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Coach of the Year: Murphy Pushes Football to Perfect Season

Harvard coach Tim Murphy led his team to a third-straight Ivy League title, which the squad clinched with a 38-19 win over Yale.
Harvard coach Tim Murphy led his team to a third-straight Ivy League title, which the squad clinched with a 38-19 win over Yale. By Robert F Worley
By Sam Danello, Crimson Staff Writer

Entering his 22nd season as Harvard football’s head coach, Tim Murphy has already recruited hundreds of players.

There are 160-pound kickers and 260-pound linebackers. There are men from California and Florida, from the Northeast and the Midwest.

After football, they will spread out even further. Some, such as alumni Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 and Matt Birk ’98, will go the distance to the NFL. Others will become investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, or coaches.

The differences are immense, but every member of Murphy’s army shares at least one shimmering similarity: a championship ring.

Yes, every four-year athlete Murphy has recruited has won an Ancient Eight title.

While team success may seem as consistent as a Cambridge winter, Murphy reached new heights in 2014.

He had beaten Yale 15 times heading into this past fall, coached three undefeated teams, but with a 31-24 triumph in this year’s edition of The Game, Murphy claimed his third conference title in four years. No other Crimson team had accomplished this feat since the Ivy League formed in 1954.

From his first interview to the latest water-cooler shower, Murphy has preached a gospel that elevates constancy of character and embraces misfortune.

“We love adverse situations,” said junior wide receiver Andrew Fischer. “We love high-stakes situations…. That’s something that’s kind of the team motto.”

This central focus proved vital for the 2014 campaign as Harvard battled through injuries among the slew of starters, ranging from senior quarterback Conner Hempel to senior running back Andrew Casten.

Led by Murphy’s “next guy up” philosophy, the Crimson demonstrated how prescient preparation could overcome lousy luck. Junior quarterback Scott Hosch replaced Hempel, freshman rusher Semar Smith replaced Casten, and Harvard rolled through, setting the stage for a decisive matchup against Yale in late November.

“We train all year round for adversity,” Hempel said. “Adversity in the game of football is happening all the time…. [Murphy] does a great job running the program.”

Then there was The Game itself, crowned with unprecedented media attention (ESPN’s College GameDay) along with the usual roaring of 30,000 fans at Harvard Stadium.

On the defensive side, Harvard was able to hold Bulldog running back Tyler Varga to a season-low 4.2 yards per carry and Yale to a season-low 24 points. On offense, Murphy coordinated the clinching drive that ended with a slant-and-go call for Fischer for a 35-yard touchdown.

“It was truly amazing to see the culmination of a perfect season at home before a sold-out crowd on national television,” wrote Murphy in a Nov. 25 open letter published in The Crimson. “It does not get sweeter than capping a 10-0 season at home, while our campus was the center of the college football universe last weekend.”

Harvard certainly did not occupy this exalted position when Murphy arrived on campus in 1994. In the preceding two seasons, Harvard had gone a combined 6-14 with just four Ancient Eight victories.

But four seasons of Murphy later, members of the Crimson sprinted around the chilly basin of the Yale Bowl, celebrating the squad’s first Ivy League championship since 1987.

This was not Murphy’s first triumph as a coach as he claimed a share of the league title his first year at Maine and turned a one-win team around in Cincinnati.

Yet nothing can match the extended success that Murphy has brought the Crimson.

He has accrued more wins than any other Harvard coach, winning seven Ancient Eight championships in the last 14 years and 13 of the last 14 Harvard-Yale match-ups.

More, he has achieved all these feats with a poker-like sense of composure.

“He’s always focused,” senior linebacker Connor Sheehan said. “He’s got a business-like mentality…. We know what kind of discipline it takes to be successful, and we emulate that throughout the week in practice.”

From blowout wins over Princeton and Columbia to late teeth-grinders against Dartmouth and Penn, this season gave Murphy plenty of reasons to break his cool and collected character mold. But players insist that Murphy—this maestro in the middle of the mayhem—hardly wavered.

Well, at least until the last minute of The Game. By any measure possible, that was something special.

“That last touchdown [at Harvard-Yale] was probably the most excited I’ve seen him,” Fischer said. “As hard as he tried to contain it, it definitely came through.”

—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at sam.danello@thecrimson.com.

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FootballYear In Sports 2015Commencement 2015