Head football coach Dwayne Murphy gravely ponders game film in the boys' gymnasium at California High School, in the San Francisco suburb of San Ramon. Head baseball coach Mike Davis watches his colleague with both admiration and amusement. Davis, effervescent and boyish, enjoys nothing more than needling his more contemplative friend about everything from his age (Murphy is 39, Davis 35) to his weight (Murphy, still trim, is about 10 pounds heavier than Davis).
"What's that formation you're running there?" Davis inquires.
"The wing T," says Murphy, eyes still fixed on the screen.
"The what?" Davis howls with laughter. "Man, don't you know that we're in the '90s?"
December 12, 1994
"I said wing T, not wing tips," Murphy says, hand clapped to his forehead in exasperation. He looks about the room in apparent despair. "This man knows nothing at all about football."
The locker room banter has a familiar ring to it. So, you might say, do the names Dwayne Murphy and Mike Davis. And well they should, because the two coaches were teammates for eight years with the Oakland Athletics. Murphy in his prime was among baseball's premier centerfielders, a six-time Gold Glove winner in the '80s, a lefthanded power hitter who, in '84, hit 33 homers and drove in 88 runs. Davis's career in the outfield was neither as long nor as successful as Murphy's. Davis had his moments, though. In 1985, for example, he hit .287, with 34 doubles, 24 homers and 92 runs scored. But chances are he'll best be remembered not as an Athletic but as a Dodger. In the first game of the '88 World Series, he walked ahead of Kirk Gibson's dramatic game-winning ninth-inning homer off the A's Dennis Eckersley.
So what in the name of Tony La Russa are these two former big leaguers doing on a suburban high school coaching staff? And what is one of them doing coaching football?
Actually, they may have reached their current positions by bumping into each other, literally, seven years ago. On April 22, 1987, the A's were playing the California Angels in Anaheim. Murphy was, as usual, in center, Davis in rightfield, with Gary Pettis at bat. Pettis, who grew up in the Bay Area, and Davis were friends, or at least friendly enemies, with an unspoken wager between them: Any ball one hit, the other would catch. Pettis was a brilliant outfielder, but Davis had a clear-cut advantage over him at the plate, since Pettis was a lifetime .236 hitter.
Davis, who liked to play hunches in the outfield, was shading Pettis toward the line on this particular at bat, despite Murphy's efforts to move him more to right center. And when Pettis did indeed hit a ball to right center, both Murphy and Davis raced in pursuit of it. "I was going full speed," recalls Davis, "and I couldn't call for the ball because I didn't know for sure if I could catch it." He did get a glove on it, though, at the precise moment that Murphy collided with him. Pettis sped around the bases with an inside-the-park home run as the two Oakland outfielders lay motionless on the turf. Davis was knocked unconscious—"I thought he was dead," says Murphy—and Murphy's right knee, which Davis's head had hit, was all but ruined. Both were hospitalized. Davis missed more than a week of play, Murphy half the season.
Murphy's career was pretty much ended by the accident. He played a total of 147 games the next two seasons, in Detroit and Philadelphia, then went to Japan in 1990 for part of one season with the Yakult Swallows before he called it quits. He has had four operations on his knee.
Davis, too, was never the same after the collision, lasting, as Murphy had, just two more seasons in the big leagues, both with the Dodgers. The ensuing two years he played with Indianapolis in Triple A and with Monterrey of the Mexican League before a succession of injuries to both knees, his left elbow and right foot forced him to retire in the winter of 1992. Quitting baseball wasn't easy for Davis. He was only 33, an age at which some of his contemporaries were having their best seasons. "I'd played baseball all my life," he says. "So I asked myself, now what?"
The transition was much less difficult for Murphy. He had been an all-league Hanker and defensive back at Antelope Valley High School in the California desert town of Lancaster and had been offered a football scholarship at Arizona State. He chose baseball money instead, but he never lost interest in football, and ever the analyst and tactician, he had kept abreast of the game's trends and developments. And so, when he returned from Japan, secure enough financially, he accepted a job at Monte Vista High School, near his home in Danville, Calif., as the freshman football coach. A year later he was promoted to junior varsity coach. It was a far cry from the big leagues, but Murphy was just happy to be back with his first love in sports.
Davis had vague coaching aspirations of his own. "At Indianapolis I spent a lot of time talking to minor league managers and coaches," he says. "I watched what they did with young people, and I realized I'd be pretty good at the job myself. After all, I'd learned from some of the best—Billy [Martin], Tony [La Russa] and Tommy [Lasorda]. I knew I could take the parts I liked about them and discard the others." But when no professional team made an offer, Davis occupied himself with a variety of sporting-equipment enterprises, including Axis Sports, which he started on his own. In the meantime he kept in touch with his neighbor and good friend Murphy.
