Frank Murphy: The George Best of Irish Athletics

Irish athletics legend Frank Murphy passed away last night after a long battle with Parkinon’s disease. Below is a piece by PJ Browne on the charismatic Dubliner – the George Best of Irish Athletics

Frank Murphy 1965-1969. The George Best of Irish Athletics

by PJ Browne

There is a misperception shadowing the athletic career of Frank Murphy. The received wisdom says that he was hugely talented but he did not realise his potential. He was one of the brightest stars who fizzled out. The reality is more prosaic but less romantic. The ‘George Best of Irish athletics,’ appellation hasn’t done him any favours either but we seem to revel in this kind of myth making. In truth, Murphy trained hard, perhaps too hard and suffered injuries that went unattended or misdiagnosed. The recollections of his contemporaries dispel the ambiguities we cling to . What can be said with certainty is that Murphy was a considerable talent, a colourful, likeable character who got on well with nearly everybody, especially the ladies. He contributed substantially to the Irish tradition at Villanova.

“I knew Frank when he was a student in O’ Connell’s and I was in Colaiste Mhuire. He was a year ahead of me and we competed against each other quite bit. We just hit it off very well together. Athletically he was clearly ahead of me, so there was never a rivalry or competition to speak of. We began to socialize even though we attended different schools. He got me to join him at Clonliffe Harriers, and that was the beginning of a great enduring friendship.

When we were at Villanova, Frank was at the top end of the scale, and I was at the bottom end. No question about that. Yet he always insisted that I would get the same as he got. He shared whatever he got with me. It was a natural trait in him, an amazing selflessness. It was through Frank that I went to Villanova. That indicates that he had the ear of Jumbo, but more important, that Jumbo respected and heeded his advice. Even as a freshman, Frank had impressed Jumbo. That was uncommon, and possibly unprecedented.” Des McCormack, 1966-1970.

McCormack may not have been at the top end of the scale but he was no mediocre athlete. He was the dominant steeplechaser in Ireland and was national champion in 1969 (9:22.2) and 1970. He was a valuable member of the Villanova Cross country team when they won collegiate titles.

Frank Murphy became interested in athletics because of his love of football. “I was interested in Gaelic football and I wanted to get fit. We only trained one day a week with a match at the weekends. I joined Clonliffe Harriers at the suggestion of Bob Joyce whose father was a partner with Billy Morton. Billy had an Optician’s shop and Bob’s father worked with him. Bob was a high jumper. I was only training a few months before I was entered in a race before Christmas, a handicapped 2 mile road race. I won the race off my handicap. Billy Morton came over to me and was amazed at the time that I ran. Now I hadn’t a notion about times and so on. He urged me to keep training with the club and Brother Moore was trying to put together a school’s team for the Christian Brothers Stretton Field summer games. He put me down for the 440, 880 and the 1 mile. I ran the three and won. I broke the school record on 2 occasions and came to prominence quite quickly.

I ran for Clonliffe in the All Ireland, the Northern Ireland AAA’s and the Irish AAU. I won the 440 and the 880 in two school records on a cinder track. The school races were held in the Iveagh Grounds on grass. I was getting a lot of encouragement from people. Ron Delany spoke to my parents and told them he was representing Villanova and looking out for talent. I had two years left in secondary school and wanted to do my Leaving Cert. My father told Ron to come back in two years. In the meantime, I continued to improve and I was on my way after finishing my Leaving Exams in 1966. I did my Leaving Exams twice. I passed the first time but was still eligible to run in the school championships. I was 17 and waiting the extra year was a very sensible decision. My father felt I wasn’t mature enough to go earlier and he was right.

Billy Morton offered me his unique advice after I won the under age titles in Santry. Billy was his own man and he basically did whatever he wanted to do. He came up to me and he said: ‘Murphy, you’re going to be a great fucking runner and you’ll have all these half baked coaches coming to you and telling you what to do. Just tell them to fuck off.’ That was vintage Billy, true to form.

“Leaving my parents for a new country, especially the United States, was a massive experience for me. The goodbyes at the airport were very tough and I was very homesick initially. So much so that I wanted to come home for Christmas. My father told me that if I came home for Christmas, I wouldn’t want to go back. He explained to me that I needed more time and I was only settling in after three months. I had a few aunts in the States and he suggested that I spend Christmas with them, and encouraged me to come home in the summer, and if I still felt like leaving we’d talk about it. You can make your own decision then he said. Sure when I got home that summer I couldn’t wait to get back, so it was the best decision I ever made. I got great support and encouragement from the likes of Ian Hamilton, who was already established at Villanova.That was the year Noel Carroll graduated. Because of taking time off for the 1964 Olympics, he had to come back in the Fall of 1965 to finish his studies and graduate. He was a tremendous help to me as well so I put in my four years and graduated in 1969.

Jumbo Elliot

“I’d already had coaching with Brother Moore and also in Clonliffe Harriers, but nothing like Jumbo. You could see the professionalism coming through. He gave each athlete a lot of individual time and I got on very well with him. We had top class athletes there. Marty Liquori was a brilliant athlete, and also Dave Patrick. We had 4 sub four minute milers in my time there. Strictly speaking we really only had three. Chris Mace (England) ran a shade over four minutes. He was a killer in training but we always beat him in competition. It was tough.

We put two relay teams together one weekend in Modeste, California – the A team set a new record and the B team broke the old one We
won the 2 mile relay and beat the best of the West Coast and we all ran sun 1.49. The second string won the two mile relay in sub 1.50.That depth of talent made it great because everyone had to work to hold onto his place. You would be dying to get on the team especially for the Penn Relays. Villanova and the Penn Relays were synonymous in those years. Jumbo would remind us – ‘Your team is only as good as your fifth man.’

He didn’t want us running with the older athletes although we trained with them so there was little or no competition for Freshmen. One of my favourite memories is an indoor mile for freshmen when I finished second to Jim Ryun in 4.06, the best race of my freshman year. I could have made it on the senior team but that meant losing my last year of eligibility.
I never trained that hard when I was in Ireland, doing about 25 to 30 miles a week. Jumbo just put me on the programme that they used and it was a normal progression. But it wasn’t simply the severe training; it was the atmosphere, being around guys who were good and in some cases even better than me. Regardless of ability there was a kind of family atmosphere and the athletes trained together and socialised together.

I did all my best running during my years in Villanova. There are varying opinions about Jumbo. Noel Carroll for example, completely disagreed with him on his outlook on training and togetherness. Jumbo insisted on the team concept, travelling together, neatness, ties, no long hair, none of which I had any problem with. If you were married you just wouldn’t represent Villanova. That happened when Noel got married and he threw him off the team even though he was the best 880 runner that he had. Times change of course. When I was there you had to check out and check in if you wanted to go anywhere on weekends. We were closely monitored.

Jumbo was a great motivator; he could build an athlete up to the point where he overachieved. He was superb at getting individuals to perform beyond their talent on a given day for a particular race. Many times they never again came close. Even so he was very mindful of your academic progress. ‘Athletics may have got you here,’ he’d remind us, ‘but you’re here to graduate.’ He would tell you to stay away from training if you were doing poorly in class. He’d see to it that you got tutoring if you were weak in subjects. He was supportive in other ways as well; you felt like you could go to him and talk to him about anything. He was a father figure.

“Of all the Irish athletes there and certainly my contemporaries,” Des McCormack explains, “Jumbo would have singled out Frank as the best overall person that he had. He had an enormous affection for Frank and a huge respect for the effort that he put in. With regard to student life, Frank was very intelligent. He was very diligent and a great note taker. He was fastidious in this way with lectures dated and so on. Buit it left him better prepared when the push came for the exams. He took his studies just as seriously as he took his running. Frank never had to attend summer school and he graduated with a good marketing degree. This meant I had a few lonely summers there without him when I had to remain on. Three times I had to go it alone when he left for Ireland. That was quite difficult for me.” McCormack went on to have an outstanding business career after he returned to Ireland.

Murphy was a champion with few illusions about himself. He reacted to success with quiet humility. There was never a thought of vanquishing any athlete during competition. “My greatest achievement was winning the 1,000 metres at the IC4A and setting a European record. I beat Byron Dyce, a Jamaican Olympian. I raced really well at the Penn Relays.”

“Villanova won 5 Championships one year and I won three watches and was voted best athlete of the meet. I ran a three quarter mile in 2.50 and I knew then that I could break 4 minutes which I did when I ran the mile two weeks later. I was only 3rd that time and Liquori was the winner. For the size of the school we didn’t have a huge track and field team so that success was noteworthy. We won championships with just a handful of athletes who doubled up – you had Donie Walsh, Ian Hamilton and Des McCormack all running cross country.

The 1968 Penn Relay Championships that Murphy scarcely mentions was widely acclaimed in the press: “They said it couldn’t be done, that no college track team could win five relay championships in the Penn Relays,” the New York Times reported. “But no one bothered to ask Villanova, or Larry James, its speediest sophomore quarter miler, or indeed Frank Murphy. They waited until the one mile relay to complete their sweep. James delivered the clincher with an unbelievable 43.9 second quarter mile that wiped out Rice University’s 10 yard lead entering the last leg. It was the finest moment in the history of the Penn Relays, and was believed to be the fastest 440 leg ever ran.

Earlier in the afternoon, helped by the first of Murphy’s two strong distance performances, they set a record in the four mile relay. James, Murphy, Dave Patrick and Charlie Messenger, each ran on two victorious teams today.

Yet each had enough time to rest between races. More important, Villanova concentrated on winning each relay rather than setting records and tiring its talented athletes. Murphy started the assault in the four mile relay with a 4.04 anchor leg in which he passed Byron Dice of NYU and Jim Baker of Harvard in a thrilling final lap.”

I loved my time at Villanova, athletically, academically and socially. I would recommend it to anyone who has the ability to get a scholarship, and not just to Villanova. It’s a great experience for a young man and you can always come home. I had some great years especially 1969. I won everything in the indoor season, I won the Brirish AAAs and broke Delany’s Irish Olympic record. If I’d had the same level of fitness and was injury free in 1968 I might have performed better. I got a hairline fracture before the Games and it was diagnosed as shinsplints. Dr. Pat O’ Callaghan was the medic in charge of the team and I suggested he take some X rays. His response was, ‘Who is the doctor, you or me?’ He wouldn’t listen to me. It was terrible. I got permission then to go back to the states because there was no medical support in Ireland.

My doctor at Villanova ran his fingers down my shins and there big lumps there, calcium deposits; the injuries were repairing themselves. A copy of the medical report was forwarded to the Irish medics who replied that the injury was one more commonly associated with a ballerina and quite unusual. An effing ballerina! He was trying to cover himself of course but I shouldn’t have been running at all. I was the 3rd fastest miler going into those Games and though they were held at altitude, I had reasonable expectations of getting a medal. In truth I wasn’t fifty percent ever. I shouldn’t have been there at all.

I encountered another problem in 1969 shortly after winning the AAAs. I asked the International Secretary if he could get me into races in Europe; there was three months between the AAAs and the European Championships in Athens. I needed the races. His answer to me was, ‘what would they want you for?’ Those were his exact words. Billy Morton got me into one race but I needed more so I went back to the States for the summer to workout and prepare. I flew directly from Philadelphia to Athens for the Championships.
I had a really hard race in the preliminary heat and |I needed a good blowout. The problem was I hadn’t raced in two months. Fair enough I finished 2nd to John Whetton and I had to settle for a silver medal. I set an Irish record in doing so but I didn’t choke as people said. I was beaten By Whetton on the day and that was that.

Noel Carroll

It was really Noel who paved the way for me to go to Villanova. Ron Delany never came to track meets and it was only in the latter stages that he got involved. Ron was a great man to delegate and ask others to do things for him. Essentially he had no interest in giving back coaching wise and that was grand. He had a family to raise and other interests. Mind you it didn’t do an athlete any harm to have Ron Delany in his corner but equally he made sure he got some recognition out of it. This is not a criticism of Ron, not at all. At times he tended to take more credit than he actually deserved.

I trained with Noel every day in College Park when I came home during the summer. He was graduating the year I was entering. We had great times. In Mexico he pulled me away and told me my training wasn’t right. Jumbo was down there; the team manager wouldn’t listen and it looked like I was going to be sent home. I was doing a crash course all wrong. The team manager was trying to get in my head to tell me what to do. Noel was a very effective coach. When we were training, we’d run up to the line and from a standing start he used to time us. He believed in doing short distances flat out which suited me after a year in the States and enabled me to reach a second peak. We did these workouts on most days and people would come out to watch us.

Des McCormack, provides a unique glimpse into college life with his best friend Murphy. “Frank got on with everybody and he was hugely popular with an array of Villanova athletes – basketball players, swimmers, footballers. They gravitated toward him. A lot of them wouldn’t have known about his commitment to training because he tried to project himself as the Georgie Best of athletics. Best was becoming the international superstar.

I’m convinced Frank felt he could do the same in athletics and he cultivated this perception of himself as the talented athlete with a fondness for the booze and the bright lights even though he never had a problem with alcohol. Frank worked his arse off even as he was telling people ‘ah sure I don’t care it doesn’t matter.’ He trained twice and sometimes three times a day. It was natural for him to nurture this image and it was no effort to maintain it. There was no deviousness or cuteness about it. People wanted to retain the playboy image of him; we all have a soft spot for the George Bests of this world. It’s no surprise that Frank and Best would later become great friends.

For years I’ve been hearing that Frank didn’t train hard enough, he didn’t put it in, he was a choker and couldn’t cope with the big meet pressures. That’s a load of nonsense. They got it all wrong about Frank. I’d say every athlete asks himself the question, did he get the most out of his talent, especially when his career has finished. I’ll answer that for Frank. I think he got 99.9% out of it and that’s a wonderful thing for any athlete. Given his circumstances he couldn’t have done much more. After living with Frank for four years, I can safely say he left no stone unturned. Let me put it this way. If Coach Elliott was talking to you about Frank, he would tell you exactly the same, because if you weren’t putting the work in, by Christ, Jumbo would be onto you.”

Tom Donnelly, a teammate of Murphy’s, remembers a very dedicated athlete. “He was very talented, but he was a hard worker. He may have given off this air of indifference but it was obvious to those who saw him train that he was willing to put the time and effort in. He was such a competitive athlete that he may well have over trained. It’s a very fine line and injuries are hard to avoid. The regret is that injuries did come at key points of his career but even so he was a team guy for Villanova and his collegiate record speaks for itself.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Villanova’s Irish athletes. Like many foreign athletes they got caught up in the feud between the AAU and the NCAA. In hindsight, the intensity between these two feuding bodies is scarcely credible, but the fear among athletes was very real. In February 1967, Ian Hamilton and Murphy were among the athletes barred from competing by the AAU after they appeared in the USTAFF meet in Madison Square Garden. The two Irishmen told the Associated Press: ‘We were told by Mr. Elliott two hours before the meet that if we didn’t run our scholarships would expire this summer.’

Murphy was unhappy about this threat and the fear of losing his scholarship. Jumbo was bluffing, of course, but the young athletes may not have fully understood the broader perspective. The federation did not seek an AAU sanction for its meet. International rules required that an athlete competing out of his country take part only in meets sanctioned or approved by the governing body of the nation he was in. Murphy and Hamilton appeared as guests at the next meet and watched their teammates compete. Murphy’s unease was inevitable. In his experience with athletic bodies in Ireland he found that the needs of the athlete were scarcely considered. The power struggle for control of amateur sport in the USA mirrored the infamous split that existed in Irish athletics for far too long.

Murphy’s athletic career came to an end just before 1976. It was the culmination of what he calls “a slow drift away from the sport. There was no structure in place in Ireland after I left college. You’re trying to find a job with no one looking after you. I had gotten married and I had no money to show for all the running. I was trying to get a business career off the ground. I’d like to have extended my career at the 5000m distance. I had the strength and speed and the attributes necessary to make a right go of it but I had to accept the inevitable. I had a great career in spite of the injuries and setbacks. It was only in later years that I began to understand that I was part of the tapestry of the Irish tradition at Villanova, and I am very proud of that association and it is very satisfying to know that I might have inspired a few of those who followed on after my time there.”

Murphy eventually settled into a varied but ultimately successful business career in Ireland. It should come as no surprise that he became a close friend to the late George Best. Murphy’s charisma never faded; he retains his endless good humour, and he can still light up a room by his mere presence. He takes a good deal of slagging about his fashion sense, the silk shirts and the ties picked up in Milan. Invariably he is impeccably turned out, a class act in every sense of the word.

Phil Healy (far right) in action at the Irish Universities Championships. Image: Tomás Greally, Sportsfile/Athletics Ireland
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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