COACHING AT THE TOP OF THE HEAP
By Michael Bradley
Mike Murphy is checking in from out West, on a pre-season vacation that would end in Jackson Hole.
“The Main Line of Wyoming,” he says, laughing.
Twenty years ago, Murphy wouldn’t have referred to the resort town that way. In fact, he probably didn’t know much about the Main Line, other than it was quite a haul from his high school in Quakertown. He had spent part of his time in Northeast Philly, living the Catholic League life. Then, he headed north and became familiar with the Bux-Mont and Suburban One leagues.
“Joining the Inter-Ac was a new experience for me,” he says.
After five years as an assistant at Episcopal and eight years directing Haverford’s program, Murphy knows plenty about the league – and is happy to be a part of it. He may not be a nostalgic guy at heart, but he couldn’t possibly look past the league’s overwhelming history.
“The thing that struck me was the tradition,” he says. “The fact that you are talking about some schools that have played each other over 100 times, and you hear about some of the players that have come out of the league and how when the Ivies were powerhouses, the Inter-Ac fueled them, and it’s pretty remarkable.”
It’s interesting to consider that the guy who was introduced to the league for the first time when he first stepped onto one of its members’ campuses now refers to himself – along with Springside-Chestnut Hill’s Rick Knox – as the “old guard.” One of the things that Murphy enjoys is the sense of spirit the league’s coaches feel. Even though they thirst to beat each other on Autumn Saturdays, their on-field animus doesn’t often continue after the scoreboard clock expires.
It’s much like the climate that prevailed in the early 1970s, when Haverford’s Mike Mayock, Malvern’s Shark McGuinn, Germantown Academy’s Jack Turner, Penn Charter’s Hench Murray and Episcopal’s Dick Borkowski and Jim Auch reveled in their special fraternity.
“Having guys who have been at some different schools creates a sense of camaraderie,” Murphy says. We may not be as close as some have been in the past, because there has been an infusion of new blood on the sidelines.
“But we definitely get along.”
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Here are the league’s other coaches’ Inter-Ac stories.
School Spirit: Fans checking out the field hockey game during last year’s Germantown Academy-Penn Charter Day were probably surprised to see who was keeping track of penalty corners and bullies.
Even though his team would be taking to the gridiron in a couple hours, GA head football coach Matt Dence was cheering on the Patriots.
“I got a lot of weird looks,” Dence says. “We might get a little absorbed in ourselves, but we are not the only team that matters. If I can show I care about the other teams at the school, I want to do that.
“It was really cool.”
Dence may have graduated from Father Judge in 1994 and not have arrived at GA until 2012, but he has become an Inter-Ac guy pretty quickly. He loves the league’s Ivy League atmosphere, is a big fan of the quality education and is impressed by the traditions.
It wasn’t always that way. When he played at Judge, the Crusaders would scrimmage Chestnut Hill, and the “kid from Mayfair” considered the CHA players “rich, spoiled kids.”
Now that he’s at GA, Dence sees things much differently. Before taking over the Patriot program, he coached at several colleges, including Yale, Amherst, Georgetown and Bates. Working through a lineup like that can make a guy appreciate a league like the Inter-Ac. “When I have kids, I don’t want to send them anywhere else besides GA,” he says. “They will get great advantages in life.”
While Dence has his family’s future worked out, he has to pay close attention to GA’s present. The Patriots have struggled in recent years, and Dence is charged with turning things around. He is cheered by an increase in numbers and aims to return the school to the days when its top coaches ruled the sidelines.
“It’s humbling to be at a place where [championship coaches like] Jim Turner, Michael Turner and Bill Caum were,” Dence says. “They were some really good football coaches.”
Brain Power: Every year when Rick Knox puts together his defensive lineup, he looks for a couple of players capable of seeing things develop on the field as quickly as he does. Without fail, he succeeds.
“I always have a couple players who can recognize the [opposing] offensive formation and get us into the defense we need to be in,” Knox says. “They do it just about as fast as I do, and they are able to remind their teammates of the plays they need to be ready for.
“I have some kids who are bright football minds.”
Knox, the head coach at Springside-Chestnut Hill Academy, is a 1992 graduate of the school and has also been the head coach at Episcopal. He understands that expecting his players to bring that kind of awareness to the field is hardly too demanding for them. To him, comparing the Inter-Ac to the Ivy League makes perfect sense. “There is an Ivy vibe, no doubt about it,” he says.
Since Knox is an Inter-Ac grad, he has a unique perspective on the league and its history. He reminds his players of those who preceded them at CHA, but he also can inform them about the broader view of Inter-Ac football, its tradition and the fact that it goes back more than a century.
“We have teams that have been playing each other for 125 years,” he says, referring to the Germantown Academy-Penn Charter game, which started in 1887.
More than anything, Knox understands the caliber of play in the league. Like most coaches, he understands that depth and numbers are issues, but appreciates that the coaches in the league push each other to get better and force teams to improve or spend several seasons looking up at the champions. The Inter-Ac may not be like other confederations in the area, but it should celebrate its unique approach.
“A lot of times, other schools knock us, because we don’t have playoffs,” Knox says. “But every game in the league is a playoff.
“There is a different intensity than other places.”
