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Last Hurrah

All good things must come to an end, and South Medford boys basketball head coach Dennis Murphy is content with that eventuality.

That said, he sure wouldn’t mind seeing his second-seeded Panthers take his 28th and final season at the helm to the last potential day in 2016.

South Medford (24-2) will look to extend Murphy’s stay with the team at 5 p.m. Saturday when it hosts Grant (16-9) in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

The game against the Generals will mark the final home game for Murphy at South Medford, and the winner advances to next week’s state tournament at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center.

“I think you have to trust yourself, and I am trusting myself that the time is right,” Murphy, 65, said of stepping down as both athletic director and boys basketball coach after this school year. “It’s been great and I can’t say thank you to enough people enough times for what opportunities I’ve had and what we’ve accomplished here, but it’s time to be done.”

The coaching accomplishments for Murphy are vast and particularly overwhelming for someone who didn’t come from a deep athletic background and, in his own words, wasn’t much of an athlete himself.

“It’s real bizarre how I ever ended up in this,” Murphy said of his coaching legacy. “I truly am an overachiever because I was not a great player. I surely competed and a big thing for me has been the challenge of can you do what you’re not supposed to do. I just knew there was something that attracted me to coaching.”

He has been humbled by celebrations this year for his efforts at South Medford, which earned its 18th conference championship under his reign this season and Saturday will be aiming to earn a 13th trip to the state tourney in the last 15 years. In his 28 years, the Panthers have secured 20 or more wins in 19 seasons.

“I tell people all the time I’ve been extremely spoiled,” said Murphy, who coached St. Mary’s High to a boys basketball state title in 1979 and South Medford to a state title in 2007. “I’ve just had a tremendous run of players, which makes good coaches out of all of us.”

“I truly appreciate all the recognition I get but I hope that I’ve proven to people that it’s never been about me because it never has been,” he added. “I just happened to be the guy that got picked to drive the boat, but everybody else had the ability to figure out how to catch the fish, so to speak. I feel extremely fortunate and blessed because of that.”

All modesty aside, those around the programs Murphy built from his early days at Sacred Heart Elementary to his high school days at St. Mary’s and South Medford know the head coach had plenty to do with their success.

“Playing for Murph was always fun,” said Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kyle Singler, who was part of South’s 2007 championship team and 2006 runner-up squad that faced off against Kevin Love and Lake Oswego. “Looking back and reflecting, you always respected the energy that he brought to practice and to the games.”

“He is a special guy and whatever he’s achieved was well-deserved, and I just feel very fortunate to have played for him,” added Singler, who led Duke to the NCAA title in 2010.

Murphy caught the coaching bug in high school when he guided the girls powder puff teams to victory as a junior and senior, then took that experience up a notch when Southern Oregon University started girls intramurals and Murphy guided those football and softball teams to victory.

His run at the elementary level was full of successes in football and basketball at Sacred Heart, and he even coached Medford to the 1975 Little League Softball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

At St. Mary’s, he guided the baseball team to a runner-up finish in the A/B state tournament in 1976 and a state title in 1982. As a football assistant under best friend Larry Walker from 1975-82, he was part of four Class A championships and two runners-up.

“Murph is one of those amazing individuals that can just about coach anything, I think,” said Kirk Daley, who played basketball for Murphy at St. Mary’s and has been one of his top assistants for nearly 30 years. “He’s been successful in a lot of different sports in a lot of different ways. He’s just so good at motivating players and so good at instilling confidence in his players. It’s almost like you had an unfair advantage when Murph was your coach, not only with his knowledge but the hard work he puts in and what he expects of players. He holds players to a high standard both on and off the court. It’s just amazing as you look over the whole span of his career at all his success.”

Murphy credits Walker for helping him further develop an already innate trait to relate to and work with his players. He also had a direct pipeline to legendary Medford High basketball coach Frank Roelandt when Murphy was at Sacred Heart. Roelandt's son Tim was there, and Murphy often found himself meeting with the father on Saturdays to go over things.

Where he truly learned the most about coaching basketball was in his five years as junior varsity assistant coach under Barney Holland at Aloha High in Beaverton. Holland had previously won three state titles at North Eugene.

“Barney taught me a lot about toughness and a lot about the offensive part of basketball,” said Murphy, who is a two-time state and regional coach of the year. “For whatever reason, I always thought I was a Bobby Knight guy, probably because of the toughness and my focus on defense, but what I realized is the old expression that you can’t ever shut anybody out, you’ve got to make a basket.”

“Barney taught me how you have to teach kids how to shoot, how you have to teach kids how to handle the basketball,” added Murphy. “Even his state championship teams, he didn’t have great big kids, but they could all shoot it and they could all handle the basketball. That was something that was very, very big for me.”

Another big lesson gleaned from Walker was to always be open to suggestions, and Murphy credits his assistant coaches over the years for a great deal of the Panthers’ success.

