Tough Coach

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The coach's five-year contract (which pays him about $277,000 annually) ends June 30. He remains optimistic that he and new ASU athletic director Lisa Love soon will reach an agreement, and Love confirms that.

"Murph is a very, very fine teacher, and he's also an extraordinarily compassionate person," Love told New Times on Tuesday, shortly before deadline.

"He's raising his children, he's a loving father, and he's definitely a part of our community. He's a good soul, and I'm glad he's going to be around for a while."

The coach says he's put the negotiations with ASU into perspective.

"With what I've gone through already this year, the contract is just another hurdle," Murphy says. "If they want me around, we'll make it work. I love ASU, and everyone who spends five seconds with me knows that. I think it'll happen."

Murphy truly has had a momentous several months:

His mother died in January at the age of 88.

He won an ugly court battle with his second ex-wife over custody of their 5-year-old son Kai.

His fiance Francheska's father, with whom Murphy had become close during his last months, also died.

Late last year, Francheska moved into Murphy's lovely ranch-style home off College Avenue in Tempe, just a mile or so from ASU's ballpark.

Murphy had been living there with Kai and his daughter Keli, a 20-year-old from a previous relationship who attends ASU, helps her dad at the baseball office, and is an aspiring actress.

Professionally, there were other special challenges.

The coach fired his top assistant coach and friend Jay Sferra in midseason after an ongoing dispute over the reduced playing time of Sferra's son J.J.

J.J. was a diminutive center fielder who'd spent years in the Devils' dugout as batboy before earning a scholarship at the school.

The coach later put J.J. -- the starting center fielder for much of his season and a half as a Sun Devil -- on the inactive list. Murphy insists he made the move for the good of the team and for J.J., who seemed deflated after his dad was ushered out of the program.

"When things come to a head, there's just no way out," Murphy says of Coach Sferra's departure. "It was just hard for Jay to separate what was best for the program as a coach and what he wants for his son [J.J.]. It was tricky. Jay handled it professionally."

Jay Sferra didn't respond to a request for his side of things. But he told the Ahwatukee Foothills News in 2005 about adjustments J.J. was trying to make after coming to ASU from Mountain Pointe High School.

"Things are much more complex and complicated than the normal pressure, and the normal pressure is huge," he said presciently of his son, an All-State player at Mountain Pointe.

Some college baseball pundits had predicted this was going to be the year Pat Murphy finally tasted what he'd been dishing out for so long: a losing season.

Most important, the Sun Devils lost six key players in the pro baseball draft after last season. The pitching staff was decimated, including the loss of two guys, Erik Averill and Jason Urquides, who'd combined for half of the team's 42 wins.

On top of that, ASU's early-season schedule was loaded with land mines.

Murphy was forced to field an inexperienced team, with true freshmen Ike Davis (who would become the league's rookie of the year), Petey Paramore and Brett Wallace thrust into immediate starting roles, as well as having to remold his pitching staff.

"This isn't Murph's most talented team," Bob Welch said last week, before ASU flew to Houston for the regional. "But the son of a bitch gets them to do things they've never done before, even with all the pressure on ASU baseball to be special every year."

Going into the season, Murphy did have an established closer in Zechry Zinicola. The junior from San Bernardino, California, ranks third in school history in saves, and had been mentioned as a potential All-American.

But his poor academic performance and other off-the-field woes led Murphy to suspend Zinicola for five games in mid-April.

This wasn't a case of a coach making an example out of a scrub, nor was Zinicola officially ineligible to play.

"You think [head football coach] Dirk Koetter would have the balls to bench one of his star players?" asks Mike Moreno, Murphy's regular center fielder from 1996 to 1998 before playing professionally for a few years.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin