Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
For South Medford boys basketball coach Dennis Murphy, it's about the kids. Always has been, always will be.
For those of us looking at it from the outside, it's difficult not to make it a little about the veteran leader of the Panthers as well.
As South Medford prepares for its 11th trip to the state tournament in the past 12 years — fresh off earning at least a share of an 11th conference title in 12 years — the one common thread is Murphy.
The Panthers surely have had their fill of talented players over the years, highlighted by current Detroit Pistons forward Kyle Singler, but they've also had as many years where the Division I level went without any South Medford products.
Through it all, Murphy has been there to guide his team, and at a pretty phenomenal pace since he first took over the varsity program in the 1988-89 school year. In his 25th season with the Panthers, and another seven guiding St. Mary's High, Murphy has accumulated an eye-popping career record of 635-189 entering Wednesday's Class 6A tournament opener against Central Catholic.
Such numbers place Murphy fourth on Oregon's all-time coaching list for wins, only 21 behind third-place Barry Adams (656-317, .674) but a few seasons away from leaders Mike Doherty (850-390, .674) and Nick Robertson (711-344, .685). Murphy surpassed Ken Harris (619-358, .633) earlier this season.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Murphy's standing among the coaching elite is his consistency. His winning percentage of .771 is by far the best of anyone near the top of the list. He's had 17 seasons of 20 or more wins at South Medford, and another where he hit 19, to amass a 512-147 record with the varsity Panthers. From 1975-82, Murphy guided St. Mary's to a 123-42 record, earning his first state title in 1979. He later backed that up at South Medford with a state title in 2007 after a runner-up showing in 2006.
This is not to provide an end note to a brilliant career; the 62-year-old Murphy assures he's far from done chasing his passion as a basketball coach. It's important because quality coaching often is taken for granted, and it shouldn't be when you consider that the last two seasons may have been the finest coaching jobs pulled off by Murphy and his staff.
Ask any of his peers and they'll tell you the only reason they considered the Panthers as conference favorites in either year was because of Murphy and how he gets his brand of players to step up when their moment arises. This year's bunch was tabbed to finish behind Roseburg and in a second-place tie with North Medford more for the Panthers' potential than on-court proof.
And, in some way, that's what has made it such a special year for the 21-5 Panthers, who keep finding a way to confound their critics while winning game after game.
"It's been a fun year because they're nice kids and I think our team chemistry has been good," Murphy said Monday. "For me it's probably more pleasurable because we've overachieved so much. I guess that really is a Dennis Murphy mark because that's who I am. I was never the biggest, never the fastest or the best and so if you ever had a chance you were going to have to dig and claw and fight to get anywhere."
"It's fun for me to see these kids have these kind of successes," he added. "You look at them and they're not imposing but they just keep getting better."
To a man, his players insist that their growth has as much to do with Murphy as anything else.
"He's just shown us the importance of working hard and taught us that if we play good defense we can beat anyone, no matter how talented they are," said South Medford senior Matt Toreson. "We're not the most talented group of guys but if we sell out to what he says, he knows how to win and we trust him so we do what he says and it's worked so far."
Murphy readily admits that he sets the tone for high expectations among each individual and the group as a whole, but it's not any higher than the expectations he sets for himself each day.
"The expectation is we're not going to accept anything short of your very best effort," he said, "and if you give us that then you will find this will be a great experience for you."
Getting there may involve a scolding or two, some more animated than others, but it's the message and not the delivery that Murphy hopes his players hold onto. If there's one thing his players can say over the years, it's that while he may have been hard on them, he's held everyone to the same standard.
"Nobody is beyond or above reproach," said the coach. "If I have told you things that I think are important and you don't follow through with that, trust me, you'll hear about it. It doesn't matter if you're Kyle Singler or the 12th guy on the team. But if we didn't care and didn't want to make you better, that wouldn't happen."
"As old-school as I am, though, I'm trying to get away from that," added Murphy. "But the thing is, you can't personalize it. Whatever the likeness or love I had for you when we started practice or a game, I feel exactly the same way when we're done."
While his critics may have not been able to see it that way over the years, his players certainly have.
"At times he can be tough on you but he needs to," said Toreson. "He just does it because he wants to win and he knows that we want to win so we're glad he does all that stuff for us."
And winning, after all, is the ultimate goal. You take what you have, develop it into the most competitive entity possible and then ride it as far as you can.
"Winning is fun, and I like to have fun," said Murphy. "If we're going to play, at least play to win because it's a whole lot more fun."
Some years that's easier because you have some of the state's finest players, some years it's more challenging — and rewarding — because you don't.
"No matter what team we have, he does an amazing job coaching," said Panthers senior Adrian Garcia. "With the lack of varsity experience we've had the last two years, I think he's done a great job. We've won the conference and made it to the state tournament mostly because he's just a great coach."
Current assistant coach James Wightman played for Murphy during his run at South Medford from 1994-98 and has been on his staff off and on for 10 years now. Wightman said Murphy is as consistent with his message today as he was back when he was a player, although he added the coach may have softened a bit over the years.
"Murph is someone that you cannot replace; he's totally undervalued as a coach," said Wightman. "It's a different kind of generation now and he basically still teaches these kids how to play like it's still the 1970s and 80s, hard-nosed and gritty and tough, where you dive on the floor and leave everything you have out there on the floor. Anything less than your best is just not good enough, that's his impact."
"He kind of makes his players into sponges because they want to absorb more, more and more because the guy knows what he's talking about," added Wightman. "As soon as he starts to talk, these kids' eyes are just right there at him because of what he's done for all these years."
If the proof is in the pudding, the Panthers certainly have seemed willing to go for seconds in recent years.
"He just gets everyone to buy into what he's thinking," said Garcia. "We've seen in the past what his teams can do and we know we have the capability of possibly doing something close to that if we just listen. After that it's just hard work and you've got to be mentally tough and know how to play his game of basketball, and that's defense first and be disciplined on offense."
Where the standard comes from even Murphy doesn't know. His parents and siblings weren't much into sports when he was growing up. He wasn't a star player for his high school, and wasn't even anyone's top choice for head coach. Murphy worked his way up from Sacred Heart to St. Mary's to a junior varsity stint at Aloha High School.
While at Aloha, Murphy said he applied for 16 head coaching jobs at the highest classification, interviewed for nine and didn't get any of them.
"After that I just said I've gotta get better and figure out how to convince people I can do the job for them," he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Wanting to return to the Medford area, he thought the split into two high schools would be his chance in 1986 but even that didn't work out. He applied for both jobs but the North Medford one — which he interviewed for first — went to Terry Gregg and the South Medford one went to Mike Ashby, who won a conference title in his first season. Unfazed, Murphy agreed one year later to join Ashby's staff as the JV coach before taking over the varsity reins in 1988.
Sixteen conference titles and a wealth of quality memories later, Murphy still carries the same love for his role as head coach.
"You don't ever take any of the years for granted, you just can't," he said. "I know we've got good kids in the pipeline and things in place to where as long as I still like doing this and my assistant coaches will help — and I've had the best group of assistants anyone could have and they've taken on more responsibilities over the years — and we keep winning, then who knows how long we can continue on this ride."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry