If Patrick Murphy has said it once, he’s said it 1,000 times.
“Thank God. Seriously.”
That was how the University of Alabama’s softball coach reacted to Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over Kent State at Rhoads Stadium, his 1,000th career win.
“We didn’t talk about it at all,” Murphy said. “I know they did behind the scenes, but we didn’t mention it.
“It’s about the team, still. I think they all realize that. I always say the sooner you realize it’s not all about you, the better off in life you’re going to be. Same thing here.”
Most coaches accept commemorative gifts on milestone occasions – and there was a giant card signed by fans and a few other keepsakes – but Murphy is a giver. He handed out cash, $1 for every win that each member of the coaching and support staff has been a part of with him. A few, who have only been around this season, got $31 for their part in UA’s 31-4 record so far. The total was around $2,400. Longtime associate head coach Alyson Habetz got the most, $1,000. She was actually overpaid, since she wasn’t part of Murphy’s season at Northwest Missouri State as interim head coach, where he won 28 games in 1995.
Murphy won’t ask for a refund.
“We’ll get it,” he said.
The milestone victory didn’t come easily. Kent State (10-16) scored a run in the first, which Alabama matched and topped on freshman third baseman Claire Jenkins’ two-RBI single in the bottom of inning.
UA upped its advantage to 3-1 on an RBI single in the second from Demi Turner, who extended her hitting streak to 12 straight games. But the Golden Flashes tied it in the top of the third when Maddy Grimm hit a two-run homer.
“My fault,” Murphy said. “I told them before the game we weren’t going to pitch to her. She was by far their best hitter.”
It stayed tied until the sixth, when Alabama finally broke it open. Sophomore outfielder Mari Cranek cranked a leadoff home run to right field to put UA ahead. Outfielder Gabby Callaway singled, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on shortstop Sydney Booker’s single to right. Winning pitcher Sydney Littlejohn (12-1) allowed four hits with 10 strikeouts and a pair of walks.
But the significance of the victory outweighed the details. The final out triggered a celebration that included a tribute video with testimonials from such luminaries as ESPN’s Holly Rowe, Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Murphy’s own mother, who might have been the only one who would rather have seen the coach hold at 999 wins for a little longer.
“She’s coming to Missouri this weekend,” he said, referring to UA’s upcoming road trip. “She kept asking, ‘When’s it going to be, when’s it going to be?’ I said, ‘Mom, we’ve got to win. We don’t know. It’s not a guarantee.'”
Murphy has averaged 51 wins per year over two decades in a career that included a single season as interim head coach at Northwest Missouri State and 18 previous campaigns at the Alabama helm. He has guided Alabama to 11 Women’s College World Series appearances and 18 straight NCAA Tournament bids to go along with five SEC championships and five league tournament titles
At age 51, he has already a member of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame and has a national championship ring from UA’s 2012 season.
Even the losing team felt good for the winning coach. Kent State players knelt in right field and watched the video tribute on the scoreboard before leaving. Eric Oakley, the Kent State coach, remembers meeting Murphy at a clinic when Oakley was just getting started in the game.
“There were a hundred people in that camp,” Oakley said. “I barely got to meet him. Nine months later we’re out recruiting and I hear, ‘Eric, Eric.’ I turned around, he remembered my name.
“That’s the kind of guy he is. I joke with people, ‘You know Murph? Yeah, I’m one of his 5,000 closest friends.’ We’re disappointed we lost, but it’s neat to be part of history like that.”
What will Murphy remember about this one?
“Probably Mari’s home run,” he said. “She’s a spot starter; she’s in because Merris (Schroder) is hurt,” he said. “She hit the ball hard, foul ball, twice, and I kind of screamed at her in the dugout to keep the ball fair and hit it hard. She did both.”
Cranek was proud to be a part. But she’ll carry her own memory.
“It’s really special to be a part of something like that,” she said. “I will remember them throwing the Gatorade on him and Chandler (Dare, senior right fielder) getting soaked instead of Murph.”
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.