Tonawanda News — Most people that walk in North Tonawanda sports circles know the name Tom Murphy.
The architect of the NT softball dynasty of the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, Murphy revolutionized the game in Western New York. Larry Lash, one of Murphy’s mentors and long-time coach at Wilson, said ‘T.K.’ Murphy was “the” coach in Section VI for many years.
“His teams were almost always the team to beat and the teams that no one wanted to play in Sectionals,” Lash said in an email. “He was one of the first coaches in our area to understand and utilize the short game and slap game. His teams forced you to change your defense and play the short game to perfection (defensively) if you had any chance to win. He just made everyone else better just to keep up and/or catch up.”
Murphy racked up 553 career wins at North Tonawanda, along with 14 Niagara Frontier League titles, nine Section VI Class A championships, three regional crowns and a state title in 1988. To celebrate his historic career, the New York State High School Hall of Fame will induct him as part of its 2013 class this afternoon in Herkimer.
In his time on the NT bench, Murphy characterized himself as a coach that was demanding and tough on his players. There were many reasons for his departure in 2009, the most prominent was the change in culture.
“I was so demanding and my feeling was that if you come out for this team you better make this a priority,” he said. “It’s No. 3 on your list — it’s family, it’s religion and (softball) is next. If you can’t do that there are so many other kids that want to be here, then go do other things. (Toward the end), I don’t think kids were willing to make that sacrifice anymore.”
Murphy is enjoying retirement, playing golf as much as he can, most of the time with his best friend and former NT assistant softball coach Edgy Skovenski.
Skovenski was as big a reason for NT’s success as anybody, Murphy said. They made the perfect team.
“I was such the disciplinarian and Edge was the good guy,” Murphy explained. “He’d say don’t listen to him he’s a jerk. … I think our philosophy has always been to give them the basics and the kids will improve. Give them the fundamentals and let them grow on their own. That’s basically what we did.”
Murphy thought that if the players practiced every situation 100 times, when it came game time, knowing what to do would be second nature.
“He taught so much basics that you could do the basics without thinking,” Skovenski said. “All the natural great things would happen because you didn’t have to think what to do, it was natural. … He was known for manufacturing runs. He bunted teams to death because he knew at a higher level we’d be playing teams that had pitchers with 12 or 14 strike outs against teams that were swinging away, and you have to score runs to win.”
Going into the NYS Hall of Fame with Murphy is his former star pitcher Kim Frizzell.
Murphy recalled a moment that illustrated most fittingly the result of his coaching style. In the final inning of a game against rival Niagara-Wheatfield at a field behind City Hall, Frizzell was on the mound and not having her best stuff. The Lady Jacks clung to a 5-3 lead and the bases were loaded.
“They hit a shot back to her and she pulls off a triple play,” Murphy said. “We’re out of the inning and we win the game. She doubled up at second and they had a run down (between first and second), and she came back into the run down and she threw to home. Those are the things we coached.”
Frizzell said Murphy and Skovenski were the perfect pair because they complemented each other so well in their approaches to the game and coaching styles.
“Murph was a very disciplined coach and he was tough on us, but it was for a reason. He wanted us to be good and he knew we could be good, and Edgy was sort of the yin to the yang of that situation. … I thought Murph was one of the best coaches and I can’t imagine my high school career with any other coach. He was so passionate about every part of the game; like nothing I have ever seen,” she said.
“There were first and third situations that we had nine different plays for. It was like he didn’t sleep at night. He just had so much passion for the game and he instilled that into us.”
No matter if it was his tough-love coaching style or pinching every penny to get the girls new uniforms or down South to play in tournaments, Murphy did everything for his players. He wanted them to get an education — his teams were annually part of the all NYS academic teams — on and off the field so that they would be ready to face the challenges in live that awaited them upon graduation.
Skovenski said that no matter where they go, former players always talk about how much they respected Murphy. Even if, at times, they hated him.
“He made kids accountable in every aspect of their lives in softball season and it spread to after softball season,” he said. “It made the kids accountable. He was tough but the kids respected him.”
When Murphy got the call that he’d be inducted, he was at a loss for words. He said it wasn’t about the accomplishments, but about the people he met along the way.
“I think the neatest thing was not so much the accomplishments or the awards you win, but the relationships you have,” Murphy said. “It was a family thing and anybody that became a part of the team was a part of the family. Those are the biggest things.
“The kids worked so hard. I really made them toe the line but I think it paid off in the fact that this is not my award. This is for every coach and person that did anything with this field or the program — this is their award. I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.