More than 30 years ago, Dot Murphy, former All-American and women’s basketball coach at Mississippi University for Women, sat with her children at Hinds Community College football practice watching her husband, Gene, coach the Eagles defense.
Hinds head coach Bill Buckner suggested she join him on the field and put her coaching and athletic prowess to use with the wide receivers. The first few times he brought it up, she laughed off the idea.
At some point, though, the Murphys realized Buckner was serious, and Dot chose to sign on and join the men on the field at the Raymond, Mississippi, school for the 1984 season. She stayed there as wide receivers coach for 21 years.
“My father was a football coach. I never thought about coaching football. I thought basketball would be what I would stick with for the most part,” Murphy said. “So it’s been an interesting life because I’ve coached football for a long time.”
At the time, Buckner and Murphy agreed to keep the story quiet because neither really knew how the arrangement would work out.
“Eventually we did release it to the media and it went coast-to-coast,” Murphy said. “There were newspaper clippings and interviews over the phone from a lot of places.”
While those cut-out articles and phone calls have turned into tweets and trending topics for Jen Welter, believed to be the first woman in NFL coaching, Murphy is acutely aware of the circumstances the new Arizona Cardinals hire faces.
“There are two reasons why you choose to do something: One is for the attention and to see how much coverage you can get, and the other reason is why most people should coach is because they love it and they want to,” Murphy said, “I’m excited for (Welter) and hope she enjoys the ride and as long as she’s focused on the coaching and she proves herself, she should enjoy the ride.”
Murphy and Welter are among the longest and shortest entries to date in the slim anthologies of women in men’s football.
Welter has received abundant media coverage in the two weeks since signing on as a training camp intern coaching inside linebackers.
If she was unaware of the importance her internship holds, it was immediately evident to her during her introductory news conference last month.
“The media part is insane,” she said to the scores of reporters who swarmed the Cardinals’ Tempe practice facility July 27. “I always like to say I played 13 years of women’s football being one of the best in the world, two gold medals and nobody even knew I existed until I took big hits by men, so to be in this spot, it’s a little overwhelming but it’s exciting.”
Hitting the big stage
Welter has so far combined her newfound platform with her psychology-rich background to promote positivity toward girls both in and out of sports.
“Adolescent female self-esteem right now in our country is at an all-time low,” Welter said at the press conference. “Adolescent females are more likely to accept drama in relationships, to be combative with their friends, all those things because we’ve shown them that image is more important than intelligence, that beauty is more important than talent.”
Welter isn’t the only one keeping tabs on her impact.
Angie Henderson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, said because Welter is specifically in football, she has a particular challenge as an authority figure in the sport.
“Even basketball is so much more androgynous,” said Henderson, who has studied and published works on women in sports and sports management. “But when you’re talking about men’s football, you’ve got representations of either hyper-masculinity on the field or hyper-femininity on the sidelines.” Henderson pointed to hyper-feminized reporters and cheerleaders on NFL sidelines as evidence of this polarization.
Because of Welter’s role managing male players and the environment of professional sports, Henderson said her resume, which includes 14 years of playing experience in women’s football, is critical.
“I know publicists have these conversations: She’s got an attractive appearance, but they still talk about her build and how tough she is and how strong she is, how she’s got the requisite experience, because in sports management, requisite experiences are everything.”
Henderson suggested the organization likely outlined expectations for the team as it relates to Welter, so determining whether Cardinals players are truly receptive to her instruction will take some reading between the lines.
“The players, they’ve been told by the Cardinals, ‘Don’t be jerks. Say the right things, tweet the right things right now because we don’t want this to go south,’” Henderson said. “If I was a reporter and I was down there, I would be watching body language with binoculars. That’s going to be key.”
Henderson dismissed the suggestion that the NFL was hoping to get back in the good graces of American women after recent domestic violence arrests dominated coverage of the league and turned some, women and men alike, against the league and away from its commercial appeal. But she did say she believes the Cardinals likely viewed this as a public relations boon.
“She’s got a Ph.D. so she’s a perfect candidate for it at this point,” Henderson said. “And it’s so low risk. It’s an internship, paid or whatever, but it’s only for a month. God bless the Cardinals. Maybe more women are going to buy more Cardinals jerseys now. I would not be surprised. It’s probably going to work.”
Blending it all together
When Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians helped introduce Welter as a Cardinal in July, he cited Murphy’s career as evidence that women could hold their own coaching men’s football.
Murphy is back on the Hinds sidelines now, coaching kickers after a five-year hiatus. Her knees necessitated the move to special-teamers, and she said she doesn’t try to over-coach their technique, instead focusing on drills like no-step kicks, designed to help kickers pop the ball over an oncoming rush in games.
Her advice to Welter after nearly 30 years of coaching football is to stay true to herself and rely on her knowledge.
“Coach her personality,” Murphy said. “She may have to mold her personality some but she can’t try to coach like somebody who she likes the way they coach, if that’s not within her. She’s got to coach from her heart and then go.”
Murphy’s suggestion may be on point, but another part of Welter may be equally vital to her success: her head.
Welter’s doctorate in psychology goes along with a master’s degree in sports psychology, so she may be as prepared as any person with one year of coaching experience could hope to be.
She’s likely using that academic knowledge of the athlete’s and team’s mind set in conjunction with her own experiences as a player to connect with the linebackers in a way that she believes will help them improve.
Any coach will tell you, though, that success comes down to execution, and Welter said her strengths in coaching will equip the players to do just that.
“I’m a big believer in knowing your opponents and film study and even embracing your character as an athlete – both the character that you are and the character that you display,” Welter said. “And I think when you bring those things to guys and you help them learn in the way that they need to learn, the X’s and O’s become much simpler.
“There are a lot of people who are very good X’s-and-O’s guys and I guarantee they’re better than I am in some points. But the heart factor, the intelligent player factor, the being-the-person-with-the-motor-that-will-never-quit factor, those are things that I know I can add to.”
Welter identified the size of the playbook as her biggest concern in joining an NFL team, which is no surprise for a coach coming from indoor football, where there are fewer players and less space to operate. She said other members of the Cardinals’ staff were already reaching out to her before she was even introduced to help her take a deeper dive into the schematic side of the outdoor game.
It’s clear times have changed from Murphy’s hiring more than 30 years ago to Welter’s internship now.
With Becky Hammon on the San Antonio Spurs bench, Welter on the Cardinals sideline and Sarah Thomas joining the NFL’s referee corps, it appears there’s forward momentum for women in men’s pro sports.
“If you have one woman, it’s a token, two women is just one step more than a token,” Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Deborah Slaner Larkin said. “Three, you start talking about agenda, not gender.”