Looking back at Pat Murphy’s long road to the Brewers: ‘Everything else in my life, I kicked the door down to get it’

The longtime baseball coach and first-year MLB manager just might be the sport’s most interesting man

If you ask around about who Pat Murphy is, you might get 100 different answers. To some, he’s the first-year manager of the Milwaukee Brewers who finally got his shot in the big leagues. To others, he’s the longtime successful college baseball coach at Notre Dame and Arizona State, who even befriended Daniel Ruettiger, better known as simply “Rudy.”

And then, every once in a while, you get an answer you don’t expect.

“He’s Patches O’Houlihan from ‘Dodgeball,’” Brewers slugger Christian Yelich said with the biggest smile.

Yup, he’s referring to the fiery, wheelchair-bound dodgeball coach of Average Joe’s gym in the 2004 Vince Vaughn classic. Murphy even has an O’Houlihan jersey hanging in his office. It’s not just an inside joke — the Brewers’ skipper really does embody those characteristics. He’s fiery like a football coach, though he teaches like a longtime baseball coach.

So how did Murphy, who self-admittedly doesn’t have the big-league pedigree of some of his peers, become the man in charge of one of baseball’s hottest teams? Well, it has been a long journey full of twists and turns.

“I think it was just the relentless pursuit of something,” Murphy told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be special.”

There are many sides to Murphy. One of those is tough, gritty, confident — traits that were developed on Midler Avenue in his hometown of Syracuse, New York. There, in the early 1970s, you’d find the Syracuse Boxing Club, the city’s all-Black boxing gym, and a teenage Murphy.

In that gym, Murphy learned and developed a craft that provided him an outlet that playing high school baseball, football and basketball didn’t. Boxing also afforded him the opportunity to do something different, something most kids his age weren’t doing.

Training at the gym with some he described with a chuckle as “kids that really wanted to hurt me,” fear wasn’t something that would be helpful. But toughness, grit and confidence could thrive. And the more Murphy boxed, the better he got.

“I entered maybe three amateur tournaments, and I happened to win them all,” he said. “... I did have some opportunities to do a little bit more [in boxing] because I happened to win. But it was just another way for me to really express myself.”

Murphy, who still spars in the offseason, downplays his boxing prowess today, but clearly, he experienced some success and might’ve even had a chance to continue. But he always knew that baseball was his path. And he wasn’t the only one. Murphy’s boxing coach, Billy Harris, who founded the Syracuse Boxing Club, knew it, too.

“He called me over one day and said, ‘Murph, you train as hard as anybody. You're athletic. But this ain't for you, man,’” Murphy recalled. “‘You don't need to do this. You got so many opportunities in life. What are you doing?’”

After finishing high school, Murphy left New York to play baseball as a two-way player at Florida Atlantic before signing with the Giants in 1982 as a pitcher.

But while Murphy was chasing the dream of playing in the minor leagues, he started to hone in on another career path: coaching. After his second season of pro ball, he got his first coaching gig at Maryville College in Tennessee. He would spend his summers playing baseball and then coach both baseball and football before his next season in the minors.

He soon shot up the coaching ranks, starting at Maryville before he returned to FAU to join the team’s staff. For one season, he was even a player-manager for the Class-A Tri-Cities Triplets. He then became the head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (Div. III) for two seasons before he got the chance to be the head baseball coach at the University of Notre Dame at the age of 28.

When Murphy got to Notre Dame, despite it being one of the most iconic schools in college sports, the baseball program was in a rough spot. In the 12 years prior to Murphy’s hiring, the team had gone 245-269-3. Under Murphy, the Golden Domers thrived. During his seven-year run in South Bend, Notre Dame went 318-116-1, finishing first or second in the conference every year and making four appearances in the NCAA Regionals.

Perhaps more important, in Murphy’s second year at Notre Dame, he met two players who would be impactful in his life for decades to come. One was a wiry, 18-year-old shortstop out of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, by the name of Craig Counsell. The other, an infielder from Philly, was named Mike Rooney. None of them knew it then, but their time together wouldn’t end in South Bend; they would be linked for much longer than that.

“I would say he changed my life, without question,” Counsell, the future Brewers manager who would hire Murphy as his bench coach, told Yahoo Sports. “I've always said my mom and dad and Pat Murphy are the three biggest influences in my life. By far. Like, no one comes close.”

In 1995, Murphy was hired to be the head coach at Arizona State. He brought with him one of those Notre Dame players, Rooney, who served as an assistant coach on Murphy’s staff. Rooney, who was in the same class at Notre Dame as Counsell, has seen every side of his former coach turned colleague and friend, following the evolution that shaped who Murphy has become decades later.

“There is a leadership quality that he has that I'm not sure can be taught,” Rooney said. “When he walks in a room, people sit up straight. There's some presence there, charisma … And when we played for Murph, he was extremely challenging for us. Practices were really hard.”

