A Man for All Seasons
I was fortunate enough to know Bob Murphy for 49 years. We met back in 1968, when I was the wet-behind-the-ears Sports Editor of the Stanford Daily. Murph had been hired in 1964 by Stanford Athletic Director Chuck Taylor to "fill the stadium," no small task given Stanford's lamentable football teams of the late 1950s and early '60s. The Indians, as they were called back then, had won 17 games in the previous five years, low-lighted by an 0-10 season in 1960. There was a lot of growling among the alums and some serious conversation about Stanford dropping football. What was an Ivy League school doing playing in the Pac-8 against powerhouses like USC, UCLA and Washington, anyway?
Murph was undeterred. Hired as Manager of Athletic Relations, he immediately set out to "get out among 'em" and connect Stanford to the community. He spoke at every Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Club. He created a Junior Rooters program and a Family Plan ticket so that kids could attend Stanford football games. "They are the fans of tomorrow," he'd say. "We have to get them interested early." He developed "Family Football Day" in partnership with the local newspaper, an annual pre-season event where fans were invited down on the Stadium field to participate in drills with Stanford players and coaches. He started a breakfast booster group called the Council of Chiefs.
At the same time Murph was working his magic off the field, coach John Ralston was beginning to work his magic on the field. Brought in to resurrect the moribund football program, Ralston had struggled through four mediocre season before Athletic Director Chuck Taylor (a player on the 1941 Stanford Rose Bowl "Wow Boys" team and later coach of the '51 Rose Bowl team) made the not-so-gentle suggestion to start throwing the football. Ralston recruited a couple of local quarterbacks who could sling it--Jim Plunkett from San Jose's James Lick High School and Don Bunce from Woodside--and switched to a pro-style passing attack in '68.
Suddenly, Murph had something to sell in addition to discounts and community days. The Indians scored 68 points in Plunkett's first game and never looked back. By Plunkett's senior year, he was a legitimate Heisman candidate, but the media had practically awarded the trophy to Mississippi's Archie Manning before the season started. In those days, only one college football game a week was televised. Murph realized that because Plunkett didn't play for a recognized powerhouse and had received little national exposure, his only chance was to get Stanford on television early in the season. He also realized that we had to get Plunkett's accomplishments directly in front of the Heisman voters.
By then Murph had added the role of Sports Information Director after longtime SID Don Liebendorfer retired in '69, and I had left my jobs at the Stanford Daily and San Francisco Chronicle to work for Murph in the SID office. Though I was still a student, he gave me the title of assistant SID. I worked 25 hours a week for $100 a month.
But it was the experience of a lifetime. I was so privileged to watch the master promoter at work. Murph's success was built on relationships. Not the kind of electronic, email, Facebook friend-type relationships we have today. But real, eye-to-eye, play-18-holes-of golf-together, have-dinner-with-your-family type relationships. Murph knew everybody, and he knew everybody's name. He knew all of their kids' names, where they went to school and what sport they played. He built real relationships with people.
Those relationships paid off big for Plunkett. Murph convinced Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports, to televise Stanford's season-opening game with No. 3 ranked Arkansas. Plunkett had a great game and Stanford pulled off a 34-28 upset. He convinced broadcaster Tom Harmon, the legendary Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan, to give us the names and addresses of all the Heisman voters. Murph and I produced a four page brochure on Plunkett and sent it to every voter. It cost us $237 to produce.
Plunkett won in a landslide.
In addition to being a world-class publicist, Murph was a great athlete, golf tournament impressario, emcee, and broadcaster. He was a star pitcher at Stanford, leading his team to the 1953 College World Series, and later pitched for the Oakland Oaks. He co-founded the Memorial Tournament in Ohio with Jack Nicklaus and was later Director of the U.S. Open in San Francisco. He brilliantly emceed hundreds of awards banquets and dinners, including the Pebble Beach pro-am. He endeared himself to thousands of listeners as the radio voice of Stanford football and basketball for 40 years.
He was also one of the funniest people in the world. People have compared him to Don Rickles, because he used sarcasm. But he really wasn’t like Rickles, who was very mean-spirited. Murph was never mean. He was playful. He teased people and he kidded them.
He humanized great athletes and coaches. He made them more accessible. He connected them with the fans and the community. And he did so by making everyone laugh. That was his gift.
Murph passed away on August 22 in Santa Cruz. In sports and in life, he was a man for all seasons. He will be missed.