By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Photos courtesy Harvard Athletics
Tim Murphy takes a lot of pride in being a National Team coach. The Harvard head coach shaped Alex Meyer’s career, among hundreds of others. But Murphy’s road into swimming wasn’t likely, or even clear. He talks about coaching at one of the world’s best universities, and coaching some great swimmers, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How’d you get into coaching swimming?
Tim: I was fortunate to have really great coaches and mentors in my life; outside of my father and mother and family, the biggest influences were the coaches. Sports were always important. It’s where I directed most of my energy in an effective manner as a younger person.
2. So you swam as a youth?
Tim: I was fortunate to play a bunch of different sports. I swam as an age group swimmer from the time I was 5 to 11 in Puerto Rico. When I moved to New Jersey, I swam in a summer league; there wasn’t really a club in the area. In high school I played baseball for four years, and football my senior year, swimming in a summer league. When I was getting ready to go to college, a friend knew the coach, and she said, “If you are going to West Chester, you should go out for the swim team.”
3. A good college career?
Tim: Well, I was focused on baseball at first, and the first weekend there I was cut by the baseball team, and my (laughs) Major League dreams were dead. I went to see the swim coach. I didn’t have the background at that time to be a contributing member of the team. But I convinced the coach to let me be part of the team. I tried mightily, but didn’t amount to much. It played an important role in my life though at a key time in my life, and the coach, Chuck Pagano, was important in my development as an athlete and aspiring coach.
4. But all in all, wasn’t it a good swim career at West Chester State?
Tim: I was never really an impact athlete for the program, but I was captain my senior year. I did some other things in college; rugby, I boxed, and played lacrosse. But I was fortunate in all those categories. My baseball coach at the Holy Cross High School I went to, Frank Paris, had a discipline oriented program, and that helped develop my work ethic.
5. What was your major in college?
Tim: Physical Education, and I had an interest in coaching and teaching. Still I didn’t have much, if any, exposure to coaching. Jack Simon (who had been at Foxcatcher) came to West Chester as a swim coach, and I worked for him as an assistant.
6. What role did that play in your development as a coach?
Tim: That sort of reintroduced me, or introduced me, to the club world. What had happened was I went to Ursinus College, a Division III program up the road, and I was named coach there. While it was a great opportunity and I learned a lot, I knew that if I wanted to coach swimming at the highest level, I had to go back to club and learn it the right way. I got a chance to coach the Wahoos at the Wilton YMCA for 13 years (and won seven national championships as well as YMCA National Coach of the Year). Being in that region with the Germantowns of the world, all those great mid-Atlantic big-time swim coaches, it was just great for me to learn. I had all of these great lessons from Jack, and I was able to learn from Bob Mattson at Wilmington Aquatic Club, and these guys had gotten a lot of work with national caliber athletes and gone to nationals. Bob and Jack were two world-class coaches with entirely different styles. Jack was very physiological and biomechanical, and Bob was more artistic and about the movement, so I got tremendous education from both. I can’t tell you how important to me that was, being in that system. I was at the Y for 13 years, and I met a lot of great kids, parents and the best coaches I could have ever hoped to learn from.
7. Isn’t it odd the turns your career took?
Tim: Like I said, when I was coming out of school, coaching was a passion of mine, I just wasn’t sure what direction it would go. Coaching club was the best thing that I did, and because of those coaches I was able to get a very valuable education. I sort of figured out that if I coached swimming, I wanted to be able to coach at any level, from teaching people how to swim – children or adults – to be the kind of coach ready to handle an athlete of national or international caliber; you never know when that kind of athlete might show up, but you want to be ready when they do.
8. And then you go to my (and most other people’s) dream school – Harvard – how did that happen?
Tim: Then the opportunity at Harvard (laughs), yes, that came along. I had interviewed in 1992, and Mike Chassom got the job at that point at Harvard. Mike and I had similar club roots, but he was an assistant at Stanford. I was fortunate to know Yale’s swim coach, Frank Keefe, and I called to ask him if I could come up and volunteer coach for him, because I knew I didn’t have the feel and understanding to be able to answer the questions I got from college administrators. I learned a lot about the Ivy League and recruiting, and just more in general about being a college swim coach.
9. Then you ended up back at Harvard interviewing again?
Tim: I was fortunate in that respect – to have an athletic director like Bill Cleary interview me, because my club background – compared to coaches who were already full-time on staff at universities – did not scare him away. He wanted to know what kind of person I was, the experience I had, talked to my references, and just wanted to know if I could do the job or not. He wanted to find a good coach, and I felt pretty fortunate he believed in me.
10. And here we are 15 years later – time flew by, didn’t it?
Tim: Yes, we just finished our 15th year in this amazing program. Harvard’s vision is education through athletics, and that’s the way I coach anyway. It’s been a good 15 years. I have worked with great student-athletes and had the people who want to succeed at a high level. =
11. And you end up a National Team open water coach?
Tim: Alex Meyer was very fortunate to have a club coach in Roy Staley who introduced Alex to open water in his club program. Alex is that unique individual who just has the persistence and hunger and willingness to do the amount of work required to compete on the world stage.
12. Alex was rolling along toward London, already on the team, and then the bike wreck before the Olympics – what a rough break, wasn’t it?
