CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- This is an admittedly strange place for a softball story to begin, what with snow still covering grass and the chill still hiding faces and hands beneath scarves and gloves. Winter tends to linger in Iowa.
But this is where a college softball team began the defense of its national championship in February. It's also where you find the roots of that title in a room full of middle-aged guys years removed from their high school baseball glory.
This is where softball found Alabama coach Patrick Murphy, and where the Sumner Aces found a baseball coach.
It took both for the Tide to become the program it is today.
Growing up in Fayette, a town of a couple of thousand in Iowa's northeast corner, Murphy found most family gatherings proceeded in a predictable pattern. Regardless of the original impetus for getting together, people inevitably moved outside and picked up bats, gloves and balls. So it was hardly a surprise he and a cousin ended up throwing the softball in the yard during a high school graduation party for one of his sisters.
Murphy was in eighth grade, already playing baseball for the high school team (a function of his ability and a school so small it had to drop football for lack of players). His cousin had been a high school softball pitcher. He asked her to show him her stuff, as boys of a certain age are wont to do in what amounts to a dare, and she replied with a rise ball. His glove went up. The ball went up more. Right into his nose.
"It was just the spin on the ball," Murphy said. "I think that was my first realization that the sport of fastpitch softball could be really something. Just by a little bit of difference in the wrist snap, what a ball could do. I couldn't believe it.
"But I can still remember exactly how it felt."
Fast-forward more than three decades to a surprise party for Murphy, the Alabama coach who returned home for a season-opening indoor tournament hosted by the University of Northern Iowa, his alma mater, from which he graduated in 1988. At one end of a long room, two tables of young women in the peak of their athletic lives, clad in their crimson jerseys, look on in varying states of amusement. At the other end of the room, middle-aged men in bright orange shirts stand together. Some still look ready to lace up cleats. Others look like their athletic primes peaked during the Reagan administration. Most have wives and kids milling around, some of the latter looking like they might be almost as old as the Alabama players.
The men don't look much younger than the coach they came here to surprise because they aren't, just as they weren't in high school when Murphy showed up as the new baseball coach at Sumner High School.
The first team Murphy coached was in a summer youth softball league in Fayette while he was still in college at Northern Iowa. He promised those kids he would do cartwheels across the infield if they scored a certain number of runs. His recollection is he did a lot of cartwheels that summer. But the first truly competitive team that fell under his stewardship was the Aces. He was a few weeks clear of college graduation.
Iowa's high school baseball season runs during the summer months, which can make it challenging to retain coaches who either aren't teachers and couldn't make a living on coaching alone or are teachers and don't want to give up their summer months. Roger Teeling, one of the Sumner players whose father, Les, was also the athletic director at the school, said the elder Teeling had no interest in hiring someone fresh out of college. But he came home one day and said there was something about this kid he interviewed that made him change his mind. Still living in his mom's house in Fayette, Murphy's players were barely younger than he was when he took over.
It didn't take long for him to kick his first player out of practice for repeatedly lobbing the ball in a drill. More followed, Murphy playing the part of Gene Hackman's character in "Hoosiers," minus the decades of experience.
"We grew up together," said former Sumner player Matt Lohman of that team's core. "And he comes in as a new guy we had no connection to. So he had to establish himself and a rapport with us to get us to buy into what he was doing and everything. But obviously he was very able to do that. You could see, after you were around him for a while, that he wanted the best for everyone. No matter what your talent was, he found ways to get the best out of you."
They went 20-5 that first season. The next season they made it to the state championship game.
By this time Murphy was also working as an assistant softball coach under Yvette Girouard at Southwest Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) while in graduate school, making all of $6,000 a year. He had worked in sports information as a student at Northern Iowa and found himself more and more fascinated by softball. He and a friend went to the Women's College World Series and saw the game played at a whole new level by pitching stars like Lisa Longaker, Connie Clark and Shawn Andaya. Sumner players today express little surprise he ended up choosing softball, recalling the times he would stop throwing overhand in batting practice and start whipping in softball-style underhand pitches.
There was a lot of softball left to learn once Murphy left Sumner and baseball for good after three summers and went back to Southwest Louisiana. He eventually left to be an assistant for a brand-new program at Alabama; two years later, he took over as head coach. It took some years for him to find the right mix of power hitting and small ball, just as it did to master the lineup machinations possible with softball's peculiar rules. It took a few abbreviated stays in the Women's College World Series for him to loosen up a bit, lest his teams play tight in the biggest moments, to find, as he put it, the fine line between loose and silly.
He still uses many of the same drills now that he used with the Sumner players. And he is still a perfectionist, perhaps a little more at ease behind his familiar smile and glasses but perpetually poised to bring down the wrath.
It seems he hasn't changed all that much, and that isn't a bad thing.
"Those guys wouldn't show up here if he didn't have an impact on them," Alabama All-American infielder Kaila Hunt said. "They're not just going to show up for any coach. To get them all back after who knows how many years, that just tells you what kind of coach he is and what kind of impact he has on the people he coaches."
Turning his attention to the Alabama players during the surprise party, Teeling asked if Cassie Reilly-Boccia was in the crowd. A senior on last season's championship team whom Murphy convinced to come to Tuscaloosa from New York, she is now in graduate school at Northern Iowa studying biomechanics. Teeling told the players they had an advocate for life in Murphy, and as proof, he asked Reilly-Boccia if she had heard from him since she arrived in Iowa.
Of course she had. He was the reason she was there to begin with.
Her time at Alabama winding down, she had been looking for a graduate program that merged biomechanics with sports research. She wasn't picky, any sport would do, but still she couldn't find anything. Then walking between classes one day she saw she had a message from Murphy. Sounding as excited as if telling her she had been named an All-American, he said he had found a program for her -- and they wanted to study softball.
It wasn't just the appearance in the state championship game that brought the Aces back together when Murphy came to town. It wasn't just the national championship that brought Reilly-Boccia.
"Maybe freshman and sophomore year, I thought this was only softball relevant," Reilly-Boccia said of her experience with Murphy and the Alabama coaching staff. "Then I started to realize junior, senior year that they were going to impact me for the rest of my life. They're on my mind daily, just with everything they've done for me. I hear from them a ton. Murph's always checking in. He has so many people in his life; it's unbelievable how he makes everybody feel like they're his priority. He's a special guy."
Now an elementary school principal in Iowa, Teeling was attending a conference in St. Louis when Alabama played the third and decisive game of last season's championship series against Oklahoma. He arranged his travel plans to be in the hotel in time to watch the game, but rain delays in Oklahoma City pushed the action deep into the night. He had to be at registration for the conference first thing in the morning, but he watched to the end.
"Here I am at 1:30 in the morning, screaming in my hotel room, going nuts for coach," Teeling recalled.
Despite the rise ball to the face and his exploration of the sport in college, Alabama almost didn't get the architect of its success. That first summer with the Aces, Murphy waited and waited for either a full-time teaching offer or acceptance in a graduate program. The University of Ohio turned him down. Southwest Louisiana was the only iron still in the fire. If that hadn't come through and Girouard hadn't called when she did, Iowa might still be home.
"I probably would have got a high school teaching job and just continued to coach, probably basketball and baseball," Murphy said. "I would have been a teacher and a coach, and I would have enjoyed it."
He left, but the roots of Alabama's success are still visible here, even in the middle of winter.