently, for a good amount of time now.
GAZETTE: When it comes to student-athletes, what do you remember most about the ones you remember best?
MURPHY: It’s hard to express to people who haven’t been around it. There’ve been so many students who through almost sheer character have become so much better than their talent level may have indicated. Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 is a great example. His character along with his considerable ability was such that he transcended the level everybody thought he would be at. He went from not just good at quarterback to arguably the best quarterback in Ivy League history. His character was such that he kept finding ways to get better and better and better. We’ve had a lot of student athletes just like that, whether it’s one of the 31 athletes we’ve had sign NFL contracts or students who’ve gone on to other careers.
GAZETTE: How’s it feel when you see players or coaches go on and have success, whether it’s in the NFL or elsewhere?
MURPHY: It’s a lot of pride — pride that these really great people have managed to have success in their lives. To see those guys be able to continue to climb and reach their goals makes you really happy for them. That’s what we’re all about. Graduating our kids as students and as student athletes and to help them get where they want to be in their lives.
GAZETTE: You grew up in Kingston, Massachusetts, about 35 miles south of Boston. Did you always want to be a college coach? What was your childhood like?
MURPHY: I had a working-class background. My mom was pretty much responsible for being the caregiver and breadwinner. I was the first and only one in my family to ever go to college. Quite frankly, as a young high school student, I didn’t see being a college coach on my horizon.
GAZETTE: Do you remember how you started playing football?
MURPHY: I do. We would play sandlot football. That’s all it was. It was pure as it could get.
GAZETTE: You didn’t see yourself going to college. What changed?
MURPHY: The simple reason I am where I am today is that my high school coaches changed the trajectory of my life. It might have been my junior year in high school, my head football coach and my high school basketball coach cornered me in the hallway and said, “What are you doing when you graduate?” I said: “I don’t know, probably join the Marines.” They looked at each other. Basically, they said: “Shut up, son. You’re going to college.” They empowered me and made think I was a lot smarter than I thought I was. I ended up getting a partial scholarship at Springfield College, playing as a linebacker, and doing really well in school. I actually got my master’s degree while playing. It was the first year the NCAA allowed it.
GAZETTE: You jumped to coaching after graduating in 1978. How did that happen?
MURPHY: My coach empowered me. Howie Vandersea was my head football coach at Springfield, and after my graduate year of playing I told him that I definitely want to be a coach and that it was what my life’s work was going to be. He helped me get a job as a graduate assistant at a Division I school, Brown University. I only got paid $800 for the year. I ended up in the off-season working in an extrusion mill at the Union Camp Corp. in Providence, Rhode Island. I worked hard enough and smart enough that Brown offered me a better job the year after as the assistant varsity coach. I did well enough that when Brown head coach Bill Russo got the head coaching job at Lafayette College, he hired me as defensive-line coach. It’s kind of how it goes in our business.
GAZETTE: When you were so adamant about going into coaching while at Springfield, did you know then that you wanted to be a head coach?
MURPHY: Not then, no. To be honest, I was hedging my bets because the probability of that happening, especially at a young age, was statistically impossible. My backup plan was to get my M.B.A. at a business school. Then, all of a sudden, that became my primary plan.
GAZETTE: Obviously, the M.B.A. didn’t happen.
MURPHY: It’s on hold. I had taken free courses at Boston University when I was assistant coach there and then at the University of Maine. During that time at Maine, I had applied to business schools, and I ended up getting into the University of Virginia and the Kellogg School at Northwestern, which was the No. 2 business school in the country at the time. At that point, I had invested so much extra time in my studies while coaching that I had actually tendered my resignation at the University of Maine because I was going to be moving to Chicago for Northwestern.
About six weeks after I tendered my resignation, the head coach job opened at Maine, and they offered it to me. I was actually a bit conflicted. I’d worked so hard to get into really quality business schools. I was surprised to have gotten accepted, and I’d already told Northwestern, I’d attend. In fact, I’d already put down the deposit. I asked Northwestern if they would defer me for a year. They initially said no, but I convinced them to just give me a year, and I’ll get this head coaching thing out of my system. That was about 35 years ago.