Tim: I think where we were in January, we were a week outside of going to Brazil to start the World Cups, which we were going to use the next few races to give us feedback on our training – what was working, where we were strong, and what we were going to address. Just kind of to check off where we were at in training. Not getting to race for that critical period of time was a large detriment. The time away, being hurt, and dealing with that physically and emotionally was hard for him, but he also needed those races to build his confidence and get his feel for racing. Once he got back in the water, he did a great job. And in fact a lot of the work he did last year is just showing up now. But that happens in swimming, as we all know. I think the thing that hurt him the most was being selected for the team a year out – which is a great honor, but it’s a double-edged sword. Most Olympians have to deal with a month of being excited and getting ready for the games. But that got strung out a year, and it was an underlying current that wore him out a bit over time. Looking back, there were some indications of that. I don’t know if we would have changed the training. But the emotional component – he probably ended up getting a lot more exposure, which isn’t a bad thing, but it was like a slow leak and with the accident, there was no doubt it compounded to take a toll on him.
13. What do you tell your swimmers at Harvard?
Tim: That it is a process. I don’t guarantee guys a lot: I tell them they are going to work hard, I am going to challenge them, but we are going to give them what they need to be successful, and they have to work toward their aspirations in the water. I’m comfortable doing that and I enjoy that aspect.
14. Six league titles, a record of 122-11 in 15 years – where do you go from here?
Tim: I’m in a good spot. I think 15 years would indicate that Harvard feels it’s a good fit. I’m very proud of that. Like I said, I don’t promise a lot. If they do some good things and are consistent, some good things are going to happen for them, and they are going to remember and talk about it for five, 10, 15, even 50 years down the road. The athletic department here supports swimming – we are an important sport – and we have a nice facility to work with.
15. I think about my time at the Air Force Academy playing hockey my freshman year, and can’t imagine how your athletes fit in the school work with the training – is that an issue?
Tim: They are here to excel academically, and excel in the water, and that is not an easy task. But these are great young people with amazing minds, so believe me when I say there is (laughs) never a dull moment! You are talking about 18 to 22 year olds, and this is a very exciting and dynamic time in their life, so to be involved at this time in their life is an honor for me. When you get here and you meet more and more alums and see the affection the guys have for their time here, not only as students but time they had as an athlete in the swimming and diving program, it is just an awesome thing to experience. Our student-athletes interact with the alumni so they understand they are part of something bigger and greater, something that will be intertwined in their lives the rest of the way, from here forward.
16 You really enjoy coaching at Harvard, don’t you?
Tim: We get a lot of interesting young minds. They are skilled in so many different capacities. It is fun working with them. I like to laugh with them, and they like to laugh at me – especially (laughs) when I am not looking. But it is all good. You strike a balance, and always strive to make sure we are doing things right, challenging ourselves in a way that makes us better athletes and people. This is a great place to do that.
17. You really were born to teach, weren’t you?
Tim: The teaching aspect of that is something that I embrace. I think that’s why I am able to do the things I am able to do, and I will always credit the lessons I learned from Jack Simon and Bob Mattson, and the fact that they were polar opposites benefitted me tremendously. I had other coaching mentors who taught me a lot, especially with USA Swimming, and going to camps. That has been a joy. Listen, I turn 56 here very soon, but then I look at legends like Dick Shoulberg and Jon Urbanchek – tremendous coaches who have taught me so much – and I just marvel at them; I hope I can continue to contribute the way those amazing people do.
18. It’s quite a distinguished group of coaches, isn’t it, in this sport?
Tim: Those guys we just talked about, you just have to have people like that in the sport to lead the way. I am just fortunate to be on deck to know those coaches. All of them have kept the ball rolling. You know, I came from a little bit of a different path, but I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and even though my path was different, I was able to learn from the best and make a career out of it.
19. How cool was it putting on the red, white and blue for London?
Tim: What kid doesn’t have the dream of representing your country in the Olympics? I was never going to be able to do that from an athletic standpoint, but I ended up being able to do it in swimming in a number of different capacities. It is an honor to represent your country – this great country – but it’s also an honor to represent those who are on the staff, those coaches and support people, the organization of USA Swimming ,the athletes and all the coaches and parents and teammates who got them to that point as well. To represent the U.S. was – and is – a dream of mine, and it’s kind of surreal. It’s really been a fun, nice ride.
20. Who’d have thought you’d be in the Olympics in 2012 some 30 years ago when you were returning to club coaching to “learn to do things the right way”?
Tim: Being a coach is something I always dreamed about, even as a little kid. As an athlete, when that dream sort of fizzles and your playing career comes to the end of its road, you reach a point where you still want to do things with a passion. But you also need to provide for your family. One of the nicest things about coaching has been that our family and friends are all a part of it; at the Olympics, Alex probably had 50 family and friends who came to watch him, and that made it mean so much. I was also fortunate to have my family be part of the Olympic experience and bring them over to London for a week. They watched me hop on planes and go different directions for 20 years, so this was a way to give something back to them and it was really special. You know, it comes down to how much you care about the people and what you are doing. Coaching is something I dreamed about, and I have made a living out of it. But I believe that whenever you find what you are truly passionate about, if you plug a way on it and listen to others and learn, you will find your way. It’s an honor for me to walk out on that deck every time for this school and these athletes – and this country – and it’s also a lot of fun.