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Great expectations -- Murphy brings hopes of football glory to New Milford High School

Updated 10:15 pm, Saturday, August 24, 2013

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  • New Milford head football coach John Murphy instructs players at football practice at New Milford High School in New Milford, Conn. on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013.  Murphy is filling in as the new head coach this year.  A former state champion coach at Masuk High School, Murphy hopes to improve the New Milford football program. Photo: Tyler Sizemore / The News-Times

    New Milford head football coach John Murphy instructs players at football practice at New Milford High School in New Milford, Conn. on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Murphy is filling in as the new head coach this year. A former state champion coach at Masuk High School, Murphy hopes to improve the New Milford football program.

    Photo: Tyler Sizemore

 

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NEW MILFORD -- The sun had just started to set, and the shadows on the field had just started to grow longer, when New Milford High School's new football coach, John Murphy, brought Tuesday afternoon's practice to an end with the sharp screech of his whistle.

Almost in unison, Murphy's players -- more than 80 of them -- circled around their new coach, unbuckled their chin straps and took a knee.

With 80 sweaty, exhausted faces looking eagerly up at him and listening intently, Murphy began to speak.

He spoke about playing in the state playoffs, which is something he accomplished in 12 of his 16 years as Masuk's head coach and something no New Milford team has ever accomplished in the nearly 50-year history of the program.

And he spoke about winning a state championship, which he did three times at Masuk before leaving the school after 16 triumphant seasons -- with a record of 158-33-12 and six South-West Conference titles -- and taking the job at New Milford in February.

And he spoke of those things in the present tense, making it clear, even in the fading sunlight of a steamy, late-summer evening, that playoff football -- pressure-packed football played in December's bitter chill with the whole state watching -- is not only a possibility, but an expectation for this group of players, this season.

"The first thing I said to them when I got here was that I'm not going to be satisfied until we do that," Murphy said as he gazed out across the vacant field after all his players and coaches had left. "The whole rebuilding thing, I don't think that's fair to a high school kid. How can I tell these seniors they're part of a rebuilding process? What does that mean to them? They don't want to be a part of that. They want to be a part of something special.

"That was my goal the first day I walked into the building at Masuk, and it was my goal the first day I walked into the building here. I really believe that, if you do all the right things, you give yourselves a chance to do those types of things."

Those are pretty bold words, especially given the setting. New Milford High is one of the biggest schools in the SWC, but the Green Wave has enjoyed only four winning seasons since 1994.

"One of the things I've said to the kids is that the past here is the past," Murphy said. "There's nothing that we're going to do that's going to change it. What we're worried about is what we're doing now and what we're going to do from here on in.

"We can't worry about what happened in the past. People say `They don't have this, they don't have that.' And yet, Brookfield is just seven minutes down the road. There is nothing different in the water from here to Brookfield, and there's no reason that we can't have the success that they've had.

"It is a new challenge," Murphy added. "I'm getting to know new people, and yet I'm able to fall back on my experiences and the things I did wrong and the things I did right back at Masuk. It's been a lot of fun."

Most importantly, the New Milford players seem to be picking up what Murphy is laying down, particularly the seniors, for whom this season is the last chance they'll have to chase the dream of winning a state football title.

"He's not the coach who's going to say we're going to rebuild from the bottom," said senior Ryan Grenier. "He's going from what we have and moving forward with that. He wants to do it now."

And part of the task of building a winning program is changing people's perceptions. After all, just because the New Milford High football team has been mired in mediocrity for generations doesn't mean it has to continue to be mediocre.

"It's a completely different culture," said senior Nick Capriglione. "He's changed, basically, everything."

The question on everyone's mind now is whether Murphy can work the same magic at New Milford as he did at Masuk -- where he won a state title in only his second year on the job. His counterparts in the SWC certainly seem to think he can.

"John Murphy will find success at New Milford because he will still hold his players to a high standard," Pomperaug coach Dave Roach said in an e-mail. "His teaching style has not changed, only his classroom has changed -- from Monroe to New Milford. Patience will need to be a character trait John exhibits. But based on all that I have seen from him this off-season, his program has been busy. Good for him and good for the kids."

Not so good, perhaps, for the rest of the SWC, however.

"John Murphy is an excellent coach. His success speaks for itself," Brookfield High coach Rich Angarano said in an e-mail. "I'm sure he will have them ready to compete."

SHOCK WAVES

When word got out back in February that Murphy had taken the New Milford job, the same simple question undoubtedly popped up over and over again all around the state: Why?

