The identical-looking envelopes arrived on the same day. Three in the home mailbox of Ron Murphy, three in the home mailbox of Gerry Pannoni. Both men wondered if they had accidentally been sent the same letter three times.
“That’s what I thought,” Pannoni said. “Do I need to open all of these? Maybe I better.”
What they discovered, these two coaches at Rio Rancho High School, was the same treasure.
Murphy, the Rams’ longtime baseball coach, and Pannoni, the school’s new head football coach, each was honored this month as a national coach of the year for the 2019-20 school year by the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS.
“When I got it,” said Murphy, 61 and the only varsity baseball coach Rio Rancho has ever had, “I was all choked up and overwhelmed, because it was so unexpected.”
Murphy three times previously had been a finalist for this award. Only the country’s eight sectional coaches of the year are eligible for the national award.
“I don’t know where this ranks,” said Murphy, whose 567 career victories are second all-time in New Mexico. He’s only 14 behind the top spot, held by Bloomfield’s John Gutierrez, who has 581 wins. “The thing that gets me the most excited about this award is that it brings national attention to Rio Rancho High School baseball.”
Both Murphy, who has won three state championships at Rio Rancho, and Pannoni were sent three letters. One informed them that they were the coach of the year in their state – Pannoni’s coming in Virginia – and a second letter contained the news that they were a sectional coach of the year.
Murphy was the Southwest Section coach of the year. The national award takes into account not only a coach’s record from the school year, but their longevity and several other factors.
As the Rams only played a small handful of games in 2020 before the pandemic shut the season down, Murphy said the only way to look at this was to think of it as something of a lifetime recognition for an active coach.
“For the whole nation to know how good of a program you have? For me,” Murphy said, “that’s the top of the mountain.”
Murphy has been coaching baseball for 36 years.
Pannoni, 63, has four decades under his belt. He was hired by Rio Rancho in early February of last year.
He was coming off a perfect 15-0 season and a Class 6A state championship at South County High in Virginia. For that reason, Pannoni viewed his award in a somewhat different light than Murphy.
“I think it was definitely for the 2019 season,” Pannoni said. He is a three-time Northern Virginia Football Hall of Fame Coach of the Year. And he isn’t sure how to classify this honor in relation to other awards in his career.
“I remember, when I interviewed at Rio Rancho, and they said, ‘Can you tell us what your career record was?’ And I said, honestly, I don’t pay attention to it.
“I’ve had a bunch of coach of the year awards, but I don’t keep track of them. Anytime you get an award, it’s a great honor.”
Pannoni did concede that no other award carried the same prestige as this one.
“Nothing close to this,” he said, adding, “For me, it never changes anything about how much I work. If somebody were to follow me around, you’d think every team I coached was 0-10.”