During Murphy’s 15-year tenure in Tempe, ASU continued its long tradition as a perennial baseball powerhouse, making four College World Series appearances. In those years, several future big leaguers played under Murphy, including Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Mike Leake and Andre Ethier, as well as current Arizona State head coach Willie Bloomquist.

"I just think he makes players better, so you want that quality around," Cubs manager Craig Counsell said of Brewers manager Pat Murphy. (Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)
"I just think he makes players better, so you want that quality around," Cubs manager Craig Counsell said of Brewers manager Pat Murphy. (Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)

Like Rooney, Counsell also built a strong relationship with Murphy. And following the 2015 MLB season, he brought Murphy to Milwaukee to be his bench coach after Murphy had spent a few years in the Padres organization.

At the time, Counsell was entering his first full season as Brewers manager, and he wasn’t necessarily looking to be his former coach’s boss. But he needed someone he could trust who would be a sounding board as he navigated managing at the big-league level. The decision was a no-brainer.

“[Communication] is something that I didn’t know that I’d be good at that I knew he was good at,” Counsell said of Murphy’s impact. “He helped me with so much. But most importantly, I just think he makes players better, so you want that quality around.”

For the next eight seasons, the two stood side-by-side in the Brewers dugout, becoming an inseparable duo.

“Couns came [to Milwaukee] and was a leader in his own way, his own way of leadership,” Murphy said. “His decision-making, staying on point, his consistency — those three things. We're so different, but he taught me a lot. He let me stand next to him for eight years.

“I guess I was supposed to be mentoring him, but truly, he taught me the big-league game. He taught me so much by watching him and taught me how to be an assistant. And, really, what I would want out of an assistant.”

Murphy already had a wealth of knowledge from his various stops before joining the Brewers. Being able to learn as a bench coach in the big leagues and see things from a different perspective only added to the other intangibles he brought to the table.

“It's just intense,” Brewers shortstop Willy Adames said of Murphy’s approach. “The intensity that he always brings to the games and even practices — laughing, joking with the boys. We love that as a team.”

But if you talk to people around baseball about Murphy and who he is, there’s another common theme: That his ability to connect with people is one that is hard to duplicate. Even with the tough grittiness and brash demeanor, Murphy’s ability to relate is what stands out.

“He just has a unique way that he communicates with you,” Counsell said. “It’s so unique. I've never met anybody that's able to communicate like him. I don't think it’s just that we vibe — he does it with every player he comes in contact with. And it's a unique gift that impacts players. It's special.”

That has carried through every stop of Murphy’s career and the people he has come across, balancing with his intensity and competitiveness, and all of it has made him an invaluable presence for the Brewers.

“It's the old-school mentality of, like, when we played for Murph, when we coached with him, it was very challenging,” Rooney recalled. “He would set a very high standard that at times you felt was unreachable. And it was like there was no debate: ‘That's what we're doing. Figure it out.’

“But when I wasn't playing for him, and I wasn't coaching … his level of generosity was, you almost couldn't fathom it. My wife has MS. That's one of the reasons I left coaching, because of her health. And outside of our family, Murph is the single person that's been the most helpful with that challenge in our lives. Constantly going out of his way to ask: ‘How can I help? What do you need?’”

The Brewers experienced significant change for the first time in almost a decade this past offseason, when Counsell left Milwaukee after his contract expired, heading 90 minutes south to manage the Chicago Cubs. At the time, many believed Murphy would join him.

Instead, Milwaukee looked to a familiar face to lead the team into its next chapter, introducing Murphy as the organization’s 20th manager in November.

“I got the job and really didn't go after it,” Murphy said. “I didn't try to get it — for the first time in my life. Everything else in my life, I kicked the door down to get it, you know?”

Following Counsell’s departure and the trade of Corbin Burnes shortly before spring training, many expected the Brewers to take a step back this season. But they haven’t missed a beat. In the first season under Murphy, Milwaukee has led the National League Central for most of the first half, and in recent weeks, the Brewers, now 45-33, have stretched their lead to five games.

“I’m really starting to love it,” Murphy said recently of the job. “I don't think I have all the answers. But I just love watching guys believe, watching guys come into their own. To see a guy like Brice Turang walk to the plate with confidence, it chokes me up.

“We're [almost halfway] through the season. We haven't done anything yet. But I love this team. I know we were supposed to suck, but they've proven they don't suck. So I hope they know what makes them great: What makes them great is who they are and how they go about it.”

As a teenager, Murphy set out to be something special. Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you he succeeded. His style might be seen by some as tough love, but the way players respond to him should not be taken lightly. This season, Murphy has been getting the best out of his roster, and he seems more than prepared for the challenges ahead.

“Murph has always been very direct and blunt in how he provides feedback,” Rooney said. “And that has softened over the years as he's gotten older, but when we were playing for him, you were never wondering how it was going.

“But we also felt like, when we played other teams, we felt like we were already winning because Murph was in our dugout.”