Harvard football coach Tim Murphy barely had enough time to savor his program’s best finish in more than a century when the phone rang. The University of Indiana was looking for a new head man and thought he might be interested in pursuing the position.
An interview and a few days later, Murphy had his answer for the Hoosiers—thanks, but no thanks.
Murphy has been party to the off-season pitch before, solicited for meet-and-greets by the Naval Academy and University of Delaware after guiding the Crimson to similarly successful seasons in recent years past. Each time, Murphy has taken the time to hear his suitor’s offer—“You never say never in this business,” Murphy says. “You owe it to your family to listen to what people have to say”—and decided without qualification that he’s happy patrolling the sidelines at Harvard Stadium.
“You always have a tendency in life to say, ‘What if?’” Murphy says. “But I count my blessings. [Harvard] is just a great environment to coach in—the type of kids we have here, Boston is a great area to raise children, to have them be around kids like the kids that are here at Harvard. This isn’t a perfect world, but I certainly have no regrets.”
Which is understandable, given the success of the program he has resurrected from its down years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the three seasons prior to Murphy’s ascension, the Crimson won a total of just 10 games—a mere three in former coach Joe Restic’s final two years at the helm.
Of course, the turnaround did not come about overnight. Murphy’s first three Harvard teams finished 3-7, 4-6, and 2-8, respectively, and not one managed more than two conference victories.
But in the wake of the obstacles he’d faced at Cincinnati—a perennial Division I-A punching bag saddled with three years of NCAA probation when he’d arrived to undertake his ultimately successful restoration project—the Crimson’s early struggles failed to faze Murphy.
In his fifth year in Cambridge, Harvard logged its first unbeaten, untied Ivy slate in school history, ushering in the Crimson renaissance that would include three titles in eight years and peak in 2004 with Harvard’s first 10-0 season-ending mark since 1901, snapping a 103-year drought predating both Soldier’s Field and the forward pass.
The resurgence has been due, at least in part, to Murphy’s proficiency as a recruiter, honed during his stops at Cincinnati and Division I-AA power Maine before that. The Crimson’s rise to national prominence over the course of the last decade has only aided Murphy in that effort, allowing him to successfully compete against major Division I conferences to secure commitments from top prospects like Desmond Bryant, who tallied 22 tackles and four sacks in his rookie campaign, and record-holding rusher Clifton Dawson, who transferred from Northwestern following a red-shirt freshman season.
“I don’t know that we used to recruit nationally,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says. “And he goes out and he competes with the Stanfords, and the Cals, and the Northwesterns—those type of teams—and he wants to get the best players in the country to come to Harvard. I think that’s one reason we’ve been so successful.”
And even when Murphy and his staff haven’t been in direct competition with preeminent football colleges, they have shown a knack for landing the perfect prospects for their system—from Fitzpatrick, the St. Louis Rams’ newest signal caller, to defensive anchor Bobby Everett.
“It’s about surrounding yourself with great people,” Murphy says. “You’ve got to develop the ability to attract and develop outstanding assistant coaches and outstanding players. That is definitely, as far as I’m concerned, character-driven—recruiting character in your assistant coaches and recruiting character in your players.”
And because Murphy has invested so much of his effort into infusing his program with character, his teams have regularly weathered adversity both on and off the field en route to larger triumphs. In 2004 alone, Harvard rallied from a 31-10 halftime deficit against Brown in Providence to eke out a season-saving 35-34 victory in week two before staving off Dartmouth’s upset bid in Hanover one month later, holding on to win 13-12.
In both instances, the Crimson survived despite substandard defensive performances that were in the end rendered moot by clutch playmaking—be it the three-point second half against the Bears or the thwarted two-point conversion and field goal push against the Big Green—mustered in the game’s deciding moments.
And because Murphy has shown himself capable of producing similar results on a yearly basis, it’s unlikely that Indiana’s will be the last call hoping to lure him away.
But because Murphy believes so strongly in what he is building across the Charles, it’s almost as unlikely that Indiana’s will be the last overture he rejects.
“The Harvard football program is really one of his children in the sense that it’s something that he’s really nurtured and looked after in the last, ten, eleven years,” Fitzpatrick says. “Right now, he’s making a lot of changes as far as coaching offices, and really revamping our facilities, things like that. When he came here, he had a vision, and there’s still a lot he wants to get done that he hasn’t done yet.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.