“I set the table as such that you can give me any advice that you want to, but don’t be offended if I don’t take it,” he said. “More often than not, I will, but I won’t always. I don’t want a bunch of 'yes' people. Tell me what you think we should do and then I’ll make that decision. As such, I’ve just been so fortunate because I’ve had such great assistants. For the most part they’ve all played for me and all know really who I am and how I am. They’ve been a big, big part of our success. They’re so helpful and insightful and the kids love them, they just love them.”

One such assistant, Rick Jackson, was a former head coach for the boys and girls basketball teams at St. Mary’s and recalls to the day when he first met Murphy as an eager incoming freshman for the Crusaders on Sept. 5, 1979.

“I remember asking Murph that first day, do you run man-to-man or zone,” said Jackson, who was a prospective hoopster and had always wanted to try running a zone defense. “He said, ‘Young man, let me tell ya, I run whatever it takes to win. And if we have to kick it in from 94 feet to win, that’s what we’ll do.’ Whatever it’s been, 36 or 37 years later, he has not changed one iota when it comes to that sort of mantra.”

What also hasn’t changed is Murphy’s enthusiasm about the sport of basketball and making his players believe as much in themselves as he does in them.

He returned to the valley to become the JV boys coach at the newly formed South Medford High under Mike Ashby for one year. He ascended to the top position for the 1988-89 school year, and made an instant impression on those in the program.

“I think you just immediately saw the passion he had for the game of basketball,” said Jonathan Stark, who graduated in 1989 and went on to a successful professional tennis career. “He was intense and he was hard on you when he needed to be hard on you, but he made it fun for all of us. We had a great time and he immediately created excitement about South Medford basketball with the posters and everything he was doing.”

Carrying his emotions on his sleeves and not being afraid to provide sometimes brutally honest opinions has often created a negative perception of Murphy that couldn’t be further from the truth in terms of his sincere love for his players.

“Whenever he got on you, you knew eventually he was going to swing his arm around you and give you a ton of support and a ton of encouragement,” said Singler. “At the same time, it was him wanting to get the best out of his players. He did a great job of squeezing whatever he could out of guys by demanding us to play hard.”

In many ways, that demanding but fair persona has carried a lot of weight, on and off the court, for his players and his peers.

“He speaks in reality and I think that’s so important to do, especially in a day and age when there’s always an excuse and a reason why we couldn’t get the job done,” said South Eugene AD and boys basketball coach Dave Hancock. “I think at the end of the day, he’s a coach that I would’ve loved playing for because that’s how I grew up. I really, really like that part of him.”

“We’re definitely going to miss him as a leader among the athletic directors and as a coach,” added Hancock. “There’s certain people that I really like playing against and it doesn’t matter if it’s a win or a loss, it’s just the fact that I know he respects the game, he respects our kids and he knows that we do the same and that’s what makes it a really good ballgame.”

North Medford AD Tim Sam has been on both ends of the Murphy mystique, first as an opposing basketball coach with the Black Tornado and more recently at the administrative level.

“In my first years, I might have said some of those negative things you hear about him, but not now,” admitted Sam, who considers Murphy a true mentor and friend. “Those first couple years I was head coach he was the best there was and we had a heck of a time just trying to compete. He was like Darth Vader for North Medford; he was the general of the evil empire that we couldn’t conquer.”

When Sam turned to his role as athletic director, however, he learned a different side of his nemesis.

“He immediately put out his hand and helped me through the first year and really all of them since and was unbelievably generous, gracious and humble,” added Sam, who honored Murphy by showing up to his final regular season game last week.

As such, Sam details a story from eight years ago when he suffered a ruptured colon and was hospitalized for 10 days, the first few of which contained less than promising news.

“I had a handful of friends and family members who would show up occasionally, but Dennis Murphy came and visited me every day, and sometimes twice a day,” Sam said in a retelling that still brings tears to his eyes. “I had family members that didn’t even do that. Not that that’s a measure of friendship or love, but that just shows you the type of person Dennis really is.”

Those lasting relationships spill over into the stands these days, with former players and peers from every step of the way coming up and filling Murphy’s heart with joy over their presence and kind words of appreciation.

“I will have a relationship with Murphy my whole life and I only played with him for one year,” said Stark. “I think that’s pretty special and a testament to a good coach when your players feel that way and can call upon you. I think everyone would do anything for him because he shows he truly cares about you and is just such a special guy.”

For someone who can recount in great detail highlights from each and every team over the years, that’s really been the true victory for Murphy.

“My goal is always that there’s something the kids learn throughout their experience here with me that they can take with them and make them better individuals, more productive and more successful in their lifetime,” said the outgoing coach. “If there’s some way I’ve impacted that for them, that’s a good thing … and that means the world to me.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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A sign in the Panthers' gym says it all. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON
Murphy high-fives his players during a recent game at South Medford High. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON