Growing up, my dad coached practically every sport my sisters and I played. Starting with tee-ball, he coached every season of baseball I played up until 7th grade when I began playing travel ball. He was at the forefront of a movement to get football at the park where I played, and when we finally got a team in 5th grade, he was the head coach of all my teams and continued to coach even after I went to high school. On top of that, he coached my younger sister’s travel softball team that went to the USSSA World Series.
The importance of having a good coach cannot be understated. From the NFL to recreational leagues, coaching trumps athleticism nine times out of ten.
The high school I went to was in a small, suburban community. Our football team was low on numbers and athleticism. And as much as I loved my coach as a person, he lost control of the locker room and coaching staff pretty quickly in my junior and senior seasons. We finished 4-6, 2-8, and the year after I left, 2-8 again.
So finally, after a 14-year stint at Gulf Breeze High School, my old head coach resigned this past winter. Taking his place was my position coach, Bobby Clayton. Possibly the best coach I’ve ever played under, Coach Clayton cares more about the school and the community than just about anyone.
In his inaugural season, the team is currently 6-1 and snapped a nine-year losing streak to our rivals. He connects with his players, and the rest of the coaches respect him and buy into what he’s doing.
As for the NFL, look no further than New England’s own Bill Belichick. Excluding the man some might consider the greatest quarterback of all time in his back pocket (two Super Bowl losses though? C’mon Tommy), he has consistently coached teams made up of exceedingly average players. Guys like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Malcolm Butler, while undersized, thrived under a coach who put them in the right system. Move players—like Welker—out of the system and to a new program, and they fail to live up to their newly formed expectations.
There are certain qualities every great coach possesses, regardless of the sport or the level of competition. Leadership, a drive to win, and an understanding of the talent available are always present. They don’t necessarily need the biggest, fastest, or strongest players, they just need ones who will buy into their system. Harvard football coach Tim Murphy does this just as well as anyone.
Murphy inherited the football team in 1994, a year after they went 3-7 and only won a single Ivy League game. Since then, he has become the winningest coach in Crimson football history with 160 wins. He’s led Harvard to 15 consecutive winning seasons and nine Ivy League titles. He’s only had four losing seasons in his time in Cambridge, all coming within his first five years. Every single four-year player Murphy has recruited has been a part of an Ivy League champion team at some point during his career with the Crimson.
This level of success in Cambridge wasn’t new to Murphy. Before coming to Harvard, the Sprinfield College alum coached the University of Cincinatti to their first winning season in over ten years—evidence of his ability to take a struggling team and turn it around.
But what makes him such a good coach? Harvard doesn’t offer scholarships to players, so the recruiting process can be difficult. Harvard definitely has the draw of strong academics, but the lack of scholarships can make paying for school tough. Also, Boston is cold, and college football isn’t as huge in the Northeast as it is in the South.
But he still somehow recruits some of the most highly touted players in the country. More than 30 Harvard alumni have played in the NFL, and there certainly are players on the current roster with the potential to take their game to the next level.
But the talent of the team isn’t what allows Harvard to win. According to his players, the reason he has become the winningest coach in Harvard’s history is his relationships with the players and coaches. Over his 20 plus years, he’s coached more than 2,000 players. According to some of those athletes, he has a unique, personal relationship with each and every one.
What makes Murphy so great is his understanding of each player’s potential and abilities. Junior safety Tanner Lee told me anecdotally that Murphy once said to him that when he came for his recruiting visit, he was undersized. But, despite that critique, Murphy said he saw something in him. Now Lee has become a star in the Crimson secondary, having racked up 19 tackles and three interceptions through the first four games of the season.
Murphy’s deep caring for the Harvard football team and its players make him one of the best the program has seen. Players as talented as the Harvard roster might be an asset, but having having a head coach like Murphy is a game-changer. At 4-0, the Crimson is on its way to a 10th winning season for its head coach, and potentially, another Ivy Title.
Staff writer Gant Player can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.