CEDAR FALLS – The photos scattered on the circular black waist-high tables. A white border surrounded each photo. Black ink signatures, which looked to come from a fountain pen, added color to the otherwise clean border.
It encased a team portrait. Almost hidden by the late 80s haircuts and the dull black and orange baseball jerseys, stood Patrick Murphy in a white uniform in the top right corner. Across the chest of the white jersey, the word “Aces” scripted across the chest.
Twenty-five years after the Sumner Aces assembled for the team photo, they reunited in the Alumni Suite in Northern Iowa’s McLeod Center Friday. Just like the photo, the team donned bright orange shirts with “Aces” screen printed in black across the chest. Again, Murphy was the outlier.
He walked into the room wearing a white cap, a grey jacket and crimson pants. One item mirrored the photo almost perfectly though. The “A” on his Aces jersey looked to be a close relative to the crimson “A” displayed upon Alabama softball cap.
“It was some of the best years of my life with these guys,” Murphy said to his now middle-aged players.
He then gazed toward the current squad he coaches, the defending national champion Alabama softball team, “Now it was the best year of my life with you guys.”
The best of the best combined this past weekend as Murphy brought his Crimson Tide to the UNI-Dome Tournament, where they began their reign as champions.
But the journey began at Sumner High School, where the black and orange made him look more like Garfield than Nick Saban.
“I knew when we hired someone we had someone with a commitment, resolve, values, everything that we need,” former Sumner athletic director Les Teeling said.
Murphy took the helm of the Sumner baseball team at 21 years old, barely more experienced in life than the players he coached. It didn’t take long for his habits to rub off though.
“(You) learned where you stood,” said Roger Teeling, who was a sophomore when his dad hired Murphy. “Coach was very driven even at a ripe young age of just leaving college. You know, in essence coaching kids that are entering college. He knew where he wanted to go and take us.”
In his second year he nearly took them to the top. Murphy guided Sumner to the first trip to states in school history. The Aces season ended with a 9-6 loss to Kee High School (Lansing) in the 2A final.
Fast forward 10 years after an assistant coaching spot at Louisiana-Lafayette, moonlighting as the Independence baseball head coach and head coaching Northwest Missouri State, Murphy arrived in Alabama as the Crimson Tide's head softball coach.
The similarities of between Sumner and Tuscaloosa went beyond the script “A.” Murphy accepted the job in 1999, and in his second year, he guided the Crimson Tide to their first appearance in the Women’s College World Series.
It marked the first of eight trips during the next 13 years, culminating in a title in 2012.
“He finally got that, as he says, monkey off his back last year,” Roger Teeling said.
And Sumner watched as Murphy etched his name into Crimson Tide lore. Roger Teeling, now an elementary principal, needed to travel to St. Louis for a conference. He planned his arrival around the title-clinching game. When he landed he found out the game had been delayed.
Not a conference, rain, or a series clinching win at 1:30 in the morning could prevent Roger Teeling from supporting his coach.
“I thought hotel security was going to come to my room because I was screaming at the top of my lungs, jumping on the bed,” Roger Teeling said. “I couldn’t have been happier for coach Murphy.”
The 5,084 fans shared that sentiment with a loud ovation as Murphy was introduced Friday night prior to Northern Iowa hosting Alabama. More fans witnessed Murphy’s squad pull out an 8-1 win than all but one of UNI’s basketball games this season.
The amount of fans isn’t anything new for Alabama, but the arena they packed even threw some intimidation at the No. 1 team in the country.
“It was almost like ‘Hoosiers’ when the boys from Hickory walked in and our girls were like, ‘This is huge,’” Murphy said. “But the bases are still 60 feet and the mound is 43 and it’s no big deal.”
Alabama went 5-0 in the weekend tournament growing Murphy’s school record in wins to 671. It’s a footnote to a sterling resume: 39 All-Americans, eight consecutive finishes in the Top 10, 14 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, three-time SEC Coach of the Year and leading the first SEC school to a WCWS championship.
Prior to Murphy arriving, the Tide never reached the WCWS. Since 2000, it's gone to eight.
But the path to the wins, the All-Americans, even the walnut-sized ring on his hand began on the turf at the UNI-Dome.
As Murphy walked off the makeshift field outlined in the dome Friday, he reminisced about how twenty five years prior he took a physical education class in the very same location.
Then he was an inexperienced college kid looking to get into the game of baseball. Sunday, after a 5-0 weekend, he walked off it standing atop the pinnacle of coaching.“It was a dream come true this past year,” Murphy said. “To have all these people here, I still have a lot of relatives in Iowa, three sisters, my mom, it’s just been a really good homecoming for me.”