Mentor, Example, Friend, Adversary: Brewers Bench Coach Pat Murphy is the Baseball Conversationalist
Each morning in Spring Training, you’ll find me down on the field capturing photos and video of the Cactus Crew’s workouts and practices, documenting them to share on our social media channels for fans back home.
And, while there are a lot of things that are new and different this season—from the structure of the workouts and some unique drills to personnel and many of the players—one thing that’s impossible to miss is the distinctive style and energy that new Brewers Bench Coach Pat Murphy brings to the ballpark each and every day.
After watching him during practice and hearing so many players and coaches speak so highly of him, I asked Murphy if I could sit down with him for an interview—to get to know him better, discuss his coaching philosophy and to try to dig up some good dirt on our skipper.
Most Brewers fans know by now that Murphy, 57, has a long history in the sport at many different levels of the game.
The Syracuse, New York native graduated from Christian Brothers (NY) Academy where he played football, basketball and boxed in addition to playing baseball. He then graduated from Florida Atlantic University, where he also pitched.
After college, Murphy pitched in the minor leagues with the Giants (1982) and Padres (1983) organizations and professionally in Australia for Sydney (1984) and in the Northwest League with Tri-City (1985-86) before embarking on his 25-year NCAA head coaching career, primarily as a Division I Head Coach for Notre Dame (1988-1994) and Arizona State University (1995-2009).
It was during his time at Notre Dame than he met and formed a long-lasting friendship with Brewers Manager Craig Counsell, then his player.
Following his college coaching career, Murphy then returned to the Padres organization where he spent the 2010 season as a special assistant to baseball operations before moving on to manage at Class-A Eugene (2011-12), Triple-A Tucson (2013) and Triple-A El Paso (2014-15).
Murphy became interim manager of the Padres last season, replacing Bud Black in June.
It was in this capacity that Murphy and Counsell – the teacher and the pupil – found themselves back on the diamond together once again last August. Only this time, it was in opposing dugouts as managers at the game’s highest level when the Padres faced the Brewers at Miller Park.
Then, in November after the Padres opted not to retain Murphy, it did not come as a big surprise when it was announced that Counsell would be adding Murphy to his staff as the new Brewers Bench Coach.
NEVER A LULL IN CONVERSATION
“We’ve had a 25-year baseball conversation,” Counsell said at the time of the announcement. “He’s shown a great ability to impact people. I’ve seen him impact players in college, in professional baseball and in the big leagues. I feel really lucky to be able to get him here.”
New Brewers coach Jason Lane also has a history with Murphy, playing for him in parts of 2014 and 2015 at Triple-A El Paso, and Lane referenced a similar ongoing conversation when I met with him last week.
“We had this bond and great banter back and forth about that game. He became just a huge influence in my life and really showed me a lot of things about who I was as a player and empowered me to help younger guys early on,” Lane said.
When asked about that “conversation,” Murphy explains it like this:
“Your former players become your life. It becomes your life, it’s like your workshop and they teach you. They all have taught me more than I’ve taught them. And I really believe that. That’s the fun part. It becomes just a nice conversation, a nice circle, a nice friendship, a nice relationship. Those guys to me… you know it’s hard to talk about. Those guys mean so much to me,” he said.
There are too many relationships like this that Murphy has made over his career to begin listing names, but it’s safe to say that there’s never a lull in his conversation.
“I’ve learned this game on the fly. I set out to be maybe a football coach…started down that path and really had to learn the game. I played in college and the minor leagues, but now I love the game and I don’t know that I really understood the game back then when I started or when I played, but now I understand the game. I’m just thankful all these guys have taught me the game.”
TALKING THE TALK AND WALKING THE WALK: COACHING
Murphy said that it’s much different coaching players at the Major League level, as opposed to college players.
“These are men that have been through much more usually and they have a pretty good idea in what they want to do, so now it’s more trying to reach them and connect with them so you can help them possibly find their best self more often. I view it like we’re offensive linemen, so to speak… we open the holes for them to run through and gain more yardage,” Murphy says.
However, Murphy doesn’t get hung up on levels of the game when it comes to coaching.
“I take the profession seriously. This is a big, important role, no matter what level you coach at. You’re a mentor sometimes, you’re an example sometimes, sometimes you’re a friend, sometimes you’re an adversary, you know the whole thing, the gambit. It’s important, whatever it is. If it’s genuine, if it’s well-intended, then you could possibly be impactful—possibly. But you can’t look for that. It either happens on its own or it doesn’t,” he says.
So, has he changed his approach from his college or Minor League days?
“I think you better be changing every year regardless of level. I think you have to adjust to the level, you have to stay yourself, and you better keep changing, getting better, hopefully, or evaluating yourself constantly, talking to other coaches…”
Just like he credits his former players with helping him understand the game, Murphy says that learning from other coaches has been something that he’s especially enjoyed.
