SB Nation

Bill Littlefield | December 11, 2012

Back on the ice

A Title IX trailblazer and the best women's hockey coach in America rebuilds

Digit Murphy might have been a terrific coach for the Brown University men’s ice hockey team. It's a shame she didn’t get a shot at the job three winters ago.

Murphy’s qualifications included – and include - the kind of energy that makes everybody in the room sit up straight and listen when she begins talking, which she rarely fails to do. That’s a useful quality when you are trying to recruit a player who’s been offered a free ride at North Dakota, Wisconsin or Minnesota, or, if he prefers the east, Boston University or Boston College, both former national champions, to a school that technically doesn't give athletic scholarships.

Slight and bright-eyed Murphy doesn’t do sitting stillSo, energy. Slight and bright-eyed Murphy doesn’t do sitting still. She looks as if her short, dark hair should be wind-blown, even when there's no wind. She is the sort of person who’ll text you to see if you’re in your office. Text back “Yes,” and in a few minutes she’ll be there, a slender, youthful storm of sound and enthusiasm in space that feels too small to contain her as she hands out her business cards at random, then earnestly tries to convince your graduate-student intern that she’s wasting her time in radio and should come to work for the Boston Blades. Actually, Murphy’s not the sort of person who does that. She is the person who did that where I work, at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station at Boston University, on a weekday in October when she came to town to talk to a class and found herself facing 15 minutes without an audience. She must have figured somebody needed to hear about the line of sports clothes and equipment she planned on designing for women, or the blog post she is writing to encourage women who want to be coaches, or the partnerships she is trying to build with various celebrities in support of various progressive adventures.

Digit Murphy, far left, sits rink-side.
She was also the first coach of a women's ice hockey team to win 300 games

But I digress. Murphy also would have brought to the men’s job the sort of present-at-the-creation cred that few coaches can claim. She built the women’s program at Brown into a powerhouse, won multiple Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) championships, and developed several of the players, including Tara Mounsey and Katie King, who eventually enabled the U.S. team to beat the Canadian women’s team and win both world championships and Olympic gold. She was the first coach of an American women’s ice hockey team to win 200 games. She was also the first coach of a women’s ice hockey team to win 300 games.

And as the year marking the recognition of the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX winds down, it’s worth mentioning that Murphy has also fought the good fight on that front. In 1992, Brown was hit with a lawsuit for failing to comply with the provisions of Title IX. During the previous year, the university had reconfigured its athletic program in a way that pissed off the wrong athletes, several of whom contended – successfully, as it turned out – that Brown had failed to provide the female athletes at the school with the opportunities mandated by the law. This circumstance arose partly because women slightly outnumbered men at Brown, and perhaps partly because the people in charge of distributing the money among the athletic teams at Brown mistakenly believed nobody would mind much or perhaps even notice if they shortchanged women’s gymnastics and women’s volleyball. But it certainly arose in part because female athletes and women in general at Brown were not inclined to accept second best as fair enough, even though second best at Brown was better than what most female athletes elsewhere were getting. The resultant battle caught some people by surprise. As the outgoing athletic director, Mike Goldberger, recently said, “We always felt at Brown that we had done a great job in terms of providing opportunities for women in college athletics.”

“It was hell going through a Title IX battle in ‘90s” Digit Murphy, middle, coaches the Boston Blades.

The conflict put others, Murphy among them, in the sort of position where mastery of X’s and O’s doesn't much help. The fight against sexism resists reduction to symbols on a chalkboard. “It was hell going through a Title IX battle in the ‘90s,” Murphy says. “You could sense the tension in the air at staff meetings. You knew who was on one side of the issue and who was on the other side. It really was men versus women, and it was hard. I remember in 1994, being seven months pregnant and testifying against my employer. That was pretty hairy.”

“Hairy,” but eventually triumphant. After several years and countless billable hours of legal wrangling, Brown settled the suit filed by a handful of aggrieved female athletes and officially known as Cohen v Brown University. To this day the university has to file papers each year with Lynette Labinger, the Providence attorney who represented the students, demonstrating that the university is abiding by the terms of that settlement. So on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, when according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, about 80 percent of the colleges and universities in the country are not complying with the law in the realm of athletics, Brown is either complying or constantly trying to demonstrate that they are making a sincere attempt to do so.

But in 2009, Brown could have moved beyond that federally-mandated goal by announcing that the time for a female coach to run a men’s hockey team had come. “Women have served in the senate,” they might have said. “They have run the State Department and they have presided over Fortune 500 Companies and they have achieved the rank of general in the armed forces and they have won Nobel Peace Prizes. Now one of them will coach the men’s hockey team at a D-1 school.”

But they didn’t say any of those things, because they didn’t give Murphy the job.

During the 2006-2007 season, her 18th at Brown, Murphy became the most successful coach in the short history of Division I women’s ice hockey, at least in terms of number of games won. When she left Brown in 2011 – and more on that shortly – she’d compiled a record of 318-202-52. Somewhere after win number 300, she felt the need to conquer new worlds – or at least to bang hard on the door between herself and one of them. That’s when she walked into Mike Goldberger’s office and told him she wanted to coach the men.

According to Brown's head football coach, Phil Estes, who was present at Murphy’s interview, she nailed it, which is jock-talk for she was thoroughly impressive.

But to no avail. Brendan Whittet, Brown ‘94, got the job … his first as a head coach. The team has since finished 11th, 9th and 12th in the 12-team ECAC.

After the interview, Murphy returned to her place behind the bench of the women’s team, which had become, by then, a much less comfortable place, which is part of the reason that Murphy is currently coaching the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, an aggregation of which you are probably unaware if you live south of Montreal, Toronto and Alberta. Boston is the only U.S.-based team in the league.

“I encouraged her to go for the men’s job,” said Aronda Kirby, Murphy’s domestic partner for the past decade. We were among the 30 or so people watching the Blades scrimmage against the Boston University women’s team on a Saturday afternoon in early October when she said it. “Given what she’d accomplished as the women’s coach, there wasn't much available as a next step. She started getting media calls as soon as the men's job opened up.”

The people on the other end of those “media calls” obviously thought Murphy could have been the first woman to assume the head coaching duties for a Division I men’s team, and Aronda Kirby felt the same way.

“At first, I thought, ‘Of course they’re gonna do it at Brown.’ I couldn't have been more disappointed, given her proven record. But people are afraid of change.”

“People” might be. Neither Kirby nor Murphy was when each divorced her husband and they set up a household together with Murphy’s four children and Kirby’s two.

“We met around the issue of social justice,” Murphy told me. “They were trying to build a power plant in North Smithfield, R.I., and we were both active in the campaign against it. And we had sons in the same kindergarten class, so we had a lot in common. After a while, we discovered we were soul mates.”

Brown responded to that particular change appropriately, but the same can’t be said for some of the coaches going after the same hockey players Digit Murphy coveted.

“There was negative recruiting,” she said. "There were a lot of ridiculous rumors and innuendo about my program. All lies."

She didn’t choose to go into more specifics, but what “negative recruiting” generally means in this context is that an opposing coach tells high school kids that the gay coach’s program is a nest of lesbians.

For Digit Murphy, the need for change at work was accelerated when the women’s team to which she returned after unsuccessfully seeking the men’s job began losing. A lot. Under Murphy, the team had peaked during the 2001-2002 season, when they won 25 games against just eight losses and two ties and made it to the NCAA Championship, where they lost to Minnesota-Duluth. During the final three years of Murphy's tenure, Brown went 5-19-5, 7-21-1, and 3-21-4.

Stats like those don’t lead to long-term contracts, even for pioneers, especially if the pioneer is regarded by those who supervise her as a pain in the ass.

She’s fiery, highly competitive, demands a lot from her players

“We hadn’t been winning,” Murphy says of those days. “I had been outspoken about the lack of support from the institution, including the lack of financial support. Our aid packages weren’t as good as the ones being offered elsewhere in the Ivy League. Yale and Princeton say you pay 10 percent of your income if you come; Brown said you gotta pay more. There’s a very limited pool of candidates who have the talent, the money, and the smarts to be successful here. Brown also wasn't keeping up with other programs in terms of things like salaries for assistant coaches, which didn’t help. When I asked ‘How can we improve this? How can we make it better?’ I was perceived as negative. I was stigmatized as aggressive.”

Of course “aggressive” was and is the point. “Aggressive” thy name is Digit Murphy. Brian Durocher, currently in his eighth season as the coach of the Boston University women’s hockey team, was an assistant in the men's program at Brown from 1992 through 1996. Asked about his impressions of Murphy during those seasons, when her teams were winning ECAC regular-season championships, Durocher smiles. “I heard her in the corridor from time to time,” he says. “Pretty good volume. But you’re not gonna be a pioneer if you're timid. She’s fiery, highly competitive, demands a lot from her players.”

