Billy J. Murphy, the former head football coach and athletic director for the University of Memphis for more than 30 years, died Thursday, February 21, at Trezevant Manor in Memphis, Tenn.
Murphy was one of the most respected figures in collegiate athletics, not just in the Mid-South but nationally, as well. Murphy built the athletics program at the University of Memphis, taking over a little known program in the late 1950s and molding that program into a national power before his retirement in the early 1980s.
His record as an assistant coach, head football coach and athletic director at then Memphis State University, has become known as one of the most outstanding performances in leadership in NCAA history. He served over 30 years in athletics which spanned his years as a player, a coach and an administrator and excelled at each endeavor that he undertook.
From the time he started playing sandlot football in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, through his high school days, Murphy was always known as, "that tough kid". In 1939 he left home and traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, for a tryout with Coach Allyn McKeen's Bulldog football team.
Making the squad, Murphy made it through his freshman season and was redshirted during his second season at Mississippi State. It was during this period of time that Murphy earned a nickname that would follow him throughout his career. Bulldog assistant coach Murray Warmath labeled Murphy "Speed-Spook", not because of his speed but because, according to Warmath..."he was extremely hard to hold on to."
In 1941, as a 168 pound tailback, Billy Jack Murphy came into his own and his actions on the football field earned him a unanimous spot on the Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference team. The 1942 season was a repeat performance for the offensive standout known as "Spook" and he was elected by his teammates as captain for the upcoming 1943 campaign, a season that would never be played.
Murphy joined the Marine Corps Reserve and was transferred to Duke University for training with the V-12 Program. While there he played one season and in his first two games accounted for 220 yards of total offense.
Except for an occasional service all-star game, Murphy's playing days were temporarily over. He was now a second lieutenant in a 105 mm Howitzer Battalion and handled the duties of a forward artillery observer stationed in the South Pacific. As on the football field in college, he performed heroically under fire.
Narrowly escaping with his life on at least four occasions, Murphy was decorated three times, receiving the Bronze Star, the Presidential Citation and the Navy Citation. Following victory in World War II but prior to his leaving the South Pacific, Murphy was selected to play in the first Navy-Day All-Star Football Game. With his selection, the former Bulldog letterman became a member of what one California newspaper called, "one of the greatest football teams ever assembled."
After his years of service in World War II, Murphy returned to Mississippi State where he picked up the pace he had set in 1942. He was captain of the 1946 Bulldogs and when the season came to a close, Murphy was able to look back and take pride in knowing that he had helped Mississippi State score 665 points and post a 24-5-1 record over a three-year span.
Shortly after receiving his degree from Mississippi State, Murphy entered the coaching profession and took his first job as an assistant coach under Ralph Hatley at Memphis State. He remained with the Tigers for five years before returning to the Bulldogs in 1951 under head coach Murray Warmath. When Warmath left Starkville, Miss., to become the head football coach at the University of Minnesota, Murphy went with him as running backs coach and worked with the Golden Gopher backs for four seasons. In the winter of 1957, he received a call from Memphis State Athletic Director C.C. Humphreys and accepted the position of head football coach on his 37th birthday. Thus began a new phase in the growing Murphy legend.
Murphy started his new position at Memphis State shortly after the close of the 1957 season. He knew a difficult job lay ahead but he took on the challenges just like he had with any other obstacle in his path. The next 14 years would prove his abilities as a leader of young men.
In 1958, Murphy took over a football program and built it into one of the finest in the nation. When he coached his final game for the Tigers, a victory in the 1971 Pasadena Bowl, his record stood at an amazing 91-44-1, ranking Murphy 11th in the nation among active coaches in won-loss record and 15th in wins.
He had taken a football program from obscurity to prominence, from minor to major college and from respect to envy by opponents. His accomplishments included major college status in 1960, the first win by a Memphis State team over a Southeastern Conference opponent, ironically it was his alma mater, Mississippi State University; the first win by a Tiger team over Ole Miss; the first invitation to and win in a major bowl game; the first undefeated major team in Memphis football history; the first recognition of major college All-American players who received first-team honors; the first sellout football game at Liberty Bowl Stadium, with many more to follow, the development of full-time training facilities on the Memphis campus and much more.
Murphy made winning a tradition at Memphis State. As the Tigers' name and reputation grew, Murphy upgraded the football schedule from small-college opponents to the likes of Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida State, Mississippi State, Houston, Kansas State, Virginia Tech and South Carolina.
In 1966, Murphy took on the added duties of athletics director, succeeding Dr. C.C. Humphreys who had become the University's President. He kept the dual role until 1972, when he left the coaching profession to devote all of his energies to the administration of a rapidly growing athletic department.
When Murphy came to Memphis State in 1958, the entire athletic budget was $150,000 annually. As athletic director he took over a budget of $2.5 million, making MSU one of the fastest growing athletic departments in the nation. Under his tutelage, Memphis State began a tradition of sending teams and individuals to NCAA championship events in every sport. Football and basketball developed rapidly as did baseball, track, golf, tennis and gymnastics.
Through his leadership and hard work, Memphis State was a leader in formulating one of the outstanding conferences in the nation - the Metro Conference, which included Memphis State, Cincinnati, Louisville, Saint Louis, Tulane, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Virginia Tech.
With Murphy at the helm, Memphis State continued to build some of the finest facilities in collegiate sports. New athletic dormitories, a multimillion dollar sports complex, complete with both indoor and outdoor practice fields, Nat Buring Baseball Stadium, a new artificial turf track and a golf practice area were but a few of his permanent accomplishments. Ticket sales increased in every sport and the athletic department operated in the black for over 20 years.
Through the years, Murphy's work has not gone unnoticed. He has received various awards which are too numerous to list. Some of the more noteworthy honors included his being named the National Coach of the Year by the Detroit News in 1963, the National In-Print Award in 1963, inductee into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, induction into the Mississippi State Hall of Fame in 1977 and induction into the University of Memphis M Club Hall of Fame in 1982. Murphy was named the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year three times in the 1960s. He received the 18th annual Citizenship Award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Memphis Civitan Award in 1963 and was awarded the Distinguished American Award from the American Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame in 1976.
Murphy, born January 13, 1921, was married to the late Elizabeth Parrish of Starkville, Miss., and the coupled had two children, son Michael and daughter Libby.