Then there came a stroke of luck fully as good for them as their 1987 collision had been bad. California High School had been, for much of its two decades, an athletic doormat among schools in the fast-growing suburban valleys east of the Oakland-Berkeley hills. Neighboring football teams at mighty De La Salle in Concord (winners of 38 consecutive games as of Dec. 1), Foothill in Pleasanton, North-gate in Walnut Creek, Miramonte in Orinda and Monte Vista in Danville were consistently ranked among the top 15 in the Bay Area. Poor California High had excellent facilities but no luck on the field. The 1992 team did not win a game.
But when Debbra Lindo, an energetic school administrator, became the assistant principal in charge of athletics at Cal High in the fall of 1992, she prescribed "a shot of adrenaline" for the ailing program. The students, she says, seemed 'lacking in self-esteem. They saw themselves as the stepchildren of the school district." She set out to hire new coaches in the major sports as a means of reviving school spirit. Among the applicants, she was surprised to learn, were Davis for baseball and Murphy for football.
There were obvious drawbacks. Neither had much, if any, experience with high school athletes. Neither had a college degree. They were—like Lindo herself—African-Americans, and barely 3% of Cal High's 1,586 students were black. And how would they—as onetime high-profile professional athletes—cope with players at this level of competition?
But after interviewing the former teammates, Lindo and her search committee, which included students, were convinced of their sincerity. "They both wanted to give something back to the community where they lived," Lindo concluded. "And they both had exactly what we were looking for in terms of leadership. We decided to take the gamble."
Lindo, 42, recently moved on to another Bay Area high school, but she looks back on her decision with considerable pride. Both Davis and Murphy set to their tasks with a zeal uncommon for Cal High athletics. Davis himself paid for new uniforms for the baseball team. He hired another former A's teammate, Dave Hamilton, as his pitching coach, and Hamilton's son Jon became the team's ace pitcher. Murphy, meanwhile, held a celebrity golf tournament—attended by many of his former teammates—to raise money for his impoverished football program.
Davis's baseball team won the East Bay Athletic championship last spring and went on to the North Coast Section Finals at the Oakland Coliseum. Murphy took a winless football team to a 5-5 record in his first season.
As compensation for their labor, Murphy is paid an annual salary of $2,212; Davis, $1,793. Neither is particularly diligent about picking up his paycheck. But money is not what they are currently about.
"They have given us much more than their prestige," says Cal High principal Katie Curry. "They have given us a new energy, a winning spirit. They are just the sort of coaches you'd want your child to have."
What has been most gratifying about the Davis-Murphy experiment is the unflagging dedication the two men have shown toward the students. "We're teaching life, not just sports," says Davis. "I think the kids need someone they can bounce things off of. You have to be something of a psychiatrist." He laughs. "I'm basically a storyteller, so maybe the kids think I'm a little long-winded. But then, when you hear them throwing things back at you that you've told them, you know you've reached them."
Murphy, even more intense than Davis, sees his job as "getting these kids to believe in themselves. I have had parents call me to ask if I can help them with their children. I believe in hard work, and I try to instill a sense of that in my players."
Murphy's team, dogged by injuries, hampered by inexperience at quarterback, did not do as well this season as last. But despite a 2-8 record, Murphy was able to keep spirits high. With his team leading 14-5 at halftime in a recent game against Livermore High, he summoned up the ghost of Knute Rockne in his locker room oration.
"What's the score?" he bellowed.
"Zero to zero!" the players replied in unison.
"That's right! It's a whole new ball game in the second half. Now let's get out there and give it everything you've got!"
Cal High's Fightin' Grizzlies did just that, holding on for a 14-7 win. The most voluble rooter on the sidelines, the noisiest critic of the officiating, the biggest backslapper (excluding Murphy himself) was Davis, who seldom misses one of his friend's games, just as Murphy rarely misses one of Davis's. Both were exhausted when it was over.
"I'll take a win any way I can get one," said Murphy, heaving a sigh of relief. "These kids are trying hard, doing their best. That's all you can ask of them."
His victorious players, filing onto the team bus that Murphy's fund-raising skills had helped get for them, were exuberant in praise of their coach. "This had been a losing team ever since I got here," said senior tight end John Hill, who is also a catcher for Davis. "Now everything is tremendous. Coach Murphy was a little intimidating for us at first, because we all knew who he was. But that's not the way it is now. We know him as a really good coach."
It's a most unusual situation for our times. Here are two once highly paid major league ballplayers working for, as Lindo says, "about two cents an hour" at jobs that have as their ultimate reward the successful development of adolescent boys.
"What they are doing," says Lindo, "completely contradicts the opinion most people have of modern professional athletes. They've humbled themselves in a good cause in a way that not many regular folks would be able to do. For Cal High they are a godsend."