Katey Stone, who coaches the Harvard University women’s team and will lead the U.S. National Team in the 2014 Olympics, concurs. “She has the energy of five people,” Stone said recently.

These would all be splendid qualities for a male coach seeking work, but all the progress resulting from Title IX notwithstanding, Murphy discovered that when her team was no longer winning, those qualities got her stigmatized rather than celebrated.

The losing seasons, the aggression, and maybe the energy as well led Brown to wait until the end of the season to offer the pioneer who’d built women’s hockey into an attraction a one-year contract. When Murphy cut a player for her negative attitude, she was not supported by the administration. When she pointed out that competing programs were paying their assistant coaches $10,000 and $20,000 dollars more than Brown would budget for her assistants, she was advised to win anyway.

If enthusiasm for the energetic, ambitious, and contentious coach who’d won 300 hockey games was tepid in the athletic department at Brown, there was no lack of appreciation at Cornell, where Margaret Digidio (hence “Digit”) made All-Ivy four years running as a player and was Ivy League Player of the Year in 1981. She’d first found hockey as a self-described “kid from the wrong side of the tracks” drawn to a girls’ hockey team started by “two stay-at-home-Moms” in Cranston, R.I. It paid off in the opportunity to study and play hockey at Cornell, where last year, the current assistant women’s hockey coach made a video celebrating Murphy’s achievements as a coach, an educator, and an inspirational figure … at least according to lots of the women who’d played for her or against her teams.

Some of those women are still associated with Murphy, and at least one of them feels that without the association, she might not be playing anywhere. Kelli Stack, who graduated from Boston College in 2011, is in her second season with the Boston Blades. Murphy was named the team’s general manager and head coach in September, a development Stack feels was critical. “If it weren’t for Digit, we probably wouldn’t have a team,” she told me. It may not be an exaggeration. At the Blades game I attended at Harvard’s Bright Arena last winter, where the team then played, the players nearly outnumbered the fans. This was ridiculous, since both the Blades and the visiting team from Montreal featured women who had played for the U.S. or Canadian national teams in the Olympics and in World Championship tournaments. They were the best female ice hockey players in the world, and you could sit anywhere you wanted and have about a one-in-20 chance at winning an autographed jersey and a season ticket if you had a dollar to drop into the glass jar by the door.

“Digit’s a leader on the ice, in fundraising, and in every aspect of what’s necessary to put a team together,” says Stack. “She was scary as an opposing coach. She was loud and exciting, and she’s got a great hockey mind.” It’s significant that the conjunction Stack uses is “and” rather than “but.” Those responsible for Murphy’s departure from Brown probably would have gone with “but.”

One of Kelli Stack’s teammates, Hillary Knight, has known Murphy for more than a decade. “I went to Digit’s summer camps when I was in seventh and eighth grade,” she told me. “My first reaction to her was, ‘This woman’s crazy.’ It’s all passion. I’m surprised they didn’t hire her as the men’s coach at Brown. She’s an icon.”

if anybody can lift the pro league out of near-total obscurity, Murphy can

If so, Murphy is the sport’s most active icon, and that’s a necessary quality for somebody brave or foolhardy enough to become the loud and grinning face of the Boston Blades. Harvard women's hockey coach Katey Stone has said that if anybody can lift the pro league out of near-total obscurity, Murphy can. “She's a good fit for the team and the league,” Stone says, which means, in part, that Murphy can handle preposterous road trips. The schedule demands weekend bus rides between Boston and Toronto or Boston and Montreal. The home ice in Somerville, Mass., might be kindly characterized as lacking the amenities D-1 coaches and players have been able to take for granted for years. Once characterized by Jonathan Richman as a town with “a sub shop on every corner,” Somerville, which abuts Cambridge, which abuts Boston, is a dandy place to get a sandwich. It's also an easy place to get lost when you're looking for the skating rink, and the world’s best female hockey players and their coach who play their home games there have learned that Title IX doesn’t apply in a struggling professional league.

Murphy is determined to turn the venue to her advantage. “I feel like we’ve been welcomed into an ‘old school’ hockey community,” she says. “In this environment I hope we’ll be able to create something reminiscent of the “Slapshot” days, but with bigger, stronger, faster athletes. It’s the intimacy of the arena that reminds me of “Slapshot,” not the fighting or the brutal, booze-bag hockey.”

