The only thing being tossed around more than Penn quarterback Gavin Hoffman late last Saturday were comparisons between this year’s Harvard football team and the 1997 edition. The parallels are obvious—1997 was the year Harvard last won an Ivy title, the year it last went undefeated in league play and the last time it beat Penn.
Should Harvard win at Yale Saturday, the debate will likely rage over whether this year’s club is the best in school history.
Harvard Coach Tim Murphy has his own opinions on that subject, but the fact that the conversation is taking place at all is proof of how far Harvard has come in just one calendar year. Last season, 1997 might have well been 1897. Just three years removed from its glorious Ivy title season, Harvard was finding new, inventive ways to lose, and Murphy was forced to defend himself and his team almost every other week. The magical ’97 season seemed a relic of the distant past.
The damage report from last year: Harvard lost three league games by a combined 12 points, including two by a single point. In all of them, Harvard surrendered a fourth-quarter lead.
If the Crimson wins even two of those games, it is celebrating back-to-back titles this week. As it turned out, questions abounded as to whether Harvard was able to win the big ones anymore.
But after its epic 28-21 win over the Quakers Saturday, those questions are answered. Harvard—and Murphy—are officially back on top.
Leading up to the showdown with the Quakers last week, Murphy was sitting in his office, fielding media requests left and right. All of it could easily have been distracting.
But Murphy didn’t mind at all. This is the type of attention he wouldn’t mind getting used to all over again.
“It’s great for the program,” Murphy says. “This is why we play, to get yourself in a big game. We don’t set goals to be average. We set goals to be the best we can be.”
Turnover a New Leaf
Four weeks after it happened, Murphy describes the Crimson’s near-loss to Dartmouth on Oct. 27 in two words: “Gut check.”
In that game, with senior quarterback Neil Rose out due to a neck injury and Staph sidelined with a hurt ankle, the Harvard offense couldn’t score. A goal-line stand by the Big Green at its own one-yard line capped a first-half shutout of Harvard. With the Crimson defense also coming out flat, Harvard trailed 21-0 at halftime.
As the Crimson’s shot at an undefeated season hung in the balance, Murphy was not about to preside over another letdown.
“We had a little chat with the team,” Murphy says. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
Whatever he said behind closed doors, it worked wonders. In the third quarter, Harvard scored 21 points in the span of less than four minutes, as the Crimson reeled off its greatest comeback ever. All of a sudden, Harvard had become a second-half team.
So what exactly spurred this dramatic turaround?
It’s not new personnel. At least a dozen of Harvard’s 22 starters on offense and defense were returners from last year.
It’s likely not game preparation either. Murphy and his talented staff have always been known for their tireless efforts. The weekend before last Saturday’s Penn game was a typical example of the work that the Harvard coaches put in.
“We got home at 10 a.m. [from Columbia], and then we’re back in here from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. all day Sunday,” Murphy says. “We were in here in the morning watching the film from the Columbia game.”
Twelve hours of studying film. And that was just Sunday.
“We’re better prepared than any team in the league,” senior tailback Josh Staph says. “I can’t believe the schedules [the coaches] keep. We’re never going to lose a game because we’re not prepared.”
So what’s been the key to Harvard’s success this year? To hear Murphy tell it, Harvard has improved by making things simple. The difference, he says, has been a renewed emphasis on fundamentals.
“You get what you demand,” Murphy says. “If you demand too many things, the message gets muddled. This spring, we literally only talked about two things—ball security... and putting teams away.”
The proof, you could say, is in the pudding. Guilty of 36 turnovers last season, Harvard has committed just seven this season, the fewest in all of Division I-AA. Senior quarterback Neil Rose has been a different player, or at least a much more efficient one. After throwing 13 interceptions last year, he has thrown only three in 2001. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a rookie who had never taken a snap before this year, has been picked off just once.
Murphy has always known Harvard had the talent to win, but only if they didn’t beat themselves. This year, they haven’t.
‘I Never Give Up on a Player”
At a midweek press conference after Harvard’s win over Dartmouth, Murphy stood before a table full of reporters and specifically singled out three Harvard players for praise.
He could have picked any number of people. Carl Morris, for one, comes to mind.
Instead, he singled out the Crimson’s kicking unit—placekicker Anders Blewett, kickoff specialist Robbie Wright and punter Adam Kingston.
“They’ve been a much-maligned group,” Murphy said, before adding, “They’ve put up with a lot of crap.”
Murphy wasn’t kidding. After missing a combined 10-of-14 field goal attempts last year, Blewett and Wright have endured endless torment.
Throughout their travails, Murphy has stuck by them. While some observers wondered why Harvard would ever try a field goal again, Murphy retained confidence in the pair.
As this season progressed, his faith has been restored. Against Dartmouth, it was a Blewett field goal that put Harvard ahead to stay in the third quarter. Wright, with his powerful leg, continues to impress on kick-offs. And against Penn last weekend, Kingston pinned the Quakers in back of its 20-yard line three times.
“Coach Murphy’s done everything I could ever ask him to do,” Blewett says. “I think he’s been more than fair. I think that the way he’s handled this, he could’ve easily turned negative, but he’s definitely done more than a good job just keeping the situation alive. … I think that he’s definitely made… the proper decisions. And he’s had to make a lot of them. And I definitely respect all his decisions.”
Murphy admits that earlier in his coaching career he might have considered a player as star-crossed as Blewett or Wright a lost cause. But times change.
“When I was a young coach, in my mind, I thought I knew everything,”Murphy says. “But there have been cases where I gave up on a player and he proved me wrong. Now, I never give up on a kid.”
Staph might be considered one of those cases that proved Murphy wrong.
Before he became the feel-good story of the fall, Staph was a no-name backup fullback. He almost wasn’t even on the team this year. That’s because when Staph was in his sophomore and junior seasons, Murphy didn’t invite to spring practice.
It was a hard pill to swallow then. Now, Staph understands Murphy’s position.
“At the time, I definitely thought it was unfair,” Staph says. “But looking back, I can’t hold it against him for any decision he made.”
When project starting tailback Matt Leiszler went down with a career-ending injury this summer, Murphy turned to Staph. The fifth-year senior held no ill will because of the way Murphy had handled the situation all along.
“[Murphy], more than anyone, wanted to give me that chance because he knew how hard I worked,” he says.
Pushing All the Right Buttons
In any given game, Murphy literally calls all the shots. A former offensive coordinator at Maine in 1980s, Murphy calls all his own plays on offense.
Murphy favors taking that kind of hands-on approach, even if it leaves him vulnerable to criticism when his decisions don’t work out.
The Cornell game last year was particularly stinging in that regard. Even after blowing its 28-0 lead, the Crimson had a chance to win the game on a late-fourth quarter drive. Rose had led Harvard all the way to the Big Red 10-yard line, setting up first-and-goal with 37 seconds left.
But rather than take a couple shots at the endzone, Murphy elected to have Wright go for the field goal. The rookie kicker missed the 27-yard attempt and Harvard lost the game.
“If we make that field goal, Coach looks like a genius,” Staph said. “We as players just needed to learn how to win games. The coaches always gave us every opportunity to win.”
Maybe so. But after the game, Murphy took the high road, accepting full blame for the debacle.
“I take full responsibility,” he said. “When you’re up 28-0 there’s no reason why you should lose, period. I’ve never had this happen before.”
Flash ahead to this year and Murphy has left almost no room for second-guessing. Whether it was a fake punt against Northeastern or an option-pass play against Dartmouth, his calls have more often than not worked to perfection.
Against the Quakers—who boast one of the nation’s best rushing defenses—Murphy made what may have been his boldest call yet. On Harvard’s opening series, the Crimson ran 13 plays. All but four of them were handoffs to senior tailback Josh Staph, who gained the majority of his 54 rushing yards on that drive alone. Harvard didn’t score on the series, but that was not necessarily the point.
“We were going to come out running the football, because nobody in the league had been able to do that against Penn,” Murphy said after the game. “That was a psychological thing, saying, ‘Hey, this is what you do best, but were going to show you right now we can run the ball.’”
It was a brave decision, one that Penn Coach Al Bagnoli called the “key to the game.” With Penn forced to respect the run, Morris found himself in man-on-man coverage the rest of the afternoon. The Crimson offense took full advantage of that mismatch, and Morris finished with 155 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
But even before the call paid off on the scoreboard, it gave Harvard an important mental edge.
“We knew after those first two drives that we were going to win,” Staph says. “We were down 14-0, but we had so much success against their defense, we knew we could do it.”
It was just the second time Murphy had ever topped Penn. More importantly, the win completely erased the lingering memry of last year’s late-game demons.
On Saturday, more than half a dozen players took a seat at Murphy’s side at the post-gamepress conference in Dillon Field House. After jumping on the grenade when things went sour time and again last season, Murphy stepped aside Saturday to deflect the credit to his players.
“This is the best win in my head coaching career,” Murphy said. “These guys are a special group, not just because they are 8-0, and not just because they are champions, but because of how they did it.”
The man with the plan
Two Ivy titles in five years. A top-20 national ranking. This is the kind of success Murphy envisioned when he left a highly successful Division I-A program behind at Cincinnati.
There, Murphy led the Bearcats to their best record in 11 years, as well as the No. 27 ranking in the country. At the time he took over at Cincinnati, Murphy was just 32 years old, making him the youngest coach in Division I-A.
But even then, nothing about Murphy was the least bit amateurish. The same is true today.
“Coach Murphy is the most professional coach I’ve ever played for,” Staph says.
Harvard’s players say they respect the pride that Murphy attaches to the program.
“He’s a great recruiter,” Rose says. “I met him when I visited here and he just seemed like such a strong figurehead type. He seemed very straightforward and very professional. I thought Harvard took football much more seriously than the other schools I had visited.”
Over the years, Murphy’s program has produced a number of NFL-caliber talents. Isaiah Kacyvenski ‘00 with the Seattle Seahawks, Chris Eitzmann ’00 with the New England Patriots and Matt Birk ’98—who signed a seven-year contract extension with the Minnesota Vikings this fall—are just a few.
Happy as he is to see his players succeed on the next level, Murphy doesn’t see his job as grooming pro prospects.
“Players don’t come here to go to the NFL,” Murphy acknowledges. “However, what they discovered is, you can play a high level of football here at the same time that you receive a quality education.”
Staph couldn’t agree more. When he was deciding on a college out of high school, what most impressed him about Harvard was the gains the program was making under Murphy.
“Harvard was the most progressive program of any school I was looking at,” Staph says. “Harvard was building a new weight room in the Murr Center and a new locker room. It was clear that Coach Murphy was definitely looking to the future.”
“Other schools seemed like they were stuck in the same rut of playing football the way they were 25 years ago,” Staph adds. “But Harvard and Penn were the two that were different.”
As Staph notes, the past three years notwithstanding, the commitment to winning has been at Harvard all along. It was just a matter of execution. This season, it finally came.
All in the Family
Rose thinks Murphy looks for a specific breed of player when he is out recruiting.
“He really likes a blue-collar, humble kid,” Rose says.
If that’s true, maybe it is because Murphy sees a bit of himself in those blue-collar types. Murphy was the first person in his family to attend college.
Today, his first priority remains his wife, Martha, and his three children. The main reason he decided to leave Cincinnati—a top Division I-A program —to come to Harvard was because he thought Boston would be a better place to raise his family.
“My family is simply the most important thing in the world to me,” Murphy says. “It gives me the balance in my life that I need. I’ve got young enough children that they still think I’m the funniest, smartest, toughest guy in America. They haven’t got me figured out yet.”
Murphy sees his relationships with his players in much the same way he views his role at home.
“When you’re a coach, it’s a lot like being a dad,” Murphy says. “You don’t try to be their buddy. You try to do the right things so that they can reach their full potential.”
Murphy’s players respect his approach. He is tough, they say, but always fair.
“There’s no pretense with him,” Staph says. “He’s straightforward, doesn’t give you any bull. When I wasn’t good enough to play, he’d told me, ‘You’re not good enough to play.’”
The football team has always been known as one of the most tightly-knit groups on campus. They practice together, they take classes together, they live together.
But Staph, who has been here for five years, says this might be the closest group since he’s been here. Murphy, he
says, has helped foster that.
“This summer, we had a cookout at Coach’s house before camp,” Staph says. “We’d never done that before.”
History in the Making
So now the football team stands on the cusp of history. A win Saturday would clinch Harvard’s first perfect season since 1913.
But that’s the ancient past. For current Harvard observers, a more meaningfulstandard is the ’97 club, Harvard’s last team to go undefeated in Ivy play.
So, Coach Murphy, which team is better?
“I don’t know man-for-man if this team is as talented as the ’97 team,” he says. “But this team is as hard-working and as resilient as any team I’ve ever coached.”
And, as dramatic as so many of Harvard’s games were this year, this title might be a little sweeter.
“I don’t think in ’97 we had any close games,” Murphy said Saturday. “This one is a lot more special for that reason. It took a lot more character to get where these guys got this year.”
This year’s success is indeed a tremendous tribute to the Harvard players. But it reflects well on Murphy, too. He’d already shown he could win on pure talent. This year, he led a team that faced heavy odds, jarring injuries and previously insurmountable deficits. In the end, he made Harvard a champion again.