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School of Murphy

In a football world dominated by scandal, Harvard coach Tim Murphy has created his own gridiron culture.

Harvard coach Tim Murphy has built his own "school within a school" through his time with the Crimson program.
Harvard coach Tim Murphy has built his own "school within a school" through his time with the Crimson program.
By Jacob D. H. Feldman, Crimson Staff Writer

“Now, we all begin a new phase of our partnership,” reads a letter sent from Harvard football coach Tim Murphy to the parents of each incoming freshman player. “Over my twenty years at Harvard, our football team has functioned most effectively as a ‘school within a school.’ In this role, your son will learn many of life’s lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom. It is my goal to help him prepare for life using football as the vehicle. The next few years will present him with new opportunities to grow and our football program can be one of the cornerstones of this process.”

Football is under attack. Just last week best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell said, “Football is a moral abomination.” Days later, The New York Times published thousands of words on how the NFL has improperly dealt with cases of domestic abuse. The national newspaper of record previously wrote, “At Florida State, Football Clouds Justice.”

There has also been the Ray Rice scandal, the Adrian Peterson scandal, and before those, the Steubenville High School rape case involving high school players and Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide.

Concerns about concussions have been raised as well. Playing football has been linked to cases of Alzheimer’s, depression, and even suicide.

LeBron James, Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and even President Barack Obama have all expressed concerns about letting their sons, real or imaginary, play the violent game.
Football has been compared to ill-fated Big Tobacco, and people have begun asking how much longer it will be around at all. Others have wished for a return to the simpler game of gridirons past.

There was a time when the game was hailed as a more civilized teaching ground for young men than the battlefield. Back then, it was seen as a place for proper training for life in an industrial society.

When the Ivy League presidents discussed football in 1945, they concluded, “Under proper conditions, intercollegiate competition in football offers desirable recreation for players and a healthy focus of collegiate loyalty.”

But in 2004, professors at the University of Idaho and Washington State University concluded, “The environment of athletics has not been supportive of teaching and modeling moral knowing, moral valuing, and moral action. Perhaps, because there are very limited consequences for immoral behaviors in the sport environment, but very large consequences in the real world.”

They had studied 72,000 athletes using a test of moral reasoning.

At times, the evidence can seem overwhelming—damning. And it’s mounting.

But then there is Murphy and his “school within a school.” Is it possible that he has maintained the proper conditions the Ancient Eight alluded to 69 years ago and has created a different “environment of athletics” that fosters morality rather than restrains it?

Take a tour of the Murphy School and decide.

THE ADMISSIONS PROCESS

When potential football recruits visit Harvard, they are not the only ones making evaluations. Murphy is learning, too.

Former defensive lineman Adam Riegel ’13 explained that coaches expect host players to decide whether the high schooler would be a good fit within the team’s culture.

Murphy helps make that decision, too.

“I’m not good at much, but I know how to work hard, and I have a very good feel for people,” he said. “I look for an almost palpable character.”

Murphy said he feels the importance involved in helping select more than one percent of each incoming class and that he wants to choose players that will represent Harvard well. But he admits there are selfish reasons for looking for high-character guys, too.

“I think character is where it’s at,” he said. “Those kids who have great character seem to exceed whatever their perceived athletic and academic potential is perceived to be.”

Riegel said character is even more important given that the players are not bound to the team by athletic scholarships.

If a host player recommends an athlete who then leaves the team, “he wasted a spot for someone who could have helped the team, who could have been a contributing member, and more importantly, could have become a best friend to one of the teammates,” Riegel explained.

Picking the best applicants is the first step in Murphy creating the school he wants to lead.

THE LECTURES

Murphy says the lessons he preaches in speeches given either right before kickoff or Friday before a team meal stem from those he learned growing up in football.

A 170-pound tackle at Silver Lake High School, Murphy overachieved in the eyes of his coach John Montosi, playing at Springfield College and eventually becoming an All-New England linebacker.

Murphy then became an unpaid graduate assistant at Brown University, and he worked 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at a Pawtucket, R.I., mill.

Recounting the story at Springfield’s 2012 commencement, Murphy said, “If you want something in life, you are going to have to grind it out.”

Given that Murphy has been a constant presence on the Harvard sideline and in the football offices, outlasting two University presidents, it would be easy to see the job as his destiny. But that’s a notion he fights each time he addresses his team.

“Almost on a weekly basis we say we are not destined to win, we are not more entitled to win than our opponent, [and] we are going to have to go out and earn it,” Murphy explained.

But that’s just one part of his consistent message. Murphy also reminds his players that “at some point, you are going to have to fight through some bad stuff—fight through some adversity.”

“Fellas, if we want this one,” he tells them, “We are going to have to work, and we always have to embrace the challenge of any adversity that comes our way.”

“I know life is not that simple,” he said, “but at times it’s almost that simple.”

Murphy added that those lessons come from the coaches he learned from.

“I have been very fortunate to have [had] good role models at just about every level of every sport I played [at] and that was their message,” he said. “When things get bad, you have to embrace it, fight through it, and when you do, it’s very empowering.”

Former center Jack Holuba ’13 called Murphy a “stern man and a no B.S. kind of guy.” Both he and Riegel said the same thing when asked when they were most surprised by their coach.

“For being such a serious man and maybe not the most gregarious at times, the way he reacts when you win—he leaps into the crowd and everyone is going nuts,” Holuba said. “The passion he has for the game is really admirable…. You remember that football is fun.”

Of the celebration, Riegel said, “That caught me off-guard the first time it happened…. He just doesn’t let his emotions run wild as a head coach, [so] to see him go nuts gets everyone fired up.”

Players said the way Murphy acts in those moments and others helps back up his lessons.“[Murphy teaches in his] talk to us but also in the way he carries himself—the way he manages his program, the way he leads us, [and how he sets] that example,” captain Norman Hayes said.

THE OTHER TEACHERS

During preseason practice, Murphy invites the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response to speak to his players.A representative of the office tells the players about their potential to prevent instances of sexual assault as physically larger people and recognizable members of the community.

The session made Holuba more passionate about the issue, and he said six to 12 other guys worked with OSAPR as well. Teammates got involved with Harvard Men Against Rape and the White Ribbon Campaign.

In 2006, then-captain Matthew C. Thomas ’06-’07 was charged with assault and battery against his ex-girlfriend. Holuba said he and his teammates wanted to help the program move past the incident and show the benefits he sees in football.

“I think football, especially lately with all the things you are hearing—you hear so much of the bad,” he said. “But I think for me, everything I associate with football is good values.”

Murphy decided to remove Thomas from the team following the charges. Recently, he has said the decision was difficult but necessary.

Holuba said Murphy’s decision to do so was emblematic of his constant message that “it doesn’t matter who you are or what your role is, you are held responsible for your action.”

Further than that, Holuba said Murphy reminds his players that they are not entitled to anything because they play football, just like he reminds them each week that they are not entitled to a win. You are not better than everyone else because you are on the football team, he says.

After instilling values in his players, Murphy lets them teach as well. He has set up a mentorship program to connect each freshman with an upperclassman from a similar place or who plays a similar position.

Holuba said his mentor was much more helpful than a University-assigned peer advisor, tutor, or other mentor.

“Not in a disparaging way, but the general student body has no idea what Division I athletics requires as far as a time commitment,” he explained.

Jaron Wilson ’14 was Hayes’s mentor.

“We became best friends, and that friendship will last a lifetime,” Hayes said.

Of course, all of this infrastructure could exist without having 11 guys line up against 11 guys and hit each other each Saturday.

But Hayes says the sport teaches, too.

“The game of football is unlike any other game in life,” he said. “There are so many life lessons to be learned. You learn so much by being part of a special team, overcoming so much adversity, pushing yourself for your own good but also for your teammates, your coaches, everybody who has invested so much into you being successful. You learn so much through football that you can use throughout all life.”

Director of Athletics Bob Scalise sees other benefits.

“You have to know how to compete within a framework of rules and in a way that exhibits good sportsmanship,” he said. “You also have to learn how to deal with not winning all the time, what do you do all the time.”

THE GRADUATES

Months before Harvard’s commencement ceremonies, Crimson seniors go through a graduation ceremony in Murphy’s school.

It comes this week actually, after the team’s final practice before The Game. Seniors take a final walk around Harvard Stadium, speaking personally with each player—starting with the freshmen and ending with Murphy.

“He pauses and gives you some feedback one way or another where he found value for you in the program,” Riegel remembered. “That’s pretty inspiring stuff.”

Then comes the final team meal—a steak dinner, Riegel says—and a chance for each senior to address the team at large. The dinner is scheduled to last two hours, but Riegel says it often runs long. The seniors have a lot to say.

Holuba said it took him his full four years to understand the complete value of Murphy’s system.

“Looking back at the role model he is and what he actually brings out of you when you leave Harvard football and come into the workforce, you don’t have the same kind of people around you who expect so much out of you,” he said.

Now working in New York, Holuba said he still shows up to meetings 10 minutes early—on “Murphy Time.”

“Hell, I still wake up scared thinking I was late for a Harvard football practice,” he added.

“I don’t know if I would be bold enough to say I fully understand Coach Murphy,” Riegel said.Judging the success of Murphy’s school in character education is difficult, Scalise admits.

“In a sense, we only know if we’ve done a good job 15 to 25 years from now, and we have anecdotal evidence that we’ve served a lot of people very well,” he said.

Holuba said he does not need to wait to judge Murphy’s tenure.

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacob.feldman@thecrimson.com.

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