End of an Era at Masuk: John Murphy steps down

Masuk coach John Murphy holds up the championship trophy after his team won the Class L football championship at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on December 11, 2010.

John Murphy, the most successful coach in Masuk and SWC football history, is calling it a career at football program he turned into a state powerhouse.

Murphy’s name annually comes up as a candidate to coach elsewhere. Yet he spent 15 years in Monroe, won 159 games, six SWC championships and three state championships.

This time it’s for real.

He informed the team of his decision after school Tuesday afternoon.

“This is what best for me and my family,” said Murphy, 45. “I think I’ve done everything I can do here. There are things up here that I can’t control, things that don’t see changing and after 16 years of a lot of memories, I think it’s time to see if there are other opportunities.”

A 1985 St. Joseph graduate who played for Christy Hayes in the 1980s, Murphy spent five years with Bob Zito at Newtown and helped that program win three league titles and two state championships from 1991-1996.

In 1997, Masuk athletic director Dave Strong brought the 29-year old down Route 34 to take over the rival program from departing coach Dave Dunn in 1997, a mere season after the Panthers played in the Class L semifinals.

“Dave Strong gave me a chance,” Murphy said. “And I’ll always appreciative for that. It worked out perfect.”

Though Masuk had been to the state playoffs the year before, winning just didn’t happen all that often. When Murphy asked in his first meeting with the team if the starters could raise their hands, “Only one hand went up,” Murphy said. “And I said to myself, Oh boy.”

“I’d been at St. Joseph where we won a bunch of titles, we won one in baseball, and then we won a few at Newtown,” Murphy said. “And I told them in that meeting that only goal was the state championship. They kinda looked around at me like I was nuts.”

Admittedly, Murphy might have went a tad overboard his first year. He conducted relatively long, four-hour practices  Masuk went 6-5 in his first campaign.

Murphy watches his team perform during the 2011 season. He stepped down as the teams football coach Tuesday.

“I was just a kid,” he said. “I thought I knew everything. Turns out I knew nothing.”

But the next season, Murphy took the school to new heights.

Masuk won the SWC championship and upset Fitch 18-12 in the Class L championship game, the school’s first state title. Before playing the Falcons, one Fitch captain told Connecticut Post’s David Agostino he couldn’t find Monroe if he drove through it.”

“That was such a magical night,” Murphy said. “The kids bought into it. We had a great offseason. I keep in touch with all of those guys. They were a special team.”

Thus began a run of dominance unmatched by any SWC program during his tenure and topped by only a handful of state programs. Of active state coaches, only Ansonia’s Tom Brockett and Middletown’s Sal Morello win more often than Murphy has.

Masuk became known for its aggressive style and its confident, often brash demeanor that rankled some opponents.

Others, like Bunnell’s Craig Bruno, said Murphy’s Masuk teams made the SWC league better.

“He was absolutely a class act who was an incredible football coach,” said Bruno, whose program had the most success against Masuk over the years. “He will be missed greatly by Masuk, by the community of Monroe. I enjoyed competing against his teams. They were always prepared. They always played hard.”

The formula worked. Masuk went 158-33-1 and reached the state playoffs 12 times in 16 years. His teams won six SWC championships and three state championships in seven appearances.

Strictly a Wing-T team in his early seasons (the offense he coached at St. Joseph and Newtown), Masuk was one of the first Connecticut to embrace a strictly spread offensive philosophy. Murphy installed it not long after losing to Jude Kelly and pass-happy Southington 48-41 in the 1999 Class LL semifinals.

“Offensively, that took on as much of my personality as anything,” Murphy said. “The first time laid eyes on it. I said to myself, ‘That’s where we’re headed. That’s what we needed to get to.’ We wanted to get out and score quick and and put ball in the air.

“When Southington beat us in 1999, I was sold from that point on. We took it and ran from there. It kind of did take on my personality. I’d rather score in two plays, rather than a 15-plays clock-eating drive. I wanted to make it fun. You put in so much hard work if you don’t have fun, what are you doing?”

Masuk certainly had fun. His teams never had a losing season and won 10 or more games 10 times. Murphy’s worst records was 6-5, his first season.

Yet, after 1998, it took awhile for Murphy to win his second title. Masuk lost four consecutive championships in 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2007 before finally breaking the spell in 2008 when it crushed Newington 56-13 in the Class L final.

“To finally get that one in 08, for me, was a giant relief,” Murphy said. “We used all of those other losses to teach the kids to keep working. that your hard work will eventually pay off.”

John Murphy sits atop scaffolding and watches his offense in action during a practice in August. Murphy established Masuk as a state powerhouse, winning 158 games and three state titles in 16 years.

Murphy’s best season was one of his last.

A year after missing the 2009 playoffs at 9-2, Masuk returned with a vengeance in 2010 behind two-time Gatorade Player of the Year and quarterback Casey Cochran, who had transferred in the season before, and an talented, established upperclass that included WR/DB Jon Testani, WR Joe Diaz, RB Colin Markus, DE Jeff Wright and LB Shawn Flynn.

Masuk went 13-0, the schools first unbeaten season, tying school records for wins and setting records for points scored and points allowed. Masuk hammered every team in its path, including Newtown and FCIAC champion Darien and New Canaan, en route to a Class L championship.

Masuk defeated four-time defending champion New Canaan 50-20 in the Class L championship game. It was edged for No. 1 in the final state writers’ poll by Xavier.

“I think that (championship) over a storied program like New Canaan finally said we’re as legit as anyone else,” Murphy said.

Masuk went 22-3 in Murphy’s final two seasons, losing to Hand in the Class L semifinals in back-to-back seasons.

Murphy coached at St. Joseph in the late 1980s. In 1991 he joined Bob Zito’s new staff at Newtown and helped the Indians win three league titles and one state championships in 1992.

“I love the school so much,” Murphy said. “I’ve built a lot of great relationships and a lot of great people have helped over the years. It’s always been, to me, about proving something and, for these guys, I would tell them from beginning this is supposed to be fun, most fun you can have is go out and win.”

Now, he says, it’s time to move on.

“In the past, I’d always be looking for other jobs and now I just know this is the right time to see other opportunities elsewhere, other coaching jobs,” Murphy said. “I still have a great passion, a great love of coaching and love of game. I still get excited on game day and I still love going to practice and watching film. We’ll see if another opportunity comes up.”

Sean Patrick Bowley