Tough Coach

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Murphy long has been a lightning rod for opposing fans because of his exuberant (some would call it obnoxious) attitude on the diamond. But he's not averse to engaging his antagonists with banter and one-upmanship.

A group of Baylor fans, some of them super-size football players, were riding Murphy -- who coaches third base when his team is hitting.

So he upped the ante a bit.

He unbuttoned his Sun Devils shirt to reveal a tee shirt with the following letters: DYRTIGAF?

"You guys figure it out, you're college students," he told his hecklers.

Someone finally came up with the correct translation -- "DO YOU REALLY THINK I GIVE A FUCK?"

At the end of the game, Murphy signed autographs for the enemy fans, at least some of whom he'd won over.

(Those good feelings evaporated during two losing games against Baylor in the just-completed regionals. During Saturday's nail-biter against the Bears, the coach responded to a smart-ass dig by Baylor's pitcher by confronting the guy as he passed by the mound to argue a close call with the first-base umpire. The bad vibes spilled over to the elimination game on Sunday, with a handful of hecklers in Murphy's ear for almost the entire game.)

It says a lot about Murphy, a former amateur boxer whose macho image is no mere image, that he's eager to discuss his own personal evolution, warts and all.

"When I go for counseling with Ray [Karesky] these days, he tells me I've come a long way," the coach says. "Maybe. But I always tell him I want to keep talking to him, and that I'll always find some new issues for him."

Those "issues" include a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, troubles maintaining long-term relations with the opposite sex (though after two marriages, he now seems well-matched with fiance Francheska Figueroa), a lifelong war with authority figures (come to think of it, that's not so terrible), and an innate stubbornness.

Bob Welch, a onetime major-league All-Star pitcher who lives in Scottsdale, says about his friend, "Murph never tells you what you want to hear, but what you really need to hear. But he's always there for you, no matter what. If you're in the other dugout, you're gonna hate his fucking guts. But if the test is would you have your kid play for him, almost everyone I know, including me, would say yes."

A look at the numbers suggests Pat Murphy is the closest thing ASU has to a Lute Olson-type coach in a "major" sport. (For those who don't know a roundball from a shuttlecock, Olson is a Hall of Famer who's coached the University of Arizona men's basketball team to three Final Fours, and a national title in 1997.)

No, Murphy hasn't won a national championship yet, though his team finished runner-up to USC in 1998 and came in third last year. But the Sun Devils seem to be in the hunt almost every year for a coveted trip to Omaha and the College World Series.

Murphy's accomplishments at ASU -- which include 480 wins (he's won about two-thirds of his games) -- dwarf those of the school's other big sports.

"Football and basketball aspire to be what the baseball program has been under Murph and before Murph," says Tim Healey, ASU's fine play-by-play announcer.

What Healey is talking about is consistency. Though this year's squad fell short of its annual goal of making it to the College World Series (in fact, only Oregon State has a chance to return to Omaha as one of the eight teams this year), ASU lands in the Top 25 rankings every year, and is a formidable opponent almost every time out.

According to veteran scribe Bob Eger, who does color commentary for the Devils' radio baseball games, Murphy came into his own at last year's College World Series.

"Murph became the media darling in Omaha because of his accessibility, the accessibility of his players, and his wacky sense of humor," Eger says. "He's open to any question and shies from nothing. He made a great event greater. I have to say, he's as good as I've ever seen in a post-game interview."

Perhaps because of a recent New Times commentary titled "Fire HIM!" (John Dougherty, May 4), Murphy says he was advised initially by ASU's sports information office not to cooperate for this story.

The opinion piece blasted the institution for awarding football coach Dirk Koetter an extension through the 2009 season, and with it a $172,000 raise (with monster incentives) to $950,000 a year.

"I have nothing to hide, and my program has nothing to hide," Murphy says. "I'm not scared of anyone telling the truth about what we do here and how we do it."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin