Remember the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, the story of the 1924 Olympic track team? While Mike Murphy wasn’t a member or a coach of the famous 1924 team that won 32 medals in the Summer Olympics in Paris, the team owes its legacy to him. Murphy (1860-1913) was a sprinter, one of the first football coaches, and a premier track coach and trainer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Michael Charles “Mike” Murphy’s childhood in either Worchester or Middlesex County, Massachusetts, was one of “humble birth and scant education”. The Philadelphia Inquirer (1913) indicates that Murphy’s father had a reputation as an athlete, and his early ambition was to become a great athlete. Murphy is reported to have traveled the country until about the age of 20, participating with some success in “six-day pedestrian races”, a form of endurance walking. He moved on to boxing and later attempted baseball in the minor leagues. At 24, using his knowledge of how to work with athletes, Murphy became a trainer for the famous boxer “The Boston Strong Boy,” John L. Sullivan with whom he refined his specifics of coaching and athletic training.
His time with Sullivan put him in demand as a trainer and in 1887 he was recruited by Yale University where he stayed until 1896. While at Yale, he also served at the first Head Football coach for the University of Michigan in 1891. He later began the football program at Villanova in 1894 when he became an avid supporter of college football during the anti-football movement in the new century.
His first love, however, was track and field. The tough northern winters in Connecticut were harsh on the frail Murphy so he went to the University of Pennsylvania for about five years, and then returned to Yale in 1901. Murphy’s success led to his appointment as trainer for the United States Olympic teams of 1900, 1908 and 1912. In 1900 he took 13 Penn athletes, along with a contingent from the New York Athletic Club, to compete in track and field at the Paris Olympics.
The Penn Olympians won an amazing number of medals that year: 11 gold, 8 silver and 4 bronze. According to Penn Biographies (2013), at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, Murphy was at Yale and not an Olympic coach, but two of his Penn track athletes won two silver and one bronze medal. Subsequent to his return to Penn and Olympic coaching, four of his Penn track stars won two gold, one silver and two bronze medals at the 1908 London Olympics. In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, when Murphy coached the United States team, seven Penn men won two gold, one silver and one bronze medals on the track and field. Murphy has been called the “Father of American Track Athletics”, producing 10 National AAU team titles.
Murphy was credited with helping to develop the crouch start for sprinters and was regarded as one of the foremost coaching innovators of his era. He was also the originator of the now generally accepted belief that an athlete is a human. Under his system the old idea of athletes being steamed and worked like mules was not tolerated and he did not believe in training with weighted shoes or running uphill in rubber boots. He supported light shoes for racing and heavier ones for working out.
Coach Mike’s Deafness
For most of his life he was hearing impaired. While it is thought to have been mild to moderate at first, the loss became more severe as his career progressed. There are a myriad of hearing disorders (both conductive and sensori-neural) that could have caused his hearing loss, but to this clinician it sounds a bit like otosclerosis, where hearing is normal initially, initiates as mild to moderate, and progresses in severity over time. The hearing disorder did not prevent him from his work with athletes but the work became more challenging as he aged and the hearing loss progressed.
According to Spoke (2013), Mike’s philosophy was to encourage the belief by his students that he was very deaf and thus break down the caution of the lads who prided themselves on their ability to outwit the veteran. The Philadelphia Enquirer (1911) recites an example from when Murphy was attending a fight in Reno, Nevada where a woman spent quite a while telling him of her marital woes. Murphy’s response was, “Madame, you have come to the right person. Your secrets are safe. I have not heard a word you said.” Murphy felt that his deafness made him more sympathetic to others and contributed to his success as a handler of men.
Mike Murphy was a legend in his own time, well-loved by all his athletes. Slight of build and deaf, he was a man of charm and a commanding personality, with the remarkable ability to discern athletic talent and then to train and inspire young men to achieve beyond expectations. He authored numerous articles and two books explaining his techniques, Training and College Athletics.
After his death, a Philadelphia sports writer said of Murphy, “He could arouse a team to superhuman efforts as no trainer ever did or perhaps ever will do. Though deaf, he had an oratory peculiarly his own. It was sympathetic, winning, insistent, pleading, the acme of exhortation. The writer once saw him move a red and blue football team to tears between the halves of a great intercollegiate battle when they retired to their dressing room with the score against them and there appeared no reasonable probability of vanquishing their foes. The wonderfully magnetic and persuasive powers of the dead trainer were exerted to their utmost. Murphy’s appeal to the Penn players was a masterpiece of its kind. It fired the hearts of that disheartened, discouraged and well-nigh defeated team; it transformed every man into a fighting Titan, a giant who did not know his own strength and ability; it moved every man to tears; it converted an apparent defeat to one of the most glorious triumphs ever witnessed in the records of old Penn’s athletic history.”
Not bad for a hearing impaired boy of “humble birth and scant education” whose motto was “You can’t lick a team that won’t be licked!“
Penn Biographies (2015). Michael C. Murphy. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Spokeo (2015). Mike Murphy. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Wikipedia (2015). Mike Murphy (Trainer and Coach). Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Philadelphia Inquirer (1911). Clubs and Clubmen. In Wikipedia, Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Ebay (2015). 1900 Olympic Medals. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
eMedMD.com (2015). Otosclerosis. Retrieved December8, 2015.
National Track and Field Hall of Fame (2015). Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Strong boy Book (2013). John L. Sullivan. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Sports Failure Magazine (2014). The Walking Dead. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
University of Pennsylvania (circa 1911). Mike Murphy revving up the crowd. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Bentley Historical Library (2009). Mike Murphy. University of Michigan. Retrieved December8, 2015.
University of Pennsylvania (circa 1912). Mike Murphy Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Wikipedia (2015). 1891 Michigan Wolverines Football Team. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
Chariots of Fire (1981). Theme from Chariots of Fire. Retrieved December 8, 2015.