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Former players see Harvard’s Tim Murphy as a life coach as much as a football coach

Tim Murphy has racked up 178 wins since becoming Harvard coach in December 1993.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As much as wins represent success, they also mark time and choices and journeys.

The 210 career wins Harvard football coach Tim Murphy will take with him into the season opener Saturday against Georgetown trace back 34 years. One hundred and seventy-eight of those wins have come at Harvard, and the next one will tie Murphy with Yale’s Carm Cozza for the most by any coach at an Ivy League school.

Sometimes Murphy and his wife, Martha, can feel the way all the years fly by, then flash in front of them.

“When you get to a certain age, if I don’t look in the mirror, I still think I’m 29 years old,” Murphy said. “And like everything else in life, it just seems impossible that time has flown the way it has.”


At 29, Murphy was at one of the pivot points life always presents. He was an offensive coordinator at the University of Maine and was taking business courses there offered to him for free. He had eyes on becoming a head coach, but if that didn’t pan out, he would have pursued an MBA. Accepted in business programs at Northwestern and Virginia, he tendered his resignation, and he and his then-fiancée were making plans to move to Chicago.

But when an opportunity presented itself to live out his dream as head coach at Maine, he had to weigh it.

“Even then, I was a little bit uncertain what to do, because I had worked so hard to get into a good school while working in school, going to school as a young assistant coach,” Murphy said. “I was definitely conflicted.”

He took the job and spent two seasons at Maine, winning the Yankee Conference title his first season. He quickly moved up the ranks to Cincinnati, where he spent five.


Then an unexpected door opened. Walter Abbott, a Maine football institution, had a son who was a captain at Harvard. Abbott mentioned Murphy’s name to the Crimson coaching staff as someone to consider.

When Murphy interviewed, he didn’t think he would leave Cincinnati. A 50 percent pay cut made it a tough decision. But he met with the dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons; Harvard Alumni Association director Jack Reardon; and athletic director Bill Cleary.

“Basically, I said, if these are the type of people who are running this place, I’m in,” Murphy said. “I was just so impressed with the incredibly strong character of these people. The charisma in a very understated way. And it’s like everything else in life; so much of what you do is based upon the people you’re going to work with, and that was it.”

The people around him mattered then and matter to this day.

“I always kid people, I’m not sure I’m good at much, but I’m good about people,” Murphy said. “I have a great feel for people, whether that be coaches, prospective coaches, prospective student-athletes, people I’ve made great friendships with over the years. That’s one thing I’ve done a decent job of.”

Success stories

Murphy was still laying the foundation for the program in 1996 when he made the trip to Endicott, N.Y., to meet a recruit named Isaiah Kacyvenski. He knocked on the door for 10 minutes and no one came. He figured no one was ever coming. Kacyvenski eventually made his way downstairs. He told Murphy he didn’t see him at the door.


Murphy told Kacyvenski he appreciated him taking the time to meet.

“I know we haven’t known you for very long,” Murphy said. “I know we’re really behind in the recruiting process. We just found out about you. But I was under the impression I was going to have a chance to meet your mom and dad too.”

Kacyvenski’s mother had died a month earlier. His father was battling alcoholism.

Kacyvenski was apprehensive. His circumstances were challenging. He was being recruited by Syracuse and had hopes of playing in the NFL. Harvard never crossed his mind.

The Crimson will open their season against Georgetown Saturday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“It was nothing that ever existed, and I had already made up my mind around what did,” Kacyvenski said. “My circumstances, growing up in poverty almost all of my childhood, very tough childhood, someone that never looked at myself like I deserved or even had a chance at a place at the table at somewhere like Harvard.”

Murphy challenged his perspective.

“I know you’re already starting to think about this, but outside of football — and as you start to create a family for yourself — think about this bigger world out there,” he remembered Murphy telling him.

Kacyvenski took Murphy at his word. That trust continued over his time at Harvard, where Kacyvenski flourished into an Ivy League Rookie of the Year, a three-time first-team all-conference linebacker, and a leader on the 1997 Ivy League championship team.


Kacyvenski reached the NFL, but beyond that, he watched life take him places he never imagined. Kacyvenski earned an MBA from Harvard Business School after he retired and started the venture capital fund Will Ventures.

