I turned on WGR radio Monday night in time to hear Buffalo Bills play-by-play man John Murphy describe the second day of practice with such detail that it made me flashback to 40 years ago when I covered training camp.
The idea back then of describing every pass and every catch would have been laughable.
OK, it is still laughable.
It illustrates how crazy things have become in the days of Twitter, Facebook and all the other ways that have made minor things in camp instantly newsworthy.
My Monday Night Football experience also made me flash back to a year ago when I interviewed Murphy about his decision to leave local TV after 23 years to work for the Bills full time.
A year ago, he called it “the job of a lifetime.” And that was coming from a man who has replaced three broadcasting legends – Van Miller, Rick Azar and Stan Barron.
He hasn’t changed his mind.
“It has kind of exceeded my expectations,” said the 56-year-old Murphy. “Being able to produce quality radio and do video stories for the website. The only thing that would make it perfect would be if they make the playoffs.”
Murphy is entering his 10th season doing play-by-play, which any Bills fan knows means he’s never called a playoff game. He spent 15 years before that as the Bills analyst alongside Miller. Unfortunately, he missed the four years the Bills made the Super Bowl because the radio contract went to WGR in 1989 when he was working for rival WBEN.
Miller never lets him forget missing those Super Bowls.
Nor does his close friend, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein, let Murphy forget how unduly optimistic he has been annually about the Bills chances.
Beilein, who played basketball at DeSales High in Lockport with Murphy’s older brother Mark and occasionally slept at the Murphy house after practice, took a swipe at Murphy’s optimism a year ago when he made the job switch. Beilein told Murphy “his rose-colored glasses we’re going to become redder.”
Sure enough, Murphy optimistically predicted 10 wins last year instead of the 10 losses the team suffered.
Beilein was at it again before training camp began this week.
“He left a message on my phone, ‘If they are not going to be any good, tell me now,’ ” said Murphy. “He was like some crazy Bills fan. He is a crazy Bills fan.”
Of course, Murphy knows it is a little crazy to make too much of early training camp throws and catches to give Beilein any comfort now. He wants to avoid a rush to judgment, even if most everyone else wants instant answers.
Besides, Beilein got Murphy in a little hot water when he took the Wolverines to the Final Four in Atlanta to face Syracuse, Murphy’s alma mater. New Bills Coach Doug Marrone, who is an SU graduate and the Orange football coach before the Bills hired him away, heard that Murphy was rooting for Michigan.
“I caught flak from Marrone,” said Murphy. “He said, ‘Don’t you have any loyalty to your alma mater?’ I said, ‘I have loyalty to my friend, too.’ ” (Michigan beat SU and lost the title game to Louisville.)
Some listeners would say Murphy is too loyal to the Bills. He remains a terrific host on WGR with a commanding voice, but some people complain that he is too soft on the Bills.
“I don’t bang on the desk, I don’t shout everyone should be fired,” said Murphy. “That’s never been my style. I give my audience more credit. I don’t sugarcoat the problems. They had 10 losses. You can’t sugarcoat that.”
He’s rarely had any interference from Bills management when he has been critical. He only recalls a few comical instances of thinking he upset management.
A year ago, Murphy told me what happened early in the first season of the Gregg Williams coaching era. He called the team’s performance in a 42-26 loss in Indianapolis terrible as then-General Manager Tom Donahoe sat in the radio booth. The next day Donahoe wanted to talk to him. He expected a dressing down when he went into Donahoe’s office and also saw Williams. “I thought, ‘Here it comes,’ ” said Murphy, before launching into a Donahoe impression. “ ‘Murph, I just want to tell you I listened to the broadcast with you guys yesterday and you guys were absolutely right. We were (expletive). We were (expletive).’ And every time he said (expletive), Gregg Williams flinched. I thought he was going to rip me. It was unbelievable.”
His success story over 34 years in the business is a little unbelievable, too. Murphy started his career in 1979 doing weekend news at WLVL in Lockport and working weekdays at WJJL in Niagara Falls for $75 a week (“and a tank of gas for my Toyota Corolla”) while tending bar at a steak house in Lockport three nights a week.
He got his first crack at play-by-play on high school football games for WLVL, getting $15 to do Niagara-Orleans games on Friday nights, which he said pretty much covered the bar tab afterwards.
He moved to WBEN-AM in 1980 and was a Bills analyst four years later. His big TV break came in 1989 when legendary Channel 7 sports director Rick Azar called Murphy to say he was leaving and suggested he put his name in for the opening.
Murphy is reminded every day in training camp why he doesn’t miss doing local TV when he sees the local sportscasters dealing with time and resource issues.
“I feel their kind of stresses and pressures that I was under,” said Murphy. “They still feel it, and I’m free of that.”
Besides, he does TV pieces for the Bills website. He is especially proud of one he did recently with the Bills’ Bryan Scott about attending the NFL Boot Camp for future announcers that was more than three minutes long.
“If I was working in commercial television, I would have had to make it a minute, 20 seconds,” said Murphy. “Bryan is energetic, charming, intelligent. … His enthusiasm comes across in the piece.”
Murphy’s enthusiasm about this season also comes across. He considers this training camp one of the more interesting he’s covered in 30 plus years because of all the question marks at quarterback, wide receiver, on defense and the speed of the offense.
So how does he think the Bills are going to do?
“Oh, the rush to judgment question,” laughs Murphy. “I think they are capable of winning eight games. They were close to winning eight last year. If the defense gets better, maybe they can do better than that. I’d like them to be contending through the end of the season.”
If Murphy is wrong, you can be certain that he’ll hear from Beilein again about his unfounded optimism.