For Murphy, It Was Always About the Kids
TOWNSEND -- After nearly four decades spent leading the Patriots, longtime North Middlesex Regional girls’ basketball coach Pat Murphy has decided to call it a career.
Murphy sent a series of text messages to local media late Friday night to announce his departure from a program he practically built from the studs up since the late 1970s, an announcement which sent shockwaves through the North County high school sports scene.
Reached Saturday morning for a more in-depth telling, Murphy -- who had a smile for everyone, his jovial personality larger than life -- said that it was time to step away and focus his attentions on his grandchildren, several of whom play sports in this area.
“It’s not coaching, it’s not working with the kids,” Murphy said during a 25-minute interview. “It’s all the ancillary stuff. If you’re going to be good and you want your team to be good, it’s not from Dec. 1 to March 1. It’s not the two hours you have them in practice. You’ve got to, I think, go to the TAP games and build the relationships, get the young kids interested in basketball, and build a program that way. You want to teach them some things. You have to go see the seventh- and eighth-graders and let them see you.
“That’s the reason why we’ve had some success. You have to do all those things, summer camps. I feel you need to do those things to have a successful program, and 40 years of doing it has caught up with me.”
Murphy noted that it would feel bittersweet when Nov. 26 rolls around -- the first day of tryouts for basketball this year -- and he’s not in the new gymnasium getting layup drills started.
He does plan on staying in the arenas and fields of the area: granddaughter Caroline Laine is an incoming freshman at Lunenburg High, and granddaughter Megan McCarthy plays field hockey at North Middlesex. Grandson Michael Laine is in sixth grade in Lunenburg, playing travel basketball.
“I’ve already had a few (local coaches) reach out and say, ‘If you need to get in the gym, give me a call,’” he said. “I’m sure that day I’ll be thinking about it, and it will definitely be bittersweet. The (North Middlesex) kids want me to come to some of their games, which made me feel pretty good. But that’s a ways away, I don’t have to think about it right now.
“I’m going to be visible over there. There’s plenty to do, and my wife (Fran) has a honey-do list, and she wants me to catch up on it.”
The announcement comes nearly six months after Murphy’s last game in charge, a 36-28 loss to Medway in the Central Mass. Division 2 quarterfinals on March 3. It was the 28th trip to the postseason for a Murphy-led basketball team.
This past winter, North Middlesex tied for the Mid-Wach C title alongside Oakmont Regional. Under Murphy, NM’s girls’ basketball had captured multiple Mid-Wach titles, including a Mid-Wach A stretch of dominance from 1994-97.
But one of Murphy’s hallmarks, other than being a darned good coach, was praising his kids every chance he could.
He did it again Saturday.
“Whoever comes in is walking into a great bunch of kids,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with the fact that I had great kids. Besides having some really outstanding basketball players, just great kids. And for all the stories you hear about parents, I really don’t have any complaints at all. They’ve been very supportive of what we’ve wanted to do and what we’ve tried to accomplish.”
But basketball wasn’t the only sport “The Murph” coached up on Route 119: In addition to girls’ basketball, Murphy was the longtime softball coach at NM from 1986 to 2008, with a short gap in between, before giving way to Rebecca Jackson; he was also the girls’ cross country coach from 1980-89, and also coached that sport at Billerica Memorial High School from 1997-2006. Not only that, he dabbled in girls’ soccer and girls’ tennis.
He was a 2015 inductee to the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
Murphy graduated from Fitchburg’s St. Bernard’s Central Catholic in 1965 and, after a year at Seton Hall -- “I made the freshman team that year; how, I don’t know. They needed five kids to scrimmage the scholarship kids,” he recalled -- he would transfer to Fitchburg State College. He then found find his way into the coaching ranks after his eligibility at FSC ran out. Lee Cunningham invited him to stay on in 1969, and did so for four years.
