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Murphy majoring in history

Tim Murphy had his team practicing in the rain Wednesday, but the coach has been a ray of sunshine for the Harvard program. Tim Murphy had his team practicing in the rain Wednesday, but the coach has been a ray of sunshine for the Harvard program. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / November 18, 2011

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Growing up in Escondido, Calif., in Pac-10 country, Dan Minamide was unsure about Ivy League football, unsure whether he wanted to be a part of it. Unsure, that is, until he was called out of a class in high school and summoned to the football office.

There was a coach waiting for him there, a coach 3,000 miles away from his Cambridge campus, making a recruiting trip out to the West Coast.

“There Coach Murphy was, sitting in a chair, in his classic very upright pose, very proper,’’ said Minamide, now a senior defensive back for Harvard. “He was in a suit and he stood up and shook my hand, looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘Dan Minamide, we’d love for you to come play football for us.’ ’’

After that, Minamide didn’t want to go anywhere else, couldn’t imagine it. He has been rewarded, too, as has every four-year Harvard football player under coach Tim Murphy, with an Ivy League title, including the one that the Crimson have already locked up in 2011.

“He’s a visionary,’’ Minamide said. “You really can see certain characteristics, leadership qualities, and the potential in the type of players that he recruits, that he knows you can be.’’

And with his type of players, blue-collar players, Murphy has been more successful than any other football coach in Harvard’s history, passing Joe Restic for most career wins, his 118th coming against Columbia Nov. 5.

He’ll add to that total with a program that doesn’t appear in danger of slowing soon.

As for Murphy? The man who took the reins from Restic in 1994 can look at his tenure at Harvard and see his successes. He can also see, in the not-too-distant-future, the end.

For now, though, he’s focusing on the immediate future: The Game at Yale, tomorrow, with a win meaning another undefeated Ivy League season, another check mark in his long list of accomplishments, a legacy that will be difficult to top.

The right choice

Murphy almost didn’t make it to this point.

He was nearly ready to give up on coaching, to head off in another direction. He had, in fact, tendered his resignation as an assistant coach at Maine and was off to Northwestern’s business school for his MBA, when he was offered the Black Bears’ head coaching job in 1987.

“I was actually conflicted at the time,’’ Murphy said. “I always wanted to be a head coach, but I put a lot of hard work in, night school, to get into a top 10 business school.’’

So he asked Northwestern for, and was granted, a deferral.

“I said, ‘Just give me a year and I’ll get this out of my system,’ ’’ Murphy said. “Twenty-five years later, I haven’t gotten it out of my system.’’

After two years at the Maine helm, he moved to Cincinnati, turning around a troubled program. And then, despite being offered a contract with years and financial security, he made the move to Harvard, in part because his mother, who lived in the area, was terminally ill.

“We thought it was a good decision at the time,’’ said Murphy. “Looking back, it was a great decision.’’

Harvard has been everything that Murphy could have wanted, and Murphy has been everything that Harvard could have wanted.

“He does a tremendous job of demanding of our players and pushing them, but yet at the same time instilling tremendous confidence in them, in their abilities,’’ said offensive coordinator Joel Lamb. “That’s a fine line that he really does a great job with.’’

He always demands more of them, better from them, driven by what he calls a “healthy insecurity.’’ It’s why he started winning and why he keeps winning, why Harvard has won at least seven games in each of the last 11 years under Murphy, the best run for the program since a 28-season run ended in 1911. Harvard is the only Ivy League school to have accomplished the feat.

“It’s all his personality,’’ said defensive coordinator Scott Larkee. “The character of the team is his personality.’’

Nothing is forever

Harvard, really, has always been the right place for Murphy. He had come home, to a place that fit with his personality, that allowed him a measure of stability and permanence, rare qualities in a college head coaching job.

That is why he has stayed so long, even as there have been other options, other offers. As he said, “Our whole thing as a family is: if you’re happy, don’t mess with happy.’’

And he is happy at Harvard, always has been.

But, still, after 18 years, Murphy’s thoughts occasionally flit to his next move, his next challenge. He won’t coach forever. He won’t be Bobby Bowden. He is 55 years old, and he knows that there eventually will be an end to this portion of his professional life.

“I love what I do, but I’m not going to be doing this in 10 years,’’ Murphy said. “I’m going to transition to something else. As much as I love it, it’s so all-consuming.’’

He never saw a single one of his daughter’s field hockey games. He has seen just one of his son’s football games. He and his wife, Martha, who have three children, have yet to go on their honeymoon, even though they’ve been married for 23 years.

“There will come a time that I will want to do something that isn’t so all-consuming and maybe experience what life is like,’’ he said. “I look forward to someday on Saturday coming back and watching a Harvard football game and actually tailgating.

“It actually scares me that I’m at this point in my career thinking that. I work out. I’m healthy. I’m young. But when you’re 55 instead of 30, when I became a head coach, you realize you’re a lot closer to the end of your career than you are to the beginning of it, and that’s a little bit sobering.’’

But not too much.

“I love what I’m doing,’’ he said. “I’m more energized than ever. And we’re going to go really hard for the next five years, and then probably figure it out from there.’’

Murphy has, after all, accomplished what he set out to accomplish.

“I’m happy that we’ve developed a consistently successful program without in any way compromising Harvard standards,’’ he said. “And I think we’ve done it with class and we’ve done it with integrity.’’

He has, indeed, been more successful than any other coach at Harvard, has outlasted many of the coaches of his generation, has seen his family flourish and his children get the education that earlier generations of his family never did.

“We’ve been blessed to have such a great life, great family,’’ Murphy said. “I feel like I have one of the greatest jobs in the world and we have wonderful friends. What more can you ask for?’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

Tim Murphy at a glance

■119-59 record in 18th season at Harvard.

■One of five Ivy League coaches to win 100 games since formation of league in 1954.

■Six Ivy League titles (1997, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011).

■Two undefeated seasons (2001, 2004).

■12-5 record against Yale, winning nine of last 10.

■Four-year starting linebacker at Springfield College, earning All-New England honors as a senior.