Brown head coach John Murphy has captured a record seven Division I national championships in his 28 years with the Bears, but none came down to the wire quite like last year’s title at Lake Natoma in Gold River, California.
The Bears entered the Varsity Eight Grand Final, the crowning race of the regatta, behind California and Stanford in team standings.
“Our coxswain had figured out the math and knew that we had to be ahead of Stanford and that Stanford needed to be ahead of Cal,” recalled senior captain Allison Courtin, a member of that Varsity Eight boat. “Most of us didn’t know those specifics going into it, we just wanted to take another shot at Princeton. We wanted to go out and be as fast as we could and we knew it was going to be a tight race. At the national championships it always seems to come down to one seat, or a bow ball in this case.”
In a photo finish for the ages, Brown came in just five-hundredths of a second ahead of Stanford for a second-place finish behind Princeton in the race, earning the team enough points to tie with Stanford in final overall standings. At the national championship, ties are decided by where teams place in the Varsity Eight Grand Final, so it was that breathtakingly close finish that earned Brown its seventh national championship in the 15-year history of the event.
“You push them off and have no more contact with them until they come back in,” Murphy recalled of watching the race from shore. “There are a lot of emotions, but mostly it’s a feeling that you’ve done all you can at that point and you’re cheering for them, that’s for sure.”
Murphy’s first title with Brown in 1999 was another tie broken by a first-place finish in the Varsity Eight Grand Final. The other championships, won in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008 were captured with slightly larger margins of victory, but no less fanfare.
“They were all particularly memorable and meaningful,” Murphy said of the titles. “Each one was different, we arrived there in a different manner, but each one was extremely special.”
Murphy coaches alongside his wife, associate head coach Phoebe Murphy, and the duo has built one of the most successful collegiate women’s rowing programs in the country.
Along with national titles, the Murphys have led their teams to undefeated seasons, appearances at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in London and numerous Eastern Sprints titles.
“I think one of the reasons the Murphys have been so successful is that they are invested in the whole team,” Courtin said. “They don’t just care about the Varsity Eight boat; they are interested in the performance of the team as a whole.”
Murphy has three times earned National Coach of the Year honors from the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association and was named last year’s US Rowing Golden Oars National Coach of the Year.
“He doesn’t say a lot, but everything he does say is very direct and to the point,” Courtin said. “He’s very competitive, and the team reflects that. You can tell this is something he is so passionate about. It’s nice as a rower to feel like your coach is really invested in what you’re doing.”
Whether more national titles are in the future remains to be seen, but Murphy has a proven ability to consistently build successful crews. His seven national championships are far and away the most won by any Division I coach in the nation. Nearest to the record is Jan Harville at Washington with three national championships won in 1997, 1998 and 2001.
“We’re always hoping we’ll be able to build successful teams year after year, but nothing is guaranteed,” Murphy said. “I think we look for people first who will be a good fit for Brown — people who will like the curriculum, the area and who will enjoy being a student here. And then we look for potential — people who show an ability to develop and eventually help win championships.”