McGrath: NU was perfect fit for Murphy, and it paid off

Bill McGrath

The last time I saw Calvin Murphy in a Niagara uniform was early on the afternoon of March 14, 1970 in the NCAA East Regional third-place game in Columbia, South Carolina.

It was the end of an incredible collegiate career and there was a sadness that it was over. Never again would NU have such a player on its roster, never again would anyone score 68 points in a game or average 33 points in a career. But at least he was here for four years, three of them as a consensus All-American following a year when he averaged almost 50 points a game playing for the freshman team.

So how did such a player end up at Niagara? The school had a winning tradition, an occasional national ranking and a lot of postseason NIT appearances. But the profile wasn't as lofty, say, as UCLA, Kentucky or North Carolina. Calvin could have played for any of them.

And what if Calvin came along 50 years later in this era of the so-called "one-and-done" players that makes a mockery of the term "student-athlete?" Surely a player with his skills would be on the shortlist to make the jump to the NBA.

Looking back, approaching the 50th anniversary of his 68-point record-setting game, he says he wouldn't change a thing. And he calls the one-and-done trend "unfortunate." He is sure he would not have jumped at the chance to play pro ball before his college eligibility expired. He had other priorities that traced their roots to his high school days when the college basketball world came to his doorstep.

The odds of Niagara head coach Jim Maloney and freshman coach Ed Donohue successfully recruiting him for the Purple Eagles in 1966 were astronomical. They joked that they spent so much time in Murphy's hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut, they were probably eligible to vote there.

"I had 235 offers," Murphy recalled last week. "UCLA, Maryland, Loyola Chicago ... I'm not going to name them all but you get the idea."

It was his basketball coach, Jack Cronin at Norwalk High School, who gave him some valuable advice during those days when he had to make a choice of where to continue his education and basketball career. Had it not been for Cronin, Murphy might never have found Niagara.

"He told me to find a school that would give me the whole package. He told me I'd be just a statistic at UCLA and there were players there better than me. I needed to find a college that would build a program around me. Niagara gave me the complete package."

Complete package? He wasn't talking about money or a car but about growing as a student, ball player and as a man, all of which were high priorities for him. He saw Niagara as a place where that could happen.

"I cared about education," he said. "My coaches, Maloney, Donahue and (Frank) Layden all had a piece of (making) Calvin Murphy. They saw the talent and nurtured it. For some coaches it's about wins and losses. Others care about their players."

The Niagara experience wasn't always pleasant. His teams finished 12-12 and 11-13 in his first two varsity seasons. Maloney and Donohue were gone after his sophomore year, victims of a basketball program in chaos, the coaches with one vision and the administration with another. Fans took sides. Calvin somehow ended up in the middle, the subject of a Sport Magazine story headlined "Calvin Murphy and the Mess at Niagara."

The situation left him confused and frustrated. No one could have blamed him if he hit the road. For the record, Murphy says to this day he never seriously thought about transferring, debunking the rumor Michigan State would be his next stop. 

Layden's arrival brought stability and discipline in 1968. More than once he benched Calvin for extended minutes after ill-advised shots. It was a teaching moment, all part of his education as a player and a man. He went on to earn his degree, became a three-time All-American and the leader of a team of players more than willing to play their roles and bask in the spotlight he created. 

His 13 sterling years in the NBA led to enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1993. And it all began because he envisioned what he wanted, a high school coach guided him and a small university provided "the complete package."

Bill McGrath is a former Niagara Gazette sports editor. Contact him at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.