“He knew how much I needed guidance. He knew how powerful a degree was. And he helped me see it,” Kacyvenski said. “He opened up this world that felt, in a lot of different ways, not accessible, not reachable to someone like myself — and a bunch of guys that played for him as well.”

Eion Hu can still hear Murphy’s voice echoing from time to time. It drives him as much now as a partner at The Jordan Company, a New York-based private equity firm, as it did when he was a sophomore running back at Harvard during Murphy’s first season.

Hu had a north-south running style Murphy loved. But Murphy also pushed him to see what kind of future was in front of him. Murphy made sure Hu targeted scholarships and academic awards. He wrote a letter of recommendation for Harvard Business School. It was clear to Hu that Murphy wanted him to succeed.

“It just motivated me to keep working harder,” Hu said. “Whenever I think of Coach Murphy, I think of him saying, ‘Way to battle.’ He doesn’t throw that around lightly, but when he says it, it’s really motivating because he cares more about hard work than talent.”

Now that Cam Brate is a Super Bowl-champion tight end, he can openly admit that he was terrified of Murphy when he met him on an official visit. Murphy was decidedly no-nonsense, and it took a while for Brate to adjust.


Murphy’s specialty was coaching tight ends, so Brate saw an even more focused side of him.

“I’ll never forget my first interaction with him when I came on campus,” Brate said. “He asked me how much I weighed. I’ve always been on the lighter side. I was, like, 220 at the time, and he just had this appalled look on his face.

“Here I am a college freshman, and he says, ‘220 pounds? You can’t play tight end here at 220 pounds.’ So that was the very first day, right when I walked into the football facility.”

Murphy demanded a lot of his players, but that was for a reason.

“If you want to be successful, then we’re going to have to be very demanding of you,” Murphy said. “We’re going to demand a lot from you, and you’re going to understand that nothing worthwhile ever comes easy — in life or in football. It’s going to be extremely demanding, we’re going to challenge you, and not everybody can do it.”

Changing the culture

For all the preconceived notions about Harvard, Murphy established a different culture for the football program.

“He always embarks on us being a blue-collar, tough-ass football team,” Brate said. “That’s the one thing he took so much pride in. So we kind of would always give the private school kids who came in crap. They weren’t blue-collar enough.”

Brate didn’t come to Harvard with visions of the NFL, but by his junior year, Murphy told him the opportunity was there if he wanted it.

“I can attribute so much of my growth as a player to kind of sitting in on those meetings with him for years,” Brate said. “What a gift that was, to kind of learn the game of football through his eyes.”

When Kyle Juszczyk arrived in 2009, a culture of success had been firmly established.

“I think it was even more intimidating, because you already knew the prestige of Harvard and then you walk into the football facility and you go into the head coach’s office and you see all these championship rings, all these plaques on the wall,” he said.

When Murphy met with Juszczyk and his family, the expectations were clear.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of expression on his face,” Juszczyk said. “It was very direct. My first impression was, this guy is going to demand and expect a lot from me. But it was enticing, because I wanted to be a part of the success that they had there, I wanted to be a part of that elite program.

“So it was almost like a challenge to walk in there and think I can fit in here.”

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk went on from Harvard to be a five-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

Juszczyk, who just began his ninth season in the NFL and scored in the Super Bowl two seasons ago with San Francisco, said the way Murphy ran the Crimson program prepared him for the pros.

Kacyvenski saw the vision Murphy had for the program in the early stages.

“There was very much a belief that Coach Murphy wanted to build something that was different than the old Ivy League,” Kacyvenski said. “He wanted to build a 21st-century program that recruited nationwide and globally in some instances, and really develop a top-notch program that put the bar and expectation around success very high every single year.

“That doesn’t happen overnight, but turning it around and then doing it, his record speaks for itself.

‘He’s the glue’

Every year for the past 20 years, the Friends of Harvard Football hosts a dinner that typically attracts 100 or so football alums. They come from across the country to reunite, but mostly to reconnect with Murphy.

“He’s the centerpiece,” Hu said. “He’s the glue. He’s the one that if he didn’t come to those events, we’re not going to get 100 people.”

Murphy wouldn’t change a thing.

“I knew I made the right decision, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “I still love the game. I love the kids. I love just the sort of privilege it is to coach at Harvard.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.