Naylor: Respect and admiration for Murphy crosses borders

Dave Naylor
2/22/2012 12:10:41 PM
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Canada has all kinds of hockey statesmen - people who can speak with authority on every aspect of the game based on a lifetime of experience, thus becoming revered far and wide.

But in football, though the game has a long and storied history in Canada, those kinds of people are rare.

And among those who've gained iconic status from football in Canada, the vast majority are Americans, people such as Ron Lancaster or Pinball Clemons, Jackie Parker or Don Matthews, those brought up on the game in America who then honed their talent and knowledge north of the 49th parallel.

That really isn't surprising since football is to Americans what hockey is to Canadians - a game engrained in the culture and where the notion of one devoting a life to the sport is hardly unusual.

The fact is that it's hard to grow up in Canada and absorb as much knowledge and expertise about football as one can being raised in America. And if that is true today, it was especially true in the years before technology allowed so much sharing of information across borders.

Which is why for most of the past 100 years, Canadians have mostly had supporting roles in three-down football, aside from those players granted opportunity by the CFL's quota system that have managed to prove their worth regardless of nationality.

But pore through the history of great coaches and general managers in CFL history and you'll find the list remarkably void of people actually born and raised in Canada.

Which is what makes the recent passing of Cal Murphy a little different that of most Canadian Football Hall of Famers, since he was a Canadian icon in a Canadian league at a time when it was almost exclusively run by Americans.

Murphy's time in the game spanned seven decades, from his time playing for UBC in the 1950s and a brief stint in the CFL, to his coaching career that began at the collegiate level in Canada, moved to the NCAA in the United Sates and then returned to his homeland where he amassed nine Grey Cup rings in various capacities as a coach and general manager with five different organizations.

When his CFL days ended, there were short stints in NFL Europe and the XFL. Then there was his final job in football scouting for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and his good friend Bill Polian, earning a Super Bowl ring and helping send a slew of players to the NFL, the most recent of which - former Saskatchewan linebacker Jerrrell Freeman - signing just last month.

Over his lifetime of work, Murphy managed to earn the respect of Canadians for his ability to blaze a trail and from Americans based purely on his knowledge about the game that they considered their own.

Among the things that has stood out in the days since his death is the degree of respect Murphy enjoyed from Americans - whether it was players whom he had coached, coaches whom he'd brought to the CFL and helped mentor, or those in the U.S. who knew him from having crossed paths somewhere along the way, there was no distinction drawn about Murphy because he hadn't grow up with the game in America.

As Polian, who first worked with Murphy during the 1970s in Montreal, told Steve Simmons in the Toronto Sun this week, "Cal made our teams better … by being at the combine or at training camp and seeing something someone else didn't see. I thought he was tremendous to have around. He was a valuable resource and we would talk very frequently. I liked having him share his opinion with me and I valued it."

A Canadian coach or general manger doesn't stand out the way he once did, and in fact the most successful coach in league history - Wally Buono - grew up in this country. And his successor, Mike Benevides, is Canadian as well.

A two-time NFL executive of the year, Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff, was raised in Canada and played for the University of Guelph. Another executive who grew up in Canada, New York Giants assistant general manager Kevin Abrams, is the owner of two Super Bowl rings.

And today there are Canadians on the staffs and in front offices of the CFL teams right across the league.

But for his time, Murphy was unique.

And we should remember him not just as a great coach and general, with a fantastic eye for talent.

But also as someone whose credibility in the football world undoubtedly helped show the way for those who have followed him.

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