And that hasn’t been limited to the baseball diamond. Murphy crossed paths with two legendary college football coaches while at Notre Dame—Lou Holtz and Barry Alvarez, so I asked him if he learned anything from those individuals in particular.
“There’s no question. Lou has been a great influence in my life and watching him operate, command a room, command a team, connect with a team….You know, he didn’t coach from power. He didn’t need to. The guys knew his passion and intent and followed him. He was zany and zaniness also came into play.
And Barry—he’s the consummate, genuine guy. I mean, Barry—the players trusted him immediately. They trusted him and they connected with him from day one. He was a powerful leader and he had fun, you know, which was a beautiful thing….and he kept it real. You mention those two guys and that’s as good as it I’ve seen out there.”
PUTTING THE “FUN” IN FUNDAMENTALS
Murphy also likes to keep things fun. He says that the Brewers coaching staff is trying to emphasize to this team that the game doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be focused on some areas that can sometimes be taken for granted.
“Yes, the fundamentals. But it’s how you convey them that I think is important. I like to keep it fun because people learn better when they’re in that state of mind, you know realizing that when we’re practicing and when we’re preparing it doesn’t have to be drudgery,” Murphy said.
Sometimes, though, he admits, it might need to be drudgery, depending on the situation. And that’s what makes him a great coach—he knows how to get the best out of people.
HARD-NOSED COACH & PLAYER
Murphy says that on the topic of Murphy, Counsell has told the team that “he’ll make you laugh or he’ll make you cry” and many of the players have asked him about a story that is widely told from Murphy’s days coaching Counsell: That one time when Murphy broke Counsell’s nose.
Counsell played for Murphy at Notre Dame from 1989-92. As the story goes, Counsell irked his manager with a series of errors one fall and Murphy ordered him onto a half-frozen field in November to field hot-shot grounders. Not fun then. Drudgery.
One particularly hard-hit baseball took a bad hop, bounced up and broke Counsell’s nose.
“His nose was over here at 4:15,” Murphy recounted to Adam McCalvy, holding his hand on the side of his face, “and then he was back at practice at 5:15 with his nose back in place and said, ‘Hit me some more.’ That taught me everything I needed to know….He was destined to be undenied.”
Murphy won’t bite when I fish for crazy or embarrassing stories from Counsell’s college days, but does provide this telling tidbit:
“I’ll tell you one thing that he’ll hate me saying, but I will tell you. I made the guys write down their goals. I don’t know if that’s smart or not; I don’t know if that’s good coaching or not, I really don’t, but I made the guys write down their goals and I still have that goal sheet. And you guys would… if you could think back and you could see what he wrote, you guys would just shake your head like ‘That’s Craig.’ That quiet confidence…. Really amazing for a kid, for where he was as a freshman to write those things as goals.”
I know Counsell so therefore already know the answer, but I ask anyway: “And did he meet those goals?”
“He met those goals,” Murphy affirms with a nod and a look of pride. “Few people in this lifetime will meet those goals. It’s really incredible. “
Murphy says that while it wasn’t always easy to see all the way through Counsell’s college career, once Counsell got to be a senior, Murphy had no doubt he would go on to do great things in his career. In fact, Murphy boasts that he was once quoted as saying that Counsell would play in the Major Leagues.
“In the Blue & Gold Illustrated at Notre Dame, I said that he would be the next Major Leaguer from Notre Dame because he was so impressive day-in and day-out. He would help you offensively, he was so steady defensively, so steady a personality on the team.
“Looking back, it’s easy to say he worked so hard as a freshman, he handled adversity great as a sophomore, came into his own as a junior but…. but once he got to be a senior, you were pretty certain he wasn’t going to stop getting better. He got better every year,” Murphy recalls.
Murphy says it’s those same qualities that helped Counsell overcome adversity, accomplish his goals, and succeed in his career that will also make him a successful manager.
“He’s not trying to copy anybody. He has a great mind, great vision. He really can link people. He can deal with people on all levels. The very qualities that got this kid from Whitefish Bay that didn’t have all the baseball tools and talent to turn that lack of tools and lack of talent into skills that worked for him at the highest level and championship level ball….That’s the very skill that will make him a successful manager in my opinion because he’s going to find the answer. That’s what’s going to happen, he’s going to find the answer,” Murphy says with confidence.
He continues, “He knows I care about him as a person and he knows I’ve got his back in every situation and I hope I can add something, I hope I can pull my weight because he’s got a special thing going here.”
I would have to agree. That’s certainly the feeling I get out on the practice fields every morning. Although I’m just out there shooting content, I can’t help but leave feeling energized and inspired.
Thanks, Pat, for letting me interrupt your conversation for this interview.🙂