Many Mississippians will remember colorful Ed Murphy from his basketball coaching days at Delta State (1983-1986) and Ole Miss (1986-1992). He was a tall, husky, friendly Irishman with a booming voice and a sharp, often self-deprecating wit. Murphy died Sunday in Carrollton, Georgia, after an extended illness. He was 78.
At Delta State, he beat out Hall of Fame Alcorn coach Davey Whitney for the services of future Hall of Famer Gerald Glass, who set records at DSU and then followed Murphy to Ole Miss where he was All-SEC. At Delta State, Murphy decided not to recruit future All-SEC point guard Roderick Barnes out of Satartia, but then inherited him at Ole Miss.
And this quote from Murphy about Barnes will tell you much about Murphy and his wit.
“Shows how much I know,” Murphy said. “I looked at Rod’s pipestem arms and legs and didn’t think he was good enough to help me at Delta State, and now he plays for me at Ole Miss and he’s the best point guard in the SEC. Yeah, I am a genius.”
Barnes, you should know, followed Rob Evans as head coach at Ole Miss. We could go on and on about all the ways Murphy is entwined in Mississippi basketball history. You should also know that despite his losing record at Ole Miss, he was a really good basketball coach. He won championships at West Alabama, Delta State and West Georgia. His 399 victories in the Gulf South Conference are an all-time record. At Division II Delta State, he took his team to Starkville and defeated Bob Boyd and Mississippi State. It happened. You could look it all up.
Often, the relationships between coaches and the sports writers who cover them become, by nature, adversarial. The writers must write what happens – the good, bad and ugly. Murph – which was what his friends called him – understood that. We always got along. I enjoyed his company. How could you not?
Once, we went trout fishing with Turk off the Gulf Coast. Somebody had iced down a case of beer. Said Murph: “This is great, but I don’t know what you other two are going to drink.”
We had fair warning.
Once, his Ole Miss team was locked into a titanic struggle with Mississippi State in Starkville. Ole Miss led by two points. The ball went into State’s Cameron Burns, who was fouled. Burns, who had missed most of his free throws that day, went to the line to shoot two. Murphy took three or four steps toward the State bench and got Richard Williams’ attention. “You know he’s going to make these, don’t you,” he told Williams.
Burns made both, sending the game into overtime. State won.
Said Murphy later, “Sometimes, you just know.”
One of his key players, maybe Joe Harvell, was hobbled going into the SEC Tournament one year. Someone asked Murph: What will you do if he can’t play?
Responded Murph: “I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it.”
He coached at Ole Miss during a time when the SEC basketball coaching roster was filled with colorful personalities. You had Wimp Sanderson at Alabama, Sonny Smith at Auburn, Dale Brown at LSU, Hugh Durham at Georgia, Eddie Sutton and Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Williams at State and more. Post-game press conferences could sometimes rival stand-up comedy.
Murph lasted six seasons at Ole Miss. When the end was near, he reached out to his good friend, Rob Evans, then at Oklahoma State. Evans had played under Murphy, when Murphy was an assistant at New Mexico State, and then coached with him. The two were close. They lived next door to each in a duplex in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Once, future Ole Miss center Sean Murphy (Ed’s son, Rob’s godson) drove his tricycle toward a busy street. Evans noticed just in time, dashed toward the street and swept the tyke and the trike up, quite possibly saving Sean’s life. “Spanked his skinny butt, too,” Murphy said, laughing.
Back then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s before Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss began full-scale recruitment of black players, New Mexico State made a living recruiting black players in Mississippi. Evans and Murphy would come together to recruit mostly small-town Mississippi kids and base out of Jackson.
Rob Evans and Ed Murphy recruited Mississippi at a time when the two lifelong friends couldn’t even stay in the same hotel. Twenty years later, Evans would succeed Murphy at Ole Miss.
“As a black person, I could just feel the difference when I came across that bridge at Vicksburg,” Evans once told me. “I was nervous. I read the newspapers. I knew about Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and all the rest.”
“It was bad, it was real bad,” Murphy said. “It was bad all over the South, but it was worse in Mississippi. Rob couldn’t stay in the places where I stayed. He couldn’t eat at the places where I ate. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Rob. We talked about it all the time. We talked about if it would change, when it would change.”
So flash forward just two decades to 1992 when it had become clear, at least to Murphy, that his time was limited at Ole Miss. He had gotten the Ole Miss job with some help from Evans. You see, Evans and then-Ole Miss chancellor Gerald Turner had been junior college teammates. Evans had called Turner and told him, “You’ve got your next coach right there at Delta State.”
Six years later, Murphy knew his time in Oxford was limited. So he returned the favor to his close friend Evans. “I am just not going to get it done here, but you can,” Murph told him. “You should go after this job. I’ll help you any way I can. It’s time for a black coach here.”
Evans got the job. Little more than 20 years after he was scared to cross the river into Mississippi, he was the head basketball coach at the University of Mississippi. He did not waste the opportunity. And his buddy, the man who helped him get the job, was pulling for him all the way.
Evans won two SEC West Division titles and went to two NCAA Tournaments before leaving to go to Arizona State. He and Murphy marveled at the changes in Mississippi over the 20 years since the two had recruited the Magnolia State for New Mexico State.
From many conversations on the subject, I knew how much Murphy appreciated the changing Mississippi. The son of a Syracuse, New York, street cop who first came to Mississippi to play junior college basketball, Murph learned to love this place and its people. He loved that his buddy, a black man, became the first Ole Miss basketball coach since 1945 to leave the school with a winning record. And he also loved the fact that Barnes, his former player, succeeded Evans and was even more successful, once even the National Coach of the Year.
Yes, Murphy had an impact here. I last saw him at our buddy M.K. Turk’s funeral in December 2013.
Murph was emotional. “I loved that guy,” he told me. “M.K. was a beaut.”
In this case, it took one to know one. Ed Murphy was a beaut.
A funeral mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Carrollton, Georgia. The Murphy family will host a wake for Mr. Murphy at the Irish Bred Pub in Carrollton on Sunday, Feb. 23, from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m.
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