Oh, so close… That’s probably the first thought that comes to the minds of Sun Devil fans as they recall the 1996 20-17 Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State. The defeat prevented ASU from capturing a share of the national championship, let alone an undefeated season. It was indeed a year full of great memories, and former Sun Devil offensive lineman Kyle Murphy shared some of them with Devils Digest.
Murphy was the team’s starting left guard from 1995-97. He also played at center and right guard in his freshman year of 1994. He graduated with a degree in Broadcast Journalism from ASU in 1997, and surgery to his back took away a chance at a pro career following his graduation. He did however put his degree to good use, and worked as a color analyst and sideline reporter for Fox Sports Arizona, and hosted a pre and post-game ASU show on KMVP 860 AM, in 1998-99.
After working in the cellular phone industry back in Southern California, he moved into high school coaching, at Edison High School in Huntington Beach. This was followed by a coaching stint at a Division III program California Lutheran University, and then it was back to Edison where he not only coaches the Varsity’s football offense line unit, but also servers as the Varsity Girls’ basketball assistant coach. He’s near finishing his special education degree from ASU, and is along with his coaching duties is also teaching at Edison.
Some say that teamwork is a virtue that is essential to a team’s success. The former Sun Devil offensive linemen wouldn’t dispute that notion, since it’s that exact trait that he feels was the foundation for the team’s 11-1 record ten years ago. “The first thing that comes to mind about that season is that we were such good friends from top to bottom,” said Murphy who was voted 2nd team All Pac-10 that year. “We cared about each other, and we competed not only for ourselves but also for our teammates – we didn’t want to let anybody down. You didn’t want to be that weak link that breaks the whole chain and causes us to fail. The season for me wasn’t all about the wins, but just also striving to be the best we could be – everybody got the most out of ourselves that year.”
If there’s any silver lining in failure, it’s that it can fuel great hunger that ultimately results in great prosperity. The Sun Devils finished 6-5 in the 1995 season, and three of their losses that year were by three points each. “We had a good number of victories after a slow start,” recalls Murphy. “We were really rolling after beating Oregon in their place (35-24) and they were ranked 10th at the time. We had an opportunity to go to a bowl game had we beaten Arizona. We were up by 14 with seven and half minutes to go, and we didn’t seal the deal (losing 31-28). From that moment on everybody understood that we had to dedicate ourselves in the weight room and the film room, so we never feel like we did after the Arizona loss again. In the off-season, very few people left town – we were all there busting our butts.”
There were many starts on both side of the ball in 1996, but none were bigger than current Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer. As an offensive lineman, Murphy naturally got to witness the signal caller’s greatness from close range. Plummer’s elusiveness was probably his greatest trademark, which makes one wonder how that suited a lineman like Murphy when it came to blocking such a mobile quarterback. “That’s a great question, one that I don’t get asked often,” he noted. “I think it’s two-fold. It’s great in the fact that he’s quick, can make something happen, and not take a sack when maybe you’re not blocking your best. But it can be difficult as well, because you’re trying to block for him and you can’t see where he’s going, but the defense can. Next thing you know the defense is beating your block and tackling him because he’s right next to you. But overall, he definitely made us look better at times than we were. I certainly wasn’t complaining then and I’m not gonna complain now. He was great leader and he made us a great team. It was never about him, it was always about the team.”
The 19-0 victory over Nebraska ten years ago will probably always stand as Arizona State’s greatest victory ever. Nonetheless, Murphy doesn’t feel that this win was the point of the season where the maroon and gold felt like they had a chance for a truly remarkable season. “The Nebraska game was special because we shut them out,” Murphy stated, “but I don’t think we knew what we really had until we came back to beat UCLA and beat USC in overtime. That’s when we knew we had an opportunity to do something rare. It really hit everybody when we came back from 21 down to beat UCLA (42-34), and then taking the punches from USC and still winning (48-35 in double overtime). So I would point to those two games.”
A monumental game in its own right that season was the thrashing of rival Arizona on the road, in the last game of the regular season. “It could have been a trap game for us,” admitted Murphy. “We had the Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl clinched. You got what you have set to do, but you still have to make sure that you come out playing. The first quarter was a back and forth game, and then all of a sudden we turned it on and beat them 56-14 and the score could have been worse. Overall, that was probably the game I had the most fun in. Anytime you can beat your rival by 42 points, it’s pretty special.”
There was obviously not much time to relish in that victory, since the preparations for the Rose Bowl entered a high gear shortly after. The magnitude of that game is one that Murphy and his teammates felt strongly through out that Jan 1st 1997 night in Pasadena, Calif. “It was awesome. Playing in front of 100,000 people, millions watching at home…it was hard for me to settle down until the second half,” explained Murphy. “You try not to think about all that, but it was a huge game with huge implications. You wanna remain undefeated and win the national championship; you’re playing a great defense and a school with a lot of tradition and talent. We thought we had it there in the end, and unfortunately we didn’t. We gave everything we had in that game. I’m very proud I was on that team. It was a positive experience.”
These days Murphy keeps tabs on his alma mater in several different ways. “I try to watch them every time they’re on TV. If they’re not on TV, I definitely check the score in the newspaper,” he said. “I keep in contact with (ASU’s Media Relations Director) Doug Tammaro quite a bit to see how things are going. It’s hard for me to see games in person because I coach on Friday nights and work on the weekends, like any coach. I don’t like watching then play at USC or UCLA and sit among the throngs of USC and UCLA fans.”
This weekend however, Kyle Murphy will be surrounded by nothing else than throngs of ex-teammates and the Sun Devil faithful. The last time he did get together with his 1996 comrades was during a somber event. “We did see each other two years ago, in less than ideal circumstances for Pat Tillman’s jersey retirement,” he said. “I’m looking forward to this great and exciting weekend. I like the guys on that team. I don’t have a chance to talk to many of the guys like I used to, being busy during the week…but for those of us that are going we’ll meet and pick up exactly where we left at.”
Which was an unforgettable 1996 Sun Devil season…