In the early winter of 1992, I was the Associate Head Football Coach at San Francisco State University. All of the coaches were required to teach a class in the department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. One particular class was geared toward coaching football and several of us took part instructing various aspects of the syllabus. I shed light on the history of offensive football. I took the class through the evolution of the single-wing, wing-T, straight-T, wishbone, split-back veer, and run-n-shoot (the Tiger Ellison version and the Mouse Davis ideology).
Legendary SFSU Head Coach Vic Rowan had been forced into retirement two season’s previously but was still very much an influence on the Daly City campus. Coach Rowan would come to my class and pull up a seat in the back of the classroom. He would intently listen each session and as the class concluded would depart without a word. Coach Rowan provided the first college coaching opportunity to Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Holmgren, NFL coaches Andy Reid and Dirk Koetter to name a few and his presence in my classroom was quite frankly a bit disconcerting. It was obvious I was being evaluated but for what?
One day after class, Coach Rowan approached me and said, “let’s go get a cup of coffee”. I had established a great relationship with him as we would discuss football and life in private settings but we didn’t go get coffee on a regular basis. As we gathered our cups and found a table at an on campus coffee shop, Coach proceeded to tell me that he had been speaking with an old friend that is a general manager in the Canadian Football League. He advised me that if I received a call from the gentleman to accept his offer.
A week later as I was packing to fly to Colorado with our offensive staff to visit the staffs at the Air Force Academy and Colorado State University. The phone rang, “Hello Mike, this is Cal Murphy with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League. I understand you are flying into Denver tomorrow. There will be a ticket waiting there for you to transfer a flight to Winnipeg. I’ll pick you up at the airport. See you then”. It proved to be the most influential phone call of my life.
Cal picked me up as he said he would and provided me with a quick tour of the facility on 1465 Maroons Road, grabbed a bite at Finger’s restaurant (best club sandwich I ever had!), and dropped me off at the Viscount Gort Hotel in possession of a three-inch thick playbook with diagrams of twelve men, six in motion, and explanations of coverage I had never seen. I fell asleep with that playbook on my chest. My Winnipeg experience had begun.
The next morning I sat with Cal and he explained how he wanted a new staff with fresh ideas. His plan was to hire coaches without Canadian Football League experience. He was tired of conformed thinking. A new jolt of energy and thought was needed.
He walked me down the hallway to a vacant room. One wall had shelving with neatly enumerated beta cassette tapes from floor to ceiling. Urban Bowman, the only returning staff member, pulled Bomber game tape from the shelves and placed them on a table and returned to his office across the hall. I slipped the first beta cassette into the machine, watching for several hours without disturbance. I stuck my head out the door and no one was around so I returned to the darkened room and proceeded to view more tape. Six hours passed and finally, Cal came to door and we returned to his office.
I sat on an old, weathered, royal blue couch with stained arm rests while Coach Murphy sat behind a desk that was entirely to big and disproportionate with the room. Cal asked me a single question, “what did you see”? Little did I know that 16 years later I would be removing those same couches and desk to make that office my own.
I must have said the right things as I was hired along with Frank Spazziani (current Boston College head coach), Charlie Carpenter (who I would later hire as my line coach of the Bombers in 2009), and Ron Calcagni who had been serving as the inside receivers coach at the University of Houston. Later, Budgie Hamilton would join us from San Francisco State University. Cal had accomplished exactly what he set out to do, hire a staff with fresh eyes as to how to look at the CFL.
Our learning curve was very sharp and Cal would teach all phases of the game to us with Urban assisting with special teams and defense but I was learning offensive football completely from Cal. We would clinic all day and into the night. Beer and peanuts would conclude the evening. Getting to know each other, he and I played off of our Irish heritage, his mixed with German and mine with Hungarian just seemed to fit. He reminded me of my father. Tough, straight forward, no-nonsense but with compassion and caring for people. He thought I was mentally tough and told me so. He also recognized how much I wanted to learn the game and he made extra time for me.
We went to camp at Brandon University in Manitoba with great enthusiasm and desire to get the Bombers back on track after a 9-9 season in 1991. As a staff we were still far behind in our understanding of the finer points of the game. Player evaluation was also difficult for the new staff and often Cal would sit back in his chair, peanuts always by his side, listening to position coaches complain about the skill level of a player when Cal would begin to take his index finger and scroll on his own chest. He was drawing a “maple leaf”, the designation and emblematic symbol for a Canadian player. The all important “non-import” that will make or break your roster.
We would meet sometimes until 2 or 3:00 in the morning arising at 6:30 to start another grinding day. It was frustrating for Cal but he remained patient, forever the teacher. However, you could see it start to take it’s toll on his energy level and repeated mistakes or missteps were no longer being tolerated.
We played our first pre-season game in Regina, Saskatchewan against the arch rival (do people use that term anymore? It is still fitting for those two franchises!) Roughriders. A prairie storm blew through with tremendous lightning and hit a transformer blowing out a bank of lights delaying the game. Cal wanted me on the sidelines next to him so that we could converse face to face. I was invigorated. This was the most exciting experience in football I had to this stage of my career. Everything to me was perfect.
