Ron Murphy has never been one for self-congratulatory sentiment. That hasn’t changed, not even now that he’s on the verge of what might be the most important milestone in what has already been a glorious career.
“Everyone wants to put my name on that achievement, but in reality, there are so many different names that belong,” said Murphy, the longtime — and only — head baseball coach at Rio Rancho High School since the first year of the program in 1998. “I just happen to be the head coach.”
The achievement to which he refers?
He’s on the verge of becoming the winningest high school baseball coach in New Mexico history.
Sometime in the next week or two, Murphy, closing in on his 62nd birthday, is likely to join a top-of-the-summit coaching fraternity whose members include Ralph Tasker and Eric Roanhaus, men who are also all-time win leaders in their sport.
At 580 wins following the Rams’ 15-1 victory on Tuesday against Cibola, Murphy is one victory shy of tying John Gutierrez (Bloomfield, Navajo Prep) atop the career wins list.
Gutierrez finished 581-262 in a head coaching career that began in 1966 and finished in 2014.
Murphy (580-211-1) can tie Gutierrez on Friday night, when the Rams (13-0, 2-0) — currently ranked No. 2 by MaxPreps.com — play host to No. 1 Cleveland (12-2, 1-1) in a District 1-5A showdown.
“Records are made to be broken, and I’m glad it’s him that’s (going to be) setting the record,” said Cleveland coach Shane Shallenberger, who himself is closing in on 300 career wins. He’s at 298 following a 6-5 upset loss at Volcano Vista on Tuesday. “To be the winningest coach in the state is obviously surreal. It’s unbelievable how many years and how much time he’s put into this. I’m happy for him.”
Only three men have reached the 500-win plateau in baseball. The third is Eldorado’s Jim Johns, who retired five years ago after compiling 552 wins with the burnt orange in his stellar career.
“I thought it might be Jimmy Johns that would break it first,” Gutierrez said. Gutierrez, now 83, is retired and still lives in Bloomfield. “But Ron just kept plugging away. Ron’s a good guy, and it’s great that he’d be the one to break it.”
Murphy would probably have passed Gutierrez last year, had the pandemic not wiped out nearly all of Rio Rancho’s 2020 season.
Murphy’s coaching career began at Sandia with the Matadors’ junior varsity. He was St. Pius’ head coach for seven seasons (1991-97, with two state finals appearances) before leaving for Rio Rancho.
And now that he is poised to ascend to No. 1, Murphy was reluctant to speak too much in detail on the topic.
“I haven’t thought about it much, to be honest,” he said. “I’m concerned about my in-season kids, going game to game. I’ve kept it pretty low key.”
There is one exception: Murphy will break Gutierrez’s record with his son, Tyler, in uniform and at his side. It’s something Murphy said he’s been thinking about for several years. Tyler Murphy is a senior for the Rams this season.
“Other than that,” he added, “it’s a team award. And that award comes from having great assistant coaches, great players, a great community in Rio Rancho — and at St. Pius when I was there — and a great administration.”
Murphy’s teams have long played as a reflection of his intense and focused personality, and he’s well known for holding players to the same standard regardless of their status. Talent, Shallenberger, is only a portion of the puzzle that has helped Murphy excel at his craft.
“Every year, his teams play the same type of ball,” Shallenberger said. “It’s more of a system that carries over each year.”
But it took some time to comprehend the bigger picture, Murphy admitted.
“I think I’m a pretty good baseball coach,” he said. “I do things the right way. I care about kids, I care about academics. I’m just like them; I make mistakes. We’re in this as a team.
“It’s not all about baseball. When I was young and dumb, I thought it was all about winning. Then it kicked in to me that winning was only a small part of it.”
It is, Murphy said emphatically, also about the process of shaping the character of his players, about preparing them for the world beyond Rio Rancho’s hallways.
“That’s important for your program,” he said. “That’s how you gain respect.”
It is no surprise that men who preached adherence to discipline, men like Billy Martin and Bill Parcells, are managers/coaches that Murphy fashions himself after philosophically. Feisty and intense, Murphy said with a small laugh, knowing full well he was also describing himself.
And he shows no signs of slowing down.
Murphy has coached three Rio Rancho teams to state championships (2007, 2009, 2013). After 31 seasons, he’s been the recipient of numerous coaching accolades — including, earlier this year, national Coach of the Year for the 2019-20 school year as selected by the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS.
After his decades on the bench and the third-base coaching box, Murphy, when pressed, said three teams hold a unique place in his heart.
“In 1985, the first team at Sandia. The first team at St. Pius. And the first team at Rio Rancho,” he said. “Those are special because they were all new experiences.”
Another new experience awaits.
High school baseball
- John Gutierrez (Bloomfield, Navajo Prep): 581
- Ron Murphy (St. Pius, Rio Rancho): 580
- Jim Johns (Eldorado): 552