Tough Coach

During the Arizona State-Arizona series in Tucson a few weeks ago, Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen wrote of ASU's head baseball coach:

"Pat Murphy will win no one's popularity contest. He's thoroughly unlikable, but that's good in the sense of the UA-ASU thing. . . . One thing about Murphy is that he has not once slipped up at ASU and has become, with women's hoops coach Charli Turner-Thorne, the most successful coach on campus."

A few days after the series ended, one of Murphy's assistants showed him Hansen's blurb at a practice back home in Tempe.

The coach scanned it in a corner of the Sun Devils' dugout at Winkles Field-Packard Stadium at Brock Ballpark (yup, that's the official name), and then busted up in laughter.

"Thoroughly unlikable!" he said, in that megaphone voice of his, honed during a lifetime spent at ballparks. "I love it! I don't know if I've ever been thoroughly unlikable in that guy's presence, but whatever. At least I'm not a shitty coach, or run a dirty program. I'm just THOROUGHLY UNLIKABLE!"

A few of Murphy's players tuned in to their coach's entertaining little riff. They love when he does his stream-of-consciousness thing, sounding like some kind of Beat poet who happens to know more about the dynamics of a slider than about writing an ode to lost love.

Time was when Murphy wouldn't have laughed at himself so readily.

It didn't take long for him to cement a reputation -- deserved or not -- as a first-class jerk after he barreled into town in late 1994 to take the helm of ASU's storied baseball program.

What bothered some locals at the time was Murphy's seeming lack of proper respect toward the icons he'd succeeded in Tempe -- Bobby Winkles and Jim Brock -- the only two previous head coaches in modern ASU baseball history.

In 1997, a national baseball periodical dubbed Murphy "Black Hat Pat," and referred to him as the most disliked coach in major-college ball.

Murphy says there were grains of truth in that early and apparently enduring image of a coach driven to succeed by an unrestrained ego.

"I came out here and started right up without consideration for some folks," he says. "That was wrong. But I think my intensity was misinterpreted by some people. I've always loved the guys who play for me, and they know that. I just had some growing up to do."

Maybe it's fatherhood, or a new love interest, or maybe it's simply that 47-year-old Pat Murphy is all grown up. Whatever it is, what becomes glaringly clear after spending weeks around Murphy and his consistently successful program is this:

Most of the players on this year's team -- whose season ended last Sunday at the NCAA regionals in Houston -- respect and even like Murph, as everyone around him knows him.

Calling Murphy "thoroughly unlikable" isn't close to accurately describing the man.

He is thoroughly intense, bright, funny, acerbic, candid, charming, demanding, compassionate, loyal, genuine, sensitive (sometimes oversensitive), and, in baseball's grand tradition, crude, rude and lewd.

Oh, another thing. Murphy has a needle as big as that of a large-animal veterinarian. No one, including himself, is immune from his verbal barbs.

Pat Murphy turns out to be a complicated man wrapped in a deceptively simple package, or maybe it's the other way around.

"Murph is an eminently likable person who has lived in an intense world where coaches often are able to cover up a lot of their complexities and the good things about themselves," says Dr. Ray Karesky, a Scottsdale psychologist who currently runs the Employee Assistance program for baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

"He has something in him that a lot of people wish they had -- a willingness to learn and grow, and to have a sense of humor about himself and about life."

Looking at Murphy through a different prism, recently retired University of Southern California head coach Mike Gillespie says of his sometimes-bitter rival, "I can't quite define Murph. He has a great rapport with his players, but that doesn't say it. It's different than good players who are just playing hard for him. You can just see that there are good feelings in his dugout, that his guys admire him and that he reciprocates.

"Something has been going on at ASU for a long time. The school has a lot to offer a baseball player, or anyone, for that matter. But players aren't going to like it there unless they truly like their coach. They do. There's some magic to what he does."

An example revealed itself earlier this season in a game against Baylor University in Waco, Texas.