Making a difference in the life of a child might not have been the first thing on Dennis Murphy’s to do list when he accepted the teaching job at South Wayne High School in the 1960s. But that’s eventually what happened after more than three decades of teaching and coaching.
He waited patiently for the job that felt like the right fit, and the place he landed right after college was where he stayed for his career’s duration. He said he has no regrets — and the driving force behind his longevity is the influence he may have had, and the support of his family all the while.
He was born in Dodgeville and grew up on a farm about seven miles from town. He said he spent most of his time on the beef farm that spanned more than 300 acres.
His father died when he was a senior in high school and he, along with his older brother and two younger sisters, then helped run the beef farm with their mother.
“I kind of grew up in a hurry,” he said.
Although his childhood was often spent working, and despite having little time to be social, he was an active youngster who always loved a pickup game of softball and football in the evenings and on Sundays, he said.
He was confined to the farm throughout the summer months, and would spend his days prepping for winter. He said his grandfather helped when he was able after his father, a diabetic, fell ill.
His first eight grades of school were spent at Garrison Grove, a one-room school house on his parents’ farm. He said his father was instrumental in getting the school started and served on the school board. He had four different teachers through the years and about 20 classmates. He said it was a positive experience and he enjoyed spending time helping younger children.
“Maybe that got me interested in teaching,” Murphy said.
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At Dodgeville High School, Murphy said he loved sports. He played football and baseball and even a little basketball. The family had only one vehicle, so Murphy recalls hitchhiking to and from practices then, though he never had trouble finding a ride.
“It was a rural area and people all kind of looked out for each other,” he said.
The 1960 Dodgeville High School graduate said with his mother’s encouragement he knew he would go on to college. He attended Platteville State Teacher’s College, now the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, to earn a teaching degree in agriculture. He would hitchhike home each weekend to help on the family farm.
He also played football at the college for four years. That opportunity connected him to some big influences that changed his life’s direction.
Murphy said he decided to minor in physical education. He stayed an extra year to earn another minor in driver’s education. He spent three summers after his graduation earning his master’s degree in physical education at Winona State University.
Although Murphy completed his teaching degree in ag, he often was found after school on the football field, skipping out on home farm visits expected of him.
“That finally convinced me that I wanted to go into coaching,” he said.
He was encouraged by his coaches thorough the years. He said he watched his high school coach, John Wilson, beat the odds by taking a small school to the top. His college coach, John Barth, was also a heavy influence on him because of his strong communication and relationships with athletes.
“When coaches take an interest in you — when someone does that — it’s what influenced me,” he said. “I thought that maybe I could influence others too.”
Murphy began his job search. A contract to begin teaching ag in Blue River sat on his desk, but he could never bring himself to sign it. He badly wanted a job where he could teach PE and coach.
“I just wanted a job that I wanted and I could be dedicated to,” he said.
The day before the contract had to be signed, he received a call from South Wayne High School, now Black Hawk, for an interview. He landed a position doing what he loved — teaching PE to K-12 students and coaching football and baseball.
“After the interview, they walked me to the front door, pointed out to the football field and said, ‘there’s your team,’” Murphy said, recalling how suddenly everything happened. “I went out in my suit; walked onto the field, up to Harry Friedli, and said ‘I guess I’m the head football coach.’”
Murphy didn’t have time to learn his players’ names before the first game. He wrote them on tape, affixing the labels to their helmets as a means of identifying them when giving direction.
“Talk about learning on the run,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know.”
He said he always played as a defensive running back, which proved to be a challenge when he began coaching. Murphy then had to change his focus to the entire game and on all of the players’ duties. It wasn’t easy. Each year, he attended clinics and often listened to and talked with other coaches.
“You can play the game, but coaching is a whole new element,” Murphy said.
If someone had told him that day it would be the start of nearly four decades of coaching, Murphy said he never would have believed them.
“I got initiated real fast,” he said, smiling as he expressed gratitude for the patience of parents and fans. “I look back on that and see now how intolerable people can be of coaches. But that’s why I liked South Wayne — there was tolerance from the people who understood what I was going through. I grew through that.”
Murphy was married to his wife, Millie, in 1971 after she began working as a secretary at the school. He said her support never waned while he coached into late nights and left in the early mornings — and she was instrumental in raising their four children.
“She had an interest in things I did — like coaching,” Murphy said, laughing at what struck his interest in Millie at first. “By ‘71 I guess I got tired of cooking for myself.”
Being a physical education teacher for a wide range of students was also highly rewarding for Murphy.
“If kids weren’t sure what they wanted to do I tried to channel them into athletics,” he said. “I like to think I had an influence on them.”
Although there were many wins and losses through the years, Murphy doesn’t often talk specific players or games. In many ways, no one was more important than any of the others, he said.
“I never mention names because each player I had somehow made the team what it was,” Murphy said. “To single out — you miss many who factored into your success. I really tried to find something for each kid to hang his hat on.”
Of course, it was memorable to go to state for the first time in 1998, and Murphy loved watching teams succeed.
“I’d like to think I had a factor in that, but it all goes back to the players,” he said.
When it came time to retire, Murphy said the timing felt right. One of the biggest reasons was Cory Milz, who was on Murphy’s football coaching staff at the time. It was a good moment, Murphy said, because he was able to pass the program on to Milz, a former student and athlete who is now the Black Hawk principal and coach.
“I went to him first,” Murphy said. “I wanted a good person to take over the program. When Cory took it, it was a blessing. He’s taken that program to another level. That’s a decision I’ve never regretted.”
In 2002, Black Hawk dedicated their football field, now Murphy Field, to the longtime coach. Murphy said it was an unexpected surprise that he still feels honored to hold. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 2002, the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Dodgeville Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012.
Although he planned to retire from coaching, a former Black Hawk alum and now Darlington baseball coach asked him to assist and he agreed. Another former student, Jon Satterlee, helps keep Murphy involved in sports by calling games through internet radio alongside him.
Staying busy is important; Murphy takes on painting and staining jobs. But he also said his priorities are “right” because he’ll never turn down an invitation to golf. Murphy also enjoys bow hunting, serves on the Darlington Police Commission, Knights of Columbus and is active at Holy Rosary Catholic Church. He also enjoys some light woodworking.
An annual golf outing is held in Murphy’s honor to raise scholarship money for students. He said he feels it’s one of the greatest things he’s accomplished, and seeing new people each year helping former students warms his heart.
Murphy loves running into former athletes and students to talk with them about what they’re doing.
“It makes me feel like something I did or said might have had an influence on them,” he said.
Today, Murphy and Millie enjoy their days together in their longtime hometown of Darlington. They have four children and enjoy visiting them and their six grandchildren. Although the home celebrates the Black Hawk Warriors with a banner made by a former student, the Redbird family has accepted it.
In parting, Murphy said he always thinks back to his years on the field and in the gymnasium and asks himself if he made a difference. He said it’s things like the golf outing and seeing his former students and athletes that have made him realize that he has.
“I think maybe — just maybe — I made a little difference in a kid’s life,” he said. “It kind of keeps me going.”