The Education: When Todd Fairlie took a look at the schedule during his first year as an assistant at Episcopal, in 2009, he couldn’t believe it. The man who played every Friday night while at Marple-Newtown saw only three games under the light on the Churchmen’s slate.
“It was mind blowing,” Fairlie admits.
Now entering his third year as head man at EA, Fairlie has learned plenty about the Inter-Ac way. And it was some education for a guy who admits whatever he learned about high school football in the area came from the Delaware County Daily Times. And back when he went to Marple-Newtown (Fairlie graduated in 2002), Episcopal was still in Montgomery County, so…
“Honestly, I didn’t know much about the Inter-Ac in terms of football,” Fairlie admits. “But I played a lot of lacrosse, and I knew the Inter-Ac guys from that.”
During his four years in the league, Fairlie has learned a lot about its gridiron success and talent. He had quite a crash course, considering the ’09 contest between EA and Haverford was the 100th in the schools’ long rivalry.
“Everybody was talking about how big Episcopal-Haverford Day was, but I had no idea,” Fairlie says. “Seeing it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe so many people showed up to see us play.”
Fairlie has put his lessons to good use, as last year’s undefeated, league title season proved. He recalls speaking to Fords coach Mike Murphy the week of the game, which pitted a pair of teams bidding for perfect Inter-Ac campaigns and saying, “We should try to do this every year.”
You can bet Murphy seconded that, with a caveat that the final outcome would be different. But bringing the season down to its final weekend, with two ancient rivals smashing pads against each other is the perfect ending to a season that no tournament can match. That’s Inter-Ac football, and despite his recent exposure to it, Fairlie understands its allure completely.
“What humbles us is looking back at all the records and all the years we have played,” Fairlie says. To be part of that and then last year to make history is surreal. The people who came before us did great things. To know our team did something special is great.”
Back For More: Even though Tommy Coyle has spent 26 years coaching high school football, he is becoming ever more a patron of the arts. This past spring, you would have found him settled into a seat in Penn Charter’s theater, watching the school’s production of “Seussical.” While Coyle may be a true renaissance man for whom musicals are a passion, his primary mission for that particular show was a little more personal.
His daughter, Ava, was part of the cast. She and the Coyles’ son, Quinn, are students at Penn Charter and prove just how much he and his wife believe in the Inter-Ac experience.
“As parents, we believe in what Penn Charter has to offer,” Coyle says. “It’s a wonderful experience for the kids to share in the cultural and artistic opportunities that are offered by the school.”
Coyle returns to East Falls this year to begin his tenure as head coach after spending 13 seasons at Father Judge, his alma mater (1987). Prior to directing the Crusaders, Coyle had a 13-year tenure at PC as an assistant. And it was there that the young man from Mayfair learned about the league and the Penn Charter tradition.
He began as a part of Bill Gallagher’s staff and also served under Brian McCloskey, who will be one of Coyle’s assistants. When he took the job, Coyle received a congratulatory e-mail from Ed Zubrow, who coached the Quakers from 1978-80 and was also an assistant on Mike Mayock’s Haverford staff in the mid-1970s.
“The opportunity to work at the school again is something that’s very humbling for me,” Coyle says. “I loved my time at Father Judge, and the chance to succeed there was great. I have coached 26 years of high school football and to be in tradition-rich places like Father Judge and Penn Charter has been great.”
And the plays have been solid, also – on and off the field.
The Legacy: Other Inter-Ac coaches may be tied closely to their schools, but none has a stronger bond than Kevin Pellegrini. He was six in 1978, when his father, Gamp, took over at Malvern. Since then Pellegrini has seen the Friars as a fan, a player an assistant and for the last four seasons, the head man. That’s a pretty strong attachment.
And a lot of success. Gamp Pellegrini’s teams won or shared 20 Inter-Ac titles during his 31 years on the job. Kevin played on two of those squads and has won two championships (outright in 2011) during his tenure.
“It’s awesome to have been part of this as a player, an assistant and now as head coach,” Pellegrini says. “My job is to keep this going. Deep down, that’s what drives me, along with wanting to do my best.”
One thing that he has seen during that time is the caliber of players throughout the league. There may not be as many of them as there are at other schools, but Pellegrini has been impressed throughout his association with Malvern and the league with the top of the line performers. Even if many of them have to play both ways, they have done more than just stand up to the opposition, no matter how stout it may be.
“It’s something of a double-edged sword,” Pellegrini says. “Over the years, Inter-Ac teams have won games because of their lack of depth, since some of the better guys have played both ways and have been game-changers.
“Those teams have earned victories against teams that on paper look better or on the sidelines look huge.”
That ability, coupled with the Inter-Ac’s tradition and history, makes coaching in the league worthwhile for Pellegrini. That and his family connection. Think about it this way: If the Pellegrini family hadn’t been living in West Chester in the 1970s, Gamp may not have left St. Joseph’s Prep for Malvern when it came time to replace Shark McGuinn. That geographical quirk made for some pretty good Friar football. And added to Inter-Ac lore.
“Just thinking about the Inter-Ac’s place in history is pretty great,” Pellegrini says. “You have some teams playing just about as long as there has been high school football in America. It’s great to be part of that tradition.”