Editor’s Note: This column originally was published on Nov. 27, 2007.
The whole thing began in 1964. Bob Murphy was chatting pleasantly. As usual. It is his specialty.
In this case, Murphy was chatting as he stood on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, the day before Stanford played a football game there. The team was holding a light practice. Murphy, an administrator in the school’s athletic department, was watching.
As the players worked up a sweat, Murphy started a conversation with veteran Bay Area broadcaster Don Klein, who did the play-by-play of Stanford’s games. Klein had a brainstorm and suddenly turned to Murphy.
“How would you like to sit in with me on the game tomorrow?” Klein asked. “On the air.”
Murphy said yes. And he has basically remained on the air since, sitting or standing. Murphy has been Stanford’s most prominent radio voice — principally on football and basketball game broadcasts — for the past 43 years.
Not after Saturday, though. This year’s Big Game between Stanford and Cal will be Murph’s Last Call. It will be the final time Murphy serves as an analyst or play-by-play voice for a Cardinal athletic event. At 76, he is hanging up his larynx to live the life of a regular civilian with his wife, Gail.
“She’s been so great over the years about all this,” Murphy says. “You know, football starts earlier than it used to, and goes later. Basketball, too. It’s a seven-month commitment. We’ll enjoy relaxing and traveling. And I’ll hang around the campus some, I’m sure.”
It would probably violate some law if he doesn’t. Next season is going to be very strange, listening to a Stanford football broadcast without Murphy’s garrulous commentary, whether he is questioning an official or explaining why a certain play harkens back to the Jim Plunkett era.
His basketball work has been just as distinctive, topped by his description of Mark Madsen’s game-changing dunk that sent Stanford to the 1998 Final Four. That classic sound bite — “MADSEN STUFFED IT . . . AND . . . HE . . . WAS . . . FOULED!” — is used by some Stanford fans as a cell-phone ring tone.
Some people have questioned whether Murphy goes over the top in his on-air love affair with Stanford. Those people get it all wrong. In a world with too many generic and homogenized broadcasters, Murphy owns a quality so many others are lacking: dementedly sincere passion. You can’t franchise that.
Besides which, Murphy’s love affair has been natural and organic. He was born at Stanford hospital. He earned a history degree at the school. He pitched for Stanford’s baseball team in the 1953 College World Series. He was the school’s sports information director in 1970 and 1971 when Coach John Ralston took two teams to the Rose Bowl. Murphy’s daughter, Victoria Vixie, remembers playing in the press box at Sunken Diamond while her father did the public-address announcing for Stanford baseball games.
“I know he and Mom will enjoy themselves, but I think for the rest of his life, there will be a part of him that wants to be on campus every Saturday,” Vixie said.
So will this week be a melancholy experience for Murphy? He says he won’t have much time to reflect, because he will be busy dashing around the Bay Area to emcee the various Big Game breakfasts and luncheons. But he knows that walking away will not be a snap.
“I’ll get through it,” Murphy says. “I didn’t want to get too emotional over it. . . . The biggest thing I’ll miss is the kids. Over the years, there have been hundreds. Hundreds.”
The players, he means. He never forgets any of them. That becomes apparent to anyone who has listened to the radio Tour de Force that is Murphy’s hourlong pregame tailgate show. Holding court in a KNBR tent south of the stadium, he routinely coaxes in former players he spots in the crowd — and proceeds to tell stories about them that the players themselves don’t always recall.
“He doesn’t just know every guy who’s played for Stanford — he knows their wives,” marvels Mike McLaughlin, a lineman on the 2000 Rose Bowl team and now a broadcast colleague of Murphy’s.
Saturday’s pregame show, before the home game against Notre Dame, was typical. Murphy first interviewed former Stanford running back Mike Mitchell and recalled a Notre Dame-Stanford game when safety John Lynch smacked into Irish fullback Jerome Bettis and changed the game’s momentum. Murphy segued into another anecdote about former Stanford running back Greg Comella, then spotted a former professor in the crowd who offered his academic opinion on sleep deprivation and how it might affect that afternoon’s game.
And that was just in the first 10 minutes.
“I wish I had half his memory,” says Lee Hammer, the KNBR program director who produces the Stanford football broadcasts.
For the record, Murphy has missed some games along the way. He spent one year working in Ohio for golfer Jack Nicklaus and served as San Jose State’s athletic director in 1976-79. Murphy wasn’t on the air for “The Play” at Berkeley in 1982, though he watched it from the press box. But at least once every season — when San Jose State had its annual faceoff with the Cardinal or when Stanford traveled to the Midwest for a game — Murphy found himself in front of a microphone for a Cardinal kickoff.
And he never mails it in, as McLaughlin will tell you.
“One thing I’ve noticed, both as a player and now as his colleague, is how personal he takes everything that happens to the team,” McLaughlin says. “After a bad loss, he really wants to get out of here fast. When we win, he wants to celebrate. And on the road, he always knows where to find the best chardonnay.”
No big farewell party is planned for Saturday. Murphy is emphatic about not becoming the day’s story. But there will probably be a small family celebration the following day at a wharfside restaurant near his home. The hunch here is, there will also be some chatting.
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