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Fords' rebuilding job model for others

Posted Friday, September 11, 2009 by John Lohn - Delaware County Times

When Michael Murphy took the reins at The Haverford School in 2005, he wasn’t only accepting the position of head football coach. Murphy, too, was thrust into an unofficial salesman’s position, and charged with convincing the Haverford School community that a turnaround was possible for a program that was a doormat in the Inter-Ac League.

In the decade before Murphy was hired by the Main Line school, Haverford had compiled a 29-61 record. He was also inheriting a program that had not won an Inter-Ac League game in three years and had gone through seven winless league seasons over a nine-year stretch.

Clearly, Murphy had considerable work to do. His first task was developing a positive mentality, and ridding the program of the stigma that Haverford School football was a laughingstock, considered an automatic win. His second objective was to lure quality talent to Lancaster Avenue, players with enough ability to help the Fords climb the Inter-Ac ladder.

“The biggest challenge was convincing our players that we could win,” said Murphy, a graduate of Quakertown High School. “They were coming off a string of tough years. Really, it was a double-convincing job. We had to get the kids already in the program to believe we could turn things around. And we had to convince kids looking at schools that if they came to The Haverford School, they could have a good football experience.”

A look at the football programs in Delaware County provides proof that success typically sustains itself. A program like Ridley, which has gone more than half a century without a losing season, is built heavily on tradition. The players at Interboro expect to win on a weekly basis, and feel an obligation to maintain the Bucs’ run of 11 consecutive Del Val League crowns.

Taking a losing program and changing its mindset into that of a winner, however, is a much more difficult chore. History can’t be used as motivation, and eliminating doubt as to whether a change is possible is not easy.

Any thought of an overnight reversal would have been foolish on Murphy’s part. Not surprising, his first two years were struggles, a 3-7 campaign followed by a 1-10 effort.

But as Murphy’s grip on the program became stronger, he began to see strides on a weekly basis.

There was year-round dedication to the weight room and on weekends during the season, the results improved. His third season ended with four wins. Last fall, a major breakthrough was realized when the Fords went 7-3 and finished in a tie for second in the Inter-Ac League.

Last weekend, as this 2009 season kicked off, the Fords’ momentum continued. Behind a strong defensive performance, The Haverford School claimed a 13-6 win over Valley Forge Military Academy. The Fords, who haven’t won an Inter-Ac crown since 1971, will try to keep their roll going Saturday during a visit to the McDonogh School in Maryland.

Part of Murphy’s success has been the result of an attitude change. An equally important aspect has been his ability to attract greater talent through his salesman’s skills. After last season, Murphy sent quarterback Dan Judge to Richmond and linebacker Shomari Watts to Rhode Island. This year’s team also features a Division I recruit, with linebacker Wyatt Benson committed to Temple.

“From a program standpoint, I can pinpoint when everything really turned. I hate to use a loss as an example, but it was last year’s game with (Cardinal) O’Hara,” said Murphy, referring to a 7-0 Fords loss to the traditionally powerful Lions. “People thought we were crazy for scheduling that game. But our kids felt they belonged out there and could win that game.”

What Murphy has done can be used as inspiration at Monsignor Bonner, where Tom Oropeza is trying to resuscitate the program at his alma mater.

In his third year guiding the Friars, Oropeza is seeing progress in a program that was arguably the biggest mess in Delco from 2004-07.

Coming off a winless 2006, the Friars started the 2007 season amid chaos when coach Jim Burner, due to differences with the administration, was fired two days into training camp.

In stepped Oropeza, and while his first year resulted in another winless campaign, he began to instill discipline and propelled the Friars to four wins last year. Then they opened this season with a win over Upper Darby, the first time Bonner has been 1-0 since 2004.

“Our focus when we took over was to hold the kids accountable to themselves and the program,” Oropeza said. “We weren’t going to run a program where the kids were coming and going. We were going to work hard and make sacrifices. After that first season, we decided raise the offseason demands and weed some people out. Instead, we saw the kids rally around each other. They want to change the way it’s been.”

It can be done. Ask Michael Murphy.

To contact Deputy Sports Editor John Lohn, e-mail him at jlohn@delcotimes.com.

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