Along with Cunningham, Murphy credited his coach at St. Bernard’s, the legendary Craig Corliss, as being tremendous influences in his coaching career.
“I would not have coached -- heck, I wouldn’t have played -- if it wasn’t for Craig. He showed me how to teach the game,” he said. “He kept me working. I remember going down to the Bernardian Bowl four days a week during the summer, and we just go over stuff, skill after skill after skill. He never wavered, and just got the best out of you. And Lee taught me there are highs and lows, but you have to maintain an even keel. He nurtured me.”
In 1977, Murphy joined friend Norm Cote as the junior varsity girls’ basketball coach inside the old Bartlett Gymnasium. Two years later, he took over for Cote when Cote accepted the boys’ job, and hadn’t looked back.
The team was competitive in the 1980s -- at the time, they were the Liberty Belles, a moniker Murphy’s daughter Kerry, now Kerry McCarthy, requested be changed to Patriots in lockstep with the boys’ teams; Murphy did away with in 1987 -- but the mid-1990s years were arguably North Middlesex’s best as they saw Murphy’s Patriots take on all comers en route to his first of two Central Mass. titles in March 1995.
“We had a good stretch,” Murphy said. “We had good success in the 80s, we had a great run in the 90s -- the whole school did, Middlesex was an athletic machine in the 90s, between football, hockey, boys’ basketball had a couple of tournament wins, we had great administration, it was great -- and in the 2000s, we lost to Holy Name in the first round, and that was a total upset. We had a strong run to 2005.
“I had both of my daughters in the 80s. That was, again, something. ... People say it’s hard to coach your kids, and I don’t regret a second of it. It gave us a different bond. And I got to coach Kerry in softball, too.”
Murphy and the Patriots would win another title in 2004.
“We were just on a roll,” he said, referencing the 90s teams for both basketball and softball; six girls played both sports for Murphy. “It was a coach’s dream. That ’95 team, we lost to Haverhill by 35, and that Haverhill team was loaded. And we were, too: We were bigger than a lot of college teams. You had great athletes, great kids who were dedicated to what they did, and there was great support from the school.”
The program received a resurgence the last four years, which coincided with North Middlesex’s short-lived move to Western Mass. for the postseason, reaching the semifinals every year, and missing out on a title in 2016.
“We had a great run out West, got to play at UMass four times,” Murphy said.
At North Middlesex, Murphy would capture somewhere in the vicinity of 480 wins on the hardwood as the varsity coach. He crossed the 400-win mark during the 2011-12 season.
Murph also had great assistant coaches helping him along the way.
“The group of guys who got TAP started, the guys who coached with me at the high school: Danny Stefanello, he was one of the first freshman coaches when we got freshman; Jane Powers coached freshman. Ray Stimile was my first assistant, and he put in 24 years. Barry Call started in ’92 before he went to Lunenburg; Mark Roy has done 20-plus years. Mike Davidson ran Hawthorne Brook’s team for me and did a great job. Ellie Watkins was one of my players and was my last JV coach. The last couple of years I had Timmy Harrington and Bob Bourque as assistants. All those people made the ride more enjoyable,” he said.
Murphy’s announcement certainly rocked the area Friday night into Saturday.
“Murph will be missed on the sidelines,” said Call, Murphy’s longtime assistant, and friend. “Class act. Great friend. Appreciate him giving me a chance to work with him at NM.”
″(Murphy is) a genuine person who coached for the love of the game,” said St. Bernard’s girls’ basketball coach Kate DelleChiaie. “He had a fantastic relationship with his players and it truly showed on and off the court. He will be missed in the world of girls’ high school basketball.”
“We are very grateful for Coach Murphy’s decades of service to our community and student-athletes,” North Middlesex athletic director Cam Fisk wrote in a statement. “He has guided NM Basketball through the ever-evolving landscape of high school athletics, and all of Central Massachusetts has great benefited from his presence on the sidelines. He has built a strong basketball culture here and will be missed by all.”