At Wisconsin, Knight played regularly before crowds of 2,000 fans and the perks were commensurate with the attraction the team had become. When the Blades battled the B.U. women’s team in preparation for the 2012-2013 season, things were different. “I’m walking in here in my uniform, carrying my own bag,” Knight told me. “I’ve never done that elsewhere. You have to remember your sneakers, your gum, your tampons. You have to bring all that stuff, because it’s not going to be waiting in the locker room for you, the way it was in college. And you do your own laundry.”

Knight, who helped Wisconsin win the NCAA Title and the U.S. National Team win the World Championship, thinks she may eventually attend law school or business school, but she’s grateful that the Blades are providing her with an opportunity to continue playing hockey between Olympic and other tournament engagements with the National Team. She isn't provided with much else. Some of the players associated with national programs get small stipends, but most of them have day jobs. Some of them are assistant coaches. Some run clinics. “We haven’t lost sight of why we play. It's because we love the game, and it’s exciting to be in on the beginning of something with this league, even though some of us are living on food stamps,” Knight says.

Boston Blades warm-up before a game.

One of the current Blades with a particularly acute sense of Murphy’s place in this adventure on ice is Karen Thatcher, who’s been with the Blades since 2010. Before transferring to Providence College after her freshman season, Thatcher played for Murphy at Brown, which could not provide her with the financial help Providence offered.

“Digit tried to help with the money, but it is what it is,” Thatcher told me. “Digit’s a mover, but sometimes people haven’t been ready to change.”

When reminded of Murphy’s application for the men’s job, Thatcher smiled and said, “Maybe in the next 10 years. I agree with her, but I often don’t have the cojones to push it like she does.”

Sometimes Murphy herself acknowledges discouragement with the struggle. Away from the rink she will admit that what she calls “the raffle ticket and candy sales circuit” is a far cry from what she, too, had become accustomed to as a the head coach of one of the most successful D-1 women’s hockey programs in the country and a consultant to the U.S. program that has produced national teams that have won world championships and Olympic gold. Her personal life has been full of challenges as well. Murphy and Kirby have long fought to achieve the same rights and privileges they had when they were married to men, such as tax breaks limited to married couples and family leave if their children or partners are ill.

“We’ve had all the rights,” Murphy told a television interviewer in 2007. “We want them back.”

women must still battle for the opportunity even to coach women’s teams, especially those with a high profile

Some things have changed in the ensuing five years, but many things haven’t. In this year, the 40th anniversary of Title IX, women must still battle for the opportunity even to coach women’s teams, especially those with a high profile. Ask lots of folks to name one transcendent coach of a women’s team in this country and if they don’t say Pat Summitt, they’ll answer “Geno Auriemma,” the man who presides over UConn women's basketball team. The WNBA is thoroughly dependent on NBA support and two women’s pro soccer leagues have failed, each after only three years of operation. Beyond the sometimes insular world of sports, in many places a politician lacking an issue can count on collecting loud support by coming out against gay marriage.

The larger context matters to Murphy, because she understands the challenge she has accepted with the Blades as part of a more ambitious struggle. “It’s about how women value themselves, and how society values women,” she says. “We have to value our athletes for the sport they play. You’re not gonna get things unless you ask ‘Why not?’ It’s about how you value yourself.”

Given some of the disappointments that have befallen Murphy over the past few years and the stubborn nature of the prejudices she’s been battling for several decades, not to mention the “crowds” before which her team of extremely talented but largely unappreciated athletes are currently playing, who could blame Digit Murphy for being discouraged?

Nobody. But she’s not.

“Nah,” she told me. “I’m re-energized. I’m building again.”

About the Author


Bill Littlefield is the host of National Public Radio’s weekly sports program, Only A Game, produced at WBUR Boston. He is the writer-in-residence at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, the author of two novels,” Prospect” (for which he also wrote a screenplay) and “The Circus in the Woods.” He has published two collections of his radio and magazine work, “Keepers” and “Only A Game.” He was the guest editor of The Best American Sports Writing 1998. He is a graduate of Yale University and the Harvard University School of Education.

About the Author

Bill Littlefield is the host of National Public Radio’s weekly sports program, Only A Game, produced at WBUR Boston. He is the writer-in-residence at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, the author of two novels," Prospect" (for which he also wrote a screenplay) and "The Circus in the Woods." He has published two collections of his radio and magazine work, "Keepers" and "Only A Game." He was the guest editor of The Best American Sports Writing 1998. He is a graduate of Yale University and the Harvard University School of Education.