Why would he leave a program that he had helped build into such a powerhouse, and then, with roughly two dozen Connecticut high schools needing a head football coach, take over a program that had struggled so mightily for so long? It just didn't seem like the next logical step in the career path of the 45-year-old, whose Panthers had captured their most recent state title in 2010.

"When I decided that Masuk wasn't really the right place for me anymore, I wasn't sure what I was going to do," Murphy said. "I had a lot of things going through my mind, whether I was going to take some time off or look for another position. This kind of came on the radar. Once I looked at the situation, I felt like it had all the parts that we could do something special with. Once I did some research and talked to people, I really felt good about the situation.

"When I look back at those 16 years and all the great kids I got to coach, it's something I take a lot of pride in," Murphy added. "But it's over now, and it's time to do something new."

The move certainly sent shock waves across the state.

"I was surprised at first," longtime Barlow coach Rob Tynan had said at the time. "I've known John for a long time. I think it's a great move for the league. New Milford has struggled, and John is a fantastic football coach. Do I think it's going to be instantaneous? I hope not. But John's a heck of a football coach. I live in Monroe and I've seen what John has done with the youth programs and the time he's put in. John knows how to build a program really from the bottom up."

Murphy will work as a para-professional at New Milford High and continue to coach the Green Wave's girls lacrosse team in the spring. This past spring, he guided the Wave girls to a 10-6 regular-season record, a win in the SWC Division I quarterfinals and a berth in the Class L state tournament.

"Like I told these guys and I told my girls lacrosse players, I live in Stratford. I have an hour drive. If I didn't believe we could be successful, I wouldn't put myself through that every single day," he said.

GRAND OPENING

Murphy admits there may have been some hard feelings churned up in the wake of his departure from Masuk. That makes New Milford's opening game at home on Sept. 12 against Masuk -- now coached by former Ridgefield defensive coordinator Dave Brennan -- all the more intriguing. Murphy's girls lacrosse team didn't play Masuk last spring, so this will be the first time he faces his former school.

"Things that have transpired between myself and some people back in Monroe are not what I expected," Murphy said. "The feelings have turned much more sour than I ever anticipated. I didn't expect that. Going into the game, my focus is on the team that I'm coaching. I certainly have a lot of respect for the coaching staff over there and the players that I coached before. There are a lot of great kids, a lot of great young men and I wish them nothing but good things. But my focus is going to be on my sideline. I'm not going to look at it any different than any other game. It's just as important as Week 2, it's just as important as Week 3.

"None of this is going to effect the way I call the game and it's not going to effect the way I prepare for the game. We're going to get our guys as ready to play as we can. If good things happen, that's great. If not, we're going to move on to the next week and we're going to try and get better. Barlow in Week 2 is as important as Masuk in Week 1."

Last year, Masuk beat New Milford 41-21 in Monroe in Week 2 as the Green Wave were on the way to a 3-8 final record. And while it remains to be seen whether or not the Green Wave will be able to turn the tables on the Panthers this season, having Murphy on its side will certainly boost the Wave's confidence.

"(We were) always nervous going into that game because they were always the best and they won states and everything," said senior Nick Kimball. "Just having him, the coach of that team, come here, it's exciting."

THE GAME PLAN

When it comes to Xs and Os, Murphy plans to stick with what worked at Masuk. Last year, his team out-scored opponents 502-190 in posting a 10-2 record.

"We're in the spread on offense," he said. "We're going to be as high-tempo as we can possibly be. We'll try to spread the ball around and be consistent running it. And then the same style of defense we played when I was at Masuk. It's a 3-3 stack, very aggressive, a lot of blitzing. We like to disguise our coverages and then just let the kids fly around and attack the football."

And what about the personnel he has to work with? Murphy has liked what he has seen so far.

"We have a ton to work with here," he said. "I'm really excited about this group. We have 45 guys playing defense, 40 playing offense, nobody playing both ways, which is a tremendous tool for any high school program.

"The parts are here, the attitude is here. Now, we just need to continue to do it every day on the practice field and get ourselves ready and get our guys believing that they can do it and believing that something bad isn't always waiting for you in the game. You've done the work, and now you're going to change those situations into good situations, not bad ones."

This particular situation can go one of two ways. Either Murphy wakes the New Milford High football team from its decades-long slumber and guides it to newfound success, or Murphy runs out of magic and the Green Wave continues to struggle.

Either way, there is quite a sense of excitement and anticipation swirling around the football team this August in the SWC's northern-most outpost, where they're already looking forward to December.

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