BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Joe Murphy was never supposed to be a basketball coach. Growing up attending school in football-focused Amsterdam, hoops was rarely a thought for Murphy besides some action in recreation or CYO leagues.
“I never even tried out for the [high school] team,” said Murphy. “I was just a football guy.”
That is a little strange to think about, considering how much success Murphy has had in his first few years as the head coach for the Shenendehowa varsity girls basketball team. Murphy picked up win No. 50 for his career Monday with a 60-25 verdict against Guilderland, as the top-ranked Plainsmen advanced to play in Thursday’s Section II Class AA semifinals against No. 4 Shaker. Murphy hit that 50-win milestone in his third year as Shenendehowa’s coach. His reign includes last year’s sectional championship victory.
Granted, Murphy was set up to succeed; the program he took over from Ken Strube after the 2011-12 season has long been one of the best in Section II. During Strube’s 33 years as Shenendehowa’s head coach, the Plainsmen amassed 588 victories and won four state titles — but a desire to see that success continue is why Strube was glad Murphy succeeded him as head coach.
“He was the perfect man for it, he was the guy I wanted to get it,” said Strube. “I’d classify Joe as blue-collar. He does his homework, looks at video-tape, watches on TV, and he’s a real student of the game, a strategist. That’s always what I saw in Joe.”
Murphy, who teaches business at Shenendehowa, started coaching basketball when he was a student teacher at Guilderland. He coached outside of Section II for a little bit after that stint, then was a varsity assistant at Schenectady for a few years, and finally landed on Strube’s bench as an assistant coach in 2004. A few years later, Murphy took control of the program’s freshman squad, totaling a record of 68-3 during the course of four seasons before taking the varsity job.
Along the way, Murphy taught himself the game’s finer points. He credited Strube and varsity assistant Tony Mingione with helping him, and Murphy has developed a wide network of basketball connections he continues to call upon for help and ideas — but the Shenendehowa head coach is also a self-taught basketball mind. He’s watched countless basketball DVDs to learn new plays and techniques, spent hours in gymnasiums working camps and helping AAU teams, and often watches game films early in the morning with his 5-year-old son Vincent.
While Murphy has logged long hours developing an expertise for the game, Boland — who played freshman basketball for Murphy and has been on each of the coach’s varsity squads — said her favorite thing about Murphy has nothing to do with basketball strategy.
“He always keep us motivated,” she said. “He always wants us to do the best we can for ourselves and for our team.”
Murphy played on the Amsterdam football team that won a state championship in 1995. Frank Derrico, Murphy’s gridiron coach from high school, said he was not surprised Murphy had elected to get into coaching.
“He was that kind of player,” said Derrico. “You didn’t have to tell him anything more than once. He always got things right the first time.”
Derrico said what surprises him is that Murphy has been able to pick up basketball with such ease. Derrico laughed remembering his failed experiment coaching a hoops team his sons played on as youths, saying he quickly realized he needed to stick to football.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “I couldn’t do what Joe’s done.”
Strube said it helped Murphy that he came to basketball as something of a blank slate. He never had a basketball coach of his own whose philosophy was hammered into his head. Often, Strube said, young coaches struggle because they refuse to think outside the box.
“They know what they did, what they ran, so they try to force that on their players — and the personnel is often different and it doesn’t work,” said Strube. “Joe has more liberal thoughts when it comes to his offenses and defenses, and he doesn’t pigeonhole himself.”
Murphy said he is always evaluating his players to try to find what will work best for his squad. Right now, the Plainsmen always play a 1-3-1 zone defense — but he admits that the club likely won’t play such a formation at all within a couple years. Offensive sets, too, come and go for Shenendehowa.
“Some stuff, I’ve kept for years,” said Murphy. “Other stuff, [I’ve used] and I’ve never used it again.”
“He’s really good at assessing what his kids are capable of and not capable of,” said Strube. “I think that’s one of his greatest assets as a coach.”