Billy Penn intern Ryan Sandell played high school soccer at St. Joe’s Prep under the guidance of legendary coach Jim Murray. Murray recently announced that next season will be his last, retiring after 50 years coaching in Philadelphia. Sandell talked with Murray about some of his favorite coaching memories, and the legacy he’s leaving in Philly sports.
Jim Murray is the same today as he has been his entire career. Still passionate — the self-proclaimed “World’s Worst Loser” — voice as sonorous as ever as he calls out to his players on the field, and still mobile as he carries his stocky frame up and down the sideline. Though as we talk at a Prep summer league game, he seems just a bit more relaxed. That’s something I wouldn’t have been able to say only a few years prior.
Murray has been a high school soccer coach in Philadelphia for 50 years, his first four at Friends Central and these last 46 at The Prep, but has decided to hang up the stopwatch and whistle after this coming season, one year after retiring as the longtime Athletics Director at St. Joe’s Prep and leaving behind his statistics classroom.
When Murray walks off the field for the final time, he will be leaving another classroom, one that he found when he was a freshman in college, some six decades ago. When he tells me he’ll be fine after he’s done coaching, I believe him. He will always be a teacher, and that is something from which he will never retire.
What led you to the decision to retire after this season?
I was on the boardwalk in Atlantic City with Dennis Hart [St. Joe’s Prep’s new Athletic Director, former dean, and a member of the class of ‘95], and he asked me if I missed teaching summer school, which I’ve done for a long, long time, and thoroughly enjoyed. And I told him ‘no, I don’t think I miss it.’ So that got me thinking, do I miss teaching? And, of course I miss it. I miss the classroom and I miss the students. But am I okay? I’m doing just fine.
That being the case, how much are you going to miss soccer?
I’ll miss it a great deal, but I’ll be fine. The field is similar to the classroom. You learn things, you get to teach things. I’ll miss it just like I do teaching, but it’s time. It’s somebody else’s turn. And, honestly, I’m sore after the games and practices! You’ve seen some of the fields in the Catholic League, imagine me walking up and down the sidelines for a whole game!
Leaving behind what you’ve loved to do for so many years can’t be easy. You started the Prep soccer program back in 1971, the same year you were named Athletic Director. You were a statistics teacher too, until last year. How did you get your start as a teacher?
Teaching allowed me to coach. Raising five children on a coach’s salary alone was impossible.
I actually started tutoring my sophomore year at Prep. One of the nuns said, ‘You’re going to tutor some students on weekends,’ and I didn’t really have a choice. Then, I had a full slate every weekend and was making money. So that’s really when I began teaching.
You weren’t always a soccer player, correct?
No, I only started playing my freshman year at St. Joe’s University. I said to the coach [Jack Dunn], ‘If you show me the ball, and what to do with it, I’ll learn quickly.’ I was fast. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but I was.
I know it’s hard to think back over a career spanning 50 years, but what do you think you’re most proud of from a soccer standpoint regarding the program?
From a soccer standpoint, it would have to be the fact that we never had a losing season since 1972, and we were in the Catholic League playoffs for 41 years straight. Nobody else can claim that.
Then there’s also the 600-something (editor’s note: 614) wins, which is second in the state behind my good friend George Todt over at [Archbishop] Ryan. And of course the Catholic League title in 2010, but I’m just as proud of all the times we made it to the final and didn’t win. It takes a great team having a great season just to make it there.
And what about outside of soccer, from a personal standpoint?
I’m proud of what the players go on to become. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors. I’m proud of the men they go on to be. Husbands, fathers. The families they’re raising. You hear it all the time, but it’s true.
As the Prep took on Conwell-Egan Catholic High School in a recent summer league game, Murray seemed the same as he’s always been. He paced the sideline, often adjusting the waistband of his khaki shorts, stopwatch firmly in hand, turning around occasionally to engage with players and his assistant coaches, one new, one tenured. The former, Joe Coyle, is an excellent coach and teacher in his own right. He led the Episcopal Academy women’s team to an Inter-Ac Championship in 2009, and earned the Main Line Media News’ “Coach of the Year” award that same year.
And as a teacher, like Murray, Coyle challenges students in The Prep’s English classes — to which I can attest. The latter, Mike Fanning, was a standout player in his days at St. Joe’s Prep, as well as Temple where he played his collegiate soccer.
Both stand aside from Murray. It is still firmly his program. For one more season, at least.