Tough Coach

Another winning season ends for Pat Murphy and his baseball team. Now, it's ASU management's turn at bat

After graduating from Florida Atlantic (he later earned his master's degree in developmental studies from the institution), he played pro ball in the lower levels for four years.

When Murphy still was in his mid-20s, he already was well on the road to becoming a baseball lifer, which usually means being a kind of gypsy.

At the age of 24 in 1983, he accepted a job as head baseball coach at little Maryville College in Tennessee, where he also served as an assistant football coach.

ASU baseball coach Pat Murphy
Peter Scanlon
ASU baseball coach Pat Murphy
Coach Murphy keeps in close contact with his players.
Peter Scanlon
Coach Murphy keeps in close contact with his players.

Murphy spent much of 1984 in Australia, where he coached baseball in the outpost of New South Wales.

After a stint coaching for a minor-league professional team, he took a job in Southern California at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College, a school bereft of a baseball tradition.

Murphy turned the program into an immediate winner.

Two significant events in Murphy's life happened during his two years at Claremont:

He met Michelle Whaley, who would become his first wife. Whaley was a volleyball player in her senior year at Claremont when she met Murphy, just five years older than her.

"Murph was a compelling and dynamic person, and still is," says Whaley. "Even then, he was thinking deeply about life and the way he should be as a person. Despite his reputation, he's extremely intelligent and reflective. He knew what he wanted and he was going to go for it."

She and Murphy got married in 1987, the same year that a series of serendipitous circumstances opened the door to his dream job, the head coaching position at the University of Notre Dame.

The short story is that, in the summer of 1987, Murphy begged, cajoled, prayed and basically forced his way into a program literally teetering on the edge of extinction.

Finally, after years of trying, Murphy had made it to his own campus of dreams in South Bend, Indiana.

He was 29 years old, and was paid $7,000 his first year at the helm of the Fighting Irish baseball team.

Coach Murphy's first recruit at Notre Dame in 1988 was a 135-pound kid from South Bend named Craig Counsell.

He offered the unheralded infielder a $500 scholarship to a private school where annual tuition then ran about $20,000.

Counsell later would earn his degree in accounting, and was selected in the 11th round by the Colorado Rockies.

Arizona Diamondbacks fans know Counsell as a pivotal player on the 2001 World Series championship team, and an extremely popular current mainstay of the rapidly rebuilding team.

"Other than my Mom and Dad, who got me going, Murph was more responsible for me becoming a baseball player than anyone else," says Counsell, now 35. "He made me understand what mental toughness really is, and that I could become a player even though I wasn't the most talented guy around. He can make enemies from time to time because what you see is what you get with Murph. But he won't back down from anyone or anything, and if you stick with him as a player, he has so much good to offer."

Murphy looked and felt like Notre Dame when he was there, and the community and student body responded to him. He had a swagger to his step from the moment he first stepped on the campus.

"We were nothing and we became something," the coach says.

The Irish hadn't reached the NCAA tourney for two decades, but twice just missed earning trips to the College World Series during Murphy's seven-year tenure.

Murphy's marriage ended in 1992, but he remains close to Michelle Whaley.

"We always have had a lot of respect for each other, but sometimes it doesn't work out," says Whaley, who earned her doctorate at Notre Dame in molecular genetics and now teaches there.

"Professionally, I learned some amazing things from him about direction and focus. I know that Pat ruffles feathers, because he did it here. But he's a very genuine, good guy."

In 1994, ASU's baseball team took a poignant journey to the College World Series, where they finished third under veteran head coach Jim Brock. The coach died of cancer a few days after his team was eliminated ("Brock Solid," May 25, 1994, and "Jim Brock Lived for Baseball," June 29, 1994).

Brock had been at ASU for 23 years, 1,100 wins and two national championships when he passed away. He had succeeded Bobby Winkles, another big-time winner who won 75 percent of his games in 13 years (1959-71) and three national titles.

With his success at Notre Dame, Murphy was a natural candidate for the plum job in Tempe. But most people around South Bend and college baseball suspected that Murphy would never leave Notre Dame of his own volition.

A few years earlier, Murphy had turned down a prestigious job at the University of Miami, another perennial college baseball powerhouse. But he expressed interest when ASU courted him.

"People would tell me, 'You built a new stadium at Notre Dame with money you raised. How could you leave?'" Murphy says. "I don't know why. Maybe immaturity. Everything I did was based on emotion, and I made the decision to leave. Thank God I did. I never would have been what I could be if I didn't leave."

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