After the game we headed to the airport and sat in the Air Canada lounge laughing, talking about the game, about Cal teasing former Bomber Tyrone Jones and Tyrone taking his rath out on me and I didn’t even know who he was! We sat in that lounge drinking beer and eating peanuts. I was in pro football and I was learning from man that was held in the highest of esteem. Life couldn’t be better than this…
As we prepared for our second pre-season game in early July tragedy struck. Cal had another severe heart attack, a series of which started I believe, in his mid 40’s. Emergency by-pass surgery was performed and he was flown to London, Ontario. A heart transplant was required to save his life.
We had to pull together. Urban was named Interim Head Coach. Lyle Bauer who the previous year was the starting offensive center and was in his first half year as Assistant General Manager was moved into Acting GM. Urban would continue to coordinate the special teams but offensively and defensively it was to be handled by committee. We had our most important resource in Cal, removed. It was a devastating blow to all of us and the building was so somber. We adorned our helmets with red heart stickers on the back near the numbers and the coaches wore red heart pins on our game shirt collars. Somehow drinking a beer and eating peanuts at the end of the day wasn’t the same.
We struggled through the season and in early October were soundly beaten by the Eskimos in Edmonton. Our starting quarterback and now Canadian Football Hall of Famer, Matt Dunigan, injured his knee and would be out indefinitely. We were sitting at 6-7 and the previous 9-9 record didn’t look so bad anymore.
When I returned home in Winnipeg the phone rang. It was Cal calling from his hospital bed in London. The transplant had gone well and he was recovering nicely but still had a battle in front of him. He had watched the game on television and had seen enough. His strength was coming back and so was his sternness. “You take that offense and straighten it out”! bellowed from the other end of the phone. “Are you telling me I have the power to do what I think is needed”? I asked. “What the hell do you think I just said? Take it over”! was the response.
I went in that morning and both Urban and Lyle were already informed as to the conversation. I immediately took over the quarterbacks along with the receivers. Danny McManus would now be our starter and I was calling the plays. We would go on to win our last five regular season games finishing 11-7 and winning the division. Dunigan returned for the Eastern Final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and we won 59-11 and headed to the Grey Cup to face Doug Flutie and the Calgary Stampeders in Toronto. We lost the Championship Game that next week but Cal was in attendance. The pain of losing the game was deep but shallower than it could have been because Cal was well on the road to recovery.
We all took only half the play-off money and had our salaries reduced by 8% to aid the club’s bottom line. The community owned team was floundering financially and everyone had to do their part in order for it to survive. The coach I demoted was never replaced and for the next four years it was just me and a line coach with Cal stepping in to help with the running-backs during individual period. I never received another raise and none of the coaches I originally was hired with stayed for the remainder of Cal’s tenure which ended unceremoniously after the 1996 season in which we went 9-9.
Those years in-between were the best of my life. I was the offensive coordinator and Cal allowed me to grow and provided guidance but never interference. I did my job and Coach Murphy trusted me to do it. Cal holding court in the Presidential Suite in Ottawa or in another Air Canada lounge somewhere drinking a beer and eating peanuts, laughing…hard and loud, learning, maturing will forever be with me. Cal and I flying to Toronto to hide in the baseball press box of the SkyDome watching the Argonauts play the Calgary Stampeders and stealing Offensive Coordinator John Hufnagel’s signals before the play-offs began then returning to the hotel lounge to drink a beer and eat peanuts discussing what we saw, eventually helping the bar staff put the chairs up on the tables.
He taught me so much. Cal let me in on how to handle the operating budget, salary cap, negotiating contracts, evaluating players, building a roster, the importance of a cohesive locker room. He was set in his beliefs of media access and the limits of players using the club as a platform for their own personal gains. It was about being a Winnipeg Blue Bomber. About the importance of the Blue and Gold and never, ever the individual player. For Cal it was God, Family, and the Blue Bombers. He kept life simple. He was tough. He was intelligent. He was at times a pain in the ass. He was kind. He was caring. Next to my father, I learned more from him than any other man in my life.
I was with Coach Murphy nearly everyday for five straight years from February of 1992 to January of 1997. We went 54-36 in the regular season winning three divisional championships, made the play-offs all five seasons, and appeared in two Grey Cups. He always said the 14-4, 1993 team may be the best to never win the Championship.
He came to visit me when I became the Head Coach at Valdosta State University in 1997 as he was now with the Saskatchewan Roughriders providing me with more insight and we drank a beer and ate peanuts.
Cal passed away on February 18, 2012 at the age of 79. He got the most of that replacement heart but it was his soul that was so absolutely wonderful. I will keep most of my memories, particularly on the personal side for myself, and how he helped my family during difficult times and how he always stood by me and believed in me even when I know some of my actions frustrated him. Sometimes “Kindly Cal” wasn’t the most likeable but most true leaders aren’t because they are ones willing to make the most difficult decisions for the betterment of the whole and not always of the individual. Cal had foresight and vision like no other and frankly it scared people because they did not have the capacity to stand by their convictions like Mr. Murphy did.
I love Cal Murphy and for just one more time, I wish I could drink one more beer with him…and eat peanuts…