Murphy’s dream 13 years on; program began from nothing

Adrienne Burch

There were two outs in the top of the seventh inning. The fans sat on the edge of their seats awaiting the final pitch as history hung in the air. The familiar thud of ball hitting mitt could be heard across Hall of Fame stadium, across the nation.

They finished it.

Last June, The University of Alabama softball team won its first national championship. They became the first SEC school to take home the biggest prize in college softball and accomplished what most little girls dream about from the first time they set foot on that red dirt.

This championship victory was the best possible conclusion to a grueling five-month-long season. But for one man it was much more than icing on the cake. It was the culmination of a 13-year-long dream, a dream filled with glorious victories and heartbreaking losses, a dream narrated by a first-class, hall-of-fame coach who built a program from the ground up. It’s that kind of dream from which you never want to wake up.

No Uniforms, No Field, and No Tradition

Patrick Murphy has been here since the beginning of Alabama softball. From inception to championship, he has seen it all. His accomplishments speak for themselves: an overall record of 744-198, a national championship, eight Women’s College World Series berths, four SEC titles, 14 straight NCAA Tournament bids. He has coached 12 Academic All-Americans, 152 All-SEC Academic selections, and 78 All-SEC performers. And as if all this is not enough, it was announced last weekend Murphy will be inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

But all of these accomplishments started on a smaller scale, 13 seasons ago on a softball field at Sokol Park in Tuscaloosa.

Murphy’s coaching tenure at Alabama began in 1996 as an assistant to head coach Kalum Haack during the Tides’ first two seasons as a program. The first year they played at Tuscaloosa’s Sokol Park and averaged about 50 fans per game. After two years, Haack resigned for personal reasons, and Murphy was named the head coach on July 12, 1998.

“We had no uniforms, no field and no tradition,” Murphy said.

But one thing they did do was win.

Murphy’s first season as head coach, All-SEC slugger Kelly Kretschman led the Tide to its first NCAA tournament bid, losing to No.1 UCLA and No. 23 Missouri in the Los Angeles Regional.

Tommy Deas, executive sports editor at the Tuscaloosa News, has covered the team from its start at Sokol. He said in its early seasons, Alabama established itself as a hitting team.

“They were exciting because they hit the ball,” he said. “They showed up on Easton posters along with teams like Cal and UCLA in just a few years because of their hitting.”

With Kretshcman and a homegrown Tuscaloosa County High School graduate Ginger Jones leading the way, Alabama made its first appearance in the Women’s College World Series during Murphy’s second season. They boasted a school-best 66-14 record and finished ranked in the top 10 for the first time in program history.

The House that Murphy Built

With successful seasons and a determined head coach, it did not take long for the construction of a first-class softball facility. In 1999, construction began on Rhoads Stadium, which still stands as the largest softball facility in the SEC.

“I would drive down McFarland Boulevard everyday going 5 miles per hour, almost causing an accident, trying to see what progress they had made on the field,” Murphy said.

Rhoads was completed in time for the 2000 season. The Alabama softball team and fan faithful finally had a place to call home. Additions have been made to the complex throughout the years, including a state-of-the-art hitting facility added in early 2011.

Deas gives credit to Murphy for Alabama’s top-notch facilities.

“He built it all by himself,” he said. “Every improvement from the Brickyard to the indoor hitting facility, he has raised the money.”

Alabama has consistently sold out the grandstands with season ticket holders for several years running. They set the NCAA single day attendance record with a combined double-header crowd of 6,259 fans during a 2011 double header against in-state rival Auburn. Rhoads also holds national attendance records for both the NCAA Regional and Super Regional.

However, the fans haven’t always been packing out Rhoads stadium every weekend. Murphy said during the early days of Alabama’s fast pitch softball program, no one in Alabama really even knew what the sport was, and all of the high schools in the state still played slow-pitch.

He recalled one time when he took a few pitchers to an Alabama basketball game, and they threw several pitches during a two-minute timeout.

“The whole crowd thought it was going to be a slow-pitch,” Murphy said. “But when the ball hit the mitt 15,000 people in unison went ‘Wow.’”

The people of Tuscaloosa had to be introduced to fastpitch softball, but once they began to understand the game – and Alabama kept winning – the sport caught on like wildfire.

Cassie Reilly-Boccia, former first baseman for the Tide, said when she arrived in Tuscaloosa as a freshmen in 2009, they were lucky if they had a thousand fans at a game.

“All of the sudden, the norm was 2,500,” she said. “Then in just four years it was close to 4,000. The number of fans just exponentially increased. I remember thinking this can only be happening here, only at Alabama.”

Much of the credit for this growth in fanbase can be given to Murphy himself.

“We call it the house that Murphy built,” Reilly-Boccia said.

Murphy is a master at growing a program, said Emily Pitek Clifford, recent inductee to ESPN’s Hall of Fans for her dedication to the Crimson Tide softball team.

“From the girls hand delivering tickets to season ticket holders to making them stay for an hour to sign autographs after a game, Murphy makes sure everyone walking in the gate feels welcome,” Pitek said. “This is what keeps bringing people back.”

Great Things Will Happen

However, from the program’s first couple of years at Sokal Park, it has been about much more than lots of fans and first-class stadiums for Coach Murphy. It has been about the people, or rather the family.

“There are a lot of coaches who make it all about them or winning and losing, but with Murph it is much bigger than that,” Pitek said.

For Reilly-Boccia, coming to The University of Alabama meant leaving her New York City home and placing thousands of miles between her and her family, but she said Alabama was the only place she knew she wouldn’t feel away from home.

“You know that feeling you get when come back home for a holiday, that family feeling, that strong bond? I had that at Alabama,” she said.

Murphy said he knows the people who have surrounded him during his career at Alabama have been essential to the program’s success. One of these people for Coach Murphy has been his assistant coach Alyson Habetz, who has been with him from the beginning.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said.

Reilly-Boccia said she feels lucky enough to have played for Coach Murphy, but to have Habetz as well.

“How lucky can you be?” she said.

Murphy said he lives by the saying, “surround yourself with good people, and good things will happen.”

“But I like to take it a step further and say surround yourself with great people, and great things will happen,” he said.

And great things did happen.

They finished it last June taking home the national championship, and Murphy is headed for the hall of fame. But, when asked about the program’s future, Murphy points to a saying on the wall in the team’s locker room.

It reads, “Tradition Never Graduates.”

“We’re not going to stop here,” he said.