Rowing in Step

By Scott Cole / March / April 2004
June 14th, 2007
In retrospect, the conversation twenty years ago was one of the most important in John Murphy’s life. Having just been hired as head coach of the women’s crew team, Murphy was consulting then–director of athletics John Parry about hiring a coach for the novice team. Parry recommended retaining Phoebe Manzella ’82, a former rower who had just completed her first season as its coach. “As head coach, it’s your call,” Murphy recalls Parry saying. “But I’d like you to keep Phoebe. She’s excellent.”

Murphy, who was himself fresh from a highly successful run as the women’s novice coach at UC Berkeley, kept Manzella, a step that had truly unintended consequences. As the two coaches developed great professional respect for each other, they also became close friends—so close, in fact, that they were married in 1988. During the next sixteen years they found themselves presiding over a burgeoning family, as well as over Brown’s most consistently successful athletic program.

“When John was hired, there really wasn’t any time to advertise,” Phoebe recalls. “He decided to hang on to me and see how things worked out.” On the Murphys’ watch, Brown has won five Eastern Sprints team championships (in 1990 and every year from 1998 through 2001) and three Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships (1993, 1994, and 1996). They’ve also grabbed four national championships, including the National Collegiate Rowing Championship in 1996. No other Brown sport has ever won an NCAA team championship, but the women have captured one three times, in 1999, 2000, and 2002. (They lost last year’s by a single point.) Small wonder that along the way the Murphys have earned numerous coach-of-the-year honors from both the Eastern Association of Women’s Rowing Colleges and the College Rowing Coaches Association; in 2000 the latter group picked John Murphy as its national coach of the year.

So who are the Murphys, and why are they so successful? John, a Long Island native and graduate of Columbia, built his résumé on the West Coast, coaching the women’s novice team at Washington and, at different times, the men’s and women’s novice teams at UC Berkeley. Phoebe grew up in nearby Barrington, in the shadow of the Brown campus, and learned to row as a teenager on the Seekonk River. She rowed at Brown for three of her four undergraduate years, including 1980, when she was one of the women’s lightweight four that won Brown’s first-ever women’s title at the Eastern Sprints. That team also finished third in the college nationals and sixth in the open nationals at the National Women’s Rowing Association’s Collegiate and National Rowing Championships, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After so many years in which Brown was part of her identity—as a student, an athlete, and then a coach—Phoebe decided after the 1985 season that some time away was in order. She lived and worked in the Boston area for a couple years, but says, “I liked John too much to stay away for too long.” She returned as novice coach in 1989.

The Murphys’ success relies on a blending of the two coaches’ strengths. The varsity has thrived on John’s mix of technical expertise and an ability to connect with his athletes, while Phoebe prepares the novices by emphasizing fundamentals. “John has such a sense of people as people,” Phoebe says, adding that he seems to understand the pressures that Ivy League students must withstand and has a feeling for just how much to push them for maximum performance. John also has “a really good eye for boat motion,” Phoebe adds. “I’m terribly basic. John is always looking for things to refine.”

For his part, John credits Phoebe for creating well-trained, mentally tough rowers. She is known as intense and demanding, so much so, she admits, that John once warned her, “You can’t treat them as if they’re criminals!” Karen Prazar ’04, one of the tricaptains of the 2004 varsity Bears, says of Phoebe, “She’s able to take people who’ve never rowed before and in three months have them rowing as good as someone who’s rowed for four years.” Both coaches also credit the quality and motivation of Brown’s female athletes. “We just get these great kids,” John says. “We don’t have to motivate them. You just have to show them what to do. They understand what it’s like to make a commitment.”

In Prazar’s view, the Murphys’ marriage has actually been fundamental to their success. “They’re very much individuals,” Prazar says. “They function well independently and they function together well. Even when you’re not a novice anymore, Phoebe’s there coaching. They have the same idea of what they expect from us and where they want us to go.” John adds that a key is the professional respect he and Phoebe have for each other: “I’ve offered many times to have Phoebe coach the varsity. A lot of schools have a second varsity coach. But she feels the novice program is such an important part of our program that she wants to handle that. We’re positively part of both squads. I ask her opinion of the varsity, and she asks my opinion of the freshmen. I really consider her the coach of both squads.”

Given that this spring is John’s twentieth season as head coach and Phoebe’s eighteenth as novice coach, people are understandably curious about how they’ve made the arrangement work for so long in their personal life. “We’re together a lot,” Phoebe admits. “People ask, ‘Don’t you see way too much of each other?’ But we’re so invested in what we do that it’s a positive thing. At the boathouse, we don’t like it to seem we’re married. During practice John does his thing, and I go out and do mine.” John adds that the couple is particularly disciplined about separating their personal life from coaching. “We could be at home having a long conversation,” he says, “but we don’t continue that conversation at work. When we’re at the boathouse, we’re not talking about our house needing to be painted.”

Spring is the most hectic time for the Murphys and their three children—fifteen-year-old Jack, fourteen-year-old Patrick, and eleven-year-old Penelope—as they and their athletes gear up for another run at national supremacy. This is when the stresses on their family are greatest. “Our children have been good sports about it,” Phoebe says, admitting that at this time of year, “there’s no way to avoid having crew be a part of their lives.” She and John hope that the family’s immersion in crew has enriched them, particularly the trips to the Henley Regatta in England. So far none of the kids has taken up rowing: Jack runs cross-country, Patrick prefers football, and Penelope plays lacrosse. “We do discuss [the rowing teams] at home,” John says, “more than the kids might like to hear, probably, but we try hard not to let it interfere.”

Meanwhile, keeping tabs on the Murphys are alumnae such as Rachel Anderson ’00, who was part of two NCAA championship teams at Brown, is a current member of the U.S. national team, was U.S. Rowing’s 2003 Female Athlete of the Year, and is vying for a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.

“It’s an unbelievable record,” she says of the Murphys’ achievements. “John goes up against these huge programs with huge resources, but he wins. When I was there, we were mostly schoolgirls from Long Island Sound. But he shaped us into warriors. He’d always ask us if we were cookie bakers or warriors. If we were cookie bakers, we could go. If we were warriors, we could stay.”

Anderson adds that if there’s one thing the Murphys do better than coach, it’s deflect praise. “What I really like is how modest John and Phoebe are,” she says. “Despite the wins we’ve had, they’re low-key, self-deprecating. I really appreciate that. At [the Olympic] training center, there are some people really full of themselves. But they never were.”

Phoebe explains that their commitment is really to the students rather than to their own achievements. “We know how fortunate we are to have the type of kids we’ve had over the years,” she says. “That’s such a major factor in why we have stayed at Brown. Success begins with strong ingredients. Here, the ingredients are of the highest quality.”

Scott Cole is a BAM contributing editor.
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March / April 2004