From UND to California, everyone knew 'Murph'
Gene Murphy, a former UND all-conference quarterback who went on to coach the team to a conference championship, died Saturday morning in the University of Southern California hospital in Los Angeles. He was 72 and had surgery for cancer of the e...
Gene Murphy, a former UND all-conference quarterback who went on to coach the team to a conference championship, died Saturday morning in the University of Southern California hospital in Los Angeles. He was 72 and had surgery for cancer of the esophagus only days before.
He coached at UND from the late 1960s into the late '70s and then burnished his reputation with 14 years at California State Fullerton, where his assistants included soon-to-be pro coaches Steve Mariucci and Tom Cable and Hue Jackson.
Murphy still was consulting with Fullerton College, a community college, helping one of his former players, until his surgery.
Roger Thomas, who coached under Murphy at UND and at Cal State Fullerton, before coming back to UND as head coach and later athletic director, was grieving Sunday.
"He was one of my best friends," Thomas said Sunday from Bismarck, where he is athletic director at the University of Mary. "He was an amazing guy, very fun guy to work for. We talked all the time."
Thomas spoke with Murphy's son, Tim, and learned of his friend's strong fight against cancer and the later heart failure that took him.
Murphy had surgery on Tuesday and seemed to be recuperating well until his heart stopped Friday, Thomas learned.
"Two attempts to resuscitate him were successful, but the third was not," reported Mark Whicker, columnist for the Orange County Register.
"He was working Monday, and I know if he wasn't out of his head with pain, he would have been working in the hospital," Tim Murphy told Whicker. "Football was his life. He still would be calling coaches about players and players about coaches. If it wasn't for football...it was his family and there is a fine line between the two."
Murphy grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., where his father coached football. He came to UND in 1959 after a year at the University of Minnesota, playing quarterback four years and graduating in February 1963.
He came back as an assistant coach in 1966, and when Jerry Olson retired in 1978, was named head coach.
Murphy coached for 14 years at UND, the first dozen as an assistant making less than $15,000 a year, the Herald reported at the time.
As head coach, Murphy led the Sioux to a 5-5 record his first year and 10-2 his second year, as the Sioux won the North Central Conference then lost to Mississippi College in a first-round Division II playoff game, 35-15, led by quarterback Tom Biola, running backs Dale Pietruszewski, Milson Jones and tight end Paul Muckenhirn.
"When Jerry Olson retired, Murph had been offensive coordinator, and he moved up to head coach and hired me to take his old job of offensive coordinator," Thomas said. After the 1979 season, when Murphy took the Cal State Fullerton job, he brought along Thomas, who shared an office with Steve Mariucci, who went on to coach in the NFL, and Jerry Brown, now an assistant coach at Northwestern in the Big Ten.
"That was a fun time," Thomas said.
Also coaching under Murphy in California was a string of men who went on to the upper echelons of coaching, including Tom Cable and Hue Jackson, who both went on to become head coaches for the Oakland Raiders.
Murphy's record at Cal State Fullerton was 59-89-1, but he was 31-19 at home, Whicker reported.
In 1992, the school dropped football and Murphy went to coach at Fullerton College.
One of Murphy's assistants, Pat Berhns, succeeded him at UND, until Thomas took the job in 1986.
Many of Murphy's players, including UND players, went on to play pro ball in Canada and in the NFL.
"It was obvious, when you look at the guys who coached with him and played for him, that he had kind of an amazing knack for hiring people and people wanting to work with him," Thomas said. "I know for a fact that he influenced hundreds of young guys as a coach. He was a charismatic kind of guy and just fun, kind of a joker; yet a great coach and motivator. I just had a world of respect for him."
Despite being gone so long from UND, Murphy never quit being a Sioux fan, Thomas said.
"You couldn't have a more loyal guy to UND. All those years in California, he still had this great passion for UND," Thomas said. "When I was head coach there and he was in California, we talked all the time and he was really into what was going on at UND, in general, and UND football in particular. He just really loved the institution."
In fact, in 2001, as Coach Dale Lennon -- whom Murphy recruited as a freshman in 1979 -- led the team to their only national championship against Grand Valley State in Florence, Ala., Murphy caught a 2 a.m. flight out of Los Angeles to be with the team. He addressed them after the last practice, as did other team alumni. Then, he spent the game on the sidelines, taking it all in with old friends, Thomas said. Lennon now coaches at Southern Illinois University.
Thomas would get to California most years to visit family and last saw Murphy last summer. But they talked "all the time," he says.
What Murphy meant to him as a friend and mentor is more than Thomas can easily explain.
"It is not so much about coaching, but just how he was as a person. He had a unique way of dealing with people, he kind of treated everyone the same, whether it was the college president or the guy who mowed the field.
"He had nicknames for them and joked with them, just this crazy Irishman kidder," Thomas said. "If you mentioned him to other people who hadn't seen him for a long time, they would all of a sudden get big grins on their faces. Everyone had a Murph story."
Murphy is survived by his daughter, Aileen, and her mother, Christine McCarthy, and sons Tim and Mike and their families.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.