John Murphy defies the conventional wisdom that you never want to be the guy who replaces a legend. On three separate occasions in a career spanning nearly four decades, Murphy has taken over the reins from a beloved Buffalo broadcaster and thrived in his role as “the new guy.” He’s the Buffalo broadcasting version of Steve Young or Aaron Rodgers multiplied by three.
A lengthy career in a competitive profession is no happy accident. Murphy has ascended to a coveted job shared by only 31 other broadcasters in the nation, and he has arrived there via consistency, hard work, and a genuine love of football that bleeds through in every broadcast. Listening to his call of a game is like sitting next to a longtime friend who happens to possess contagious enthusiasm and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Buffalo Bills.
Still basking in the glow of calling his first Bills playoff game in 17 years, Murphy kindly took some time to reflect on the preparation that goes into a game broadcast, dealing with the “homer” label, and his current favorite guest on the newly revamped “One Bills Live” broadcast.
What inspired you to become a broadcaster? Were you one of those little kids who dreamed of calling games the first time he turned on a radio or were you drawn to the profession later in life?
I think I was always interested in broadcasting at an early age. I loved the “behind the scenes” aspect of radio and TV when I was a kid and have always been attracted to inside stories about the way things work. That carried over into my love of sports as a Bills and Sabres fan growing up, and especially my interest in the Niagara University basketball teams of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (Calvin Murphy era).
As a kid, I used to listen to Van Miller call the Niagara games on WBEN radio and sit at our kitchen table and keep score as the game went along.
Can you point to the first time in your career where your ability intersected with your ambition— where you recognized you were working a dream job and also had the belief that you could be really good at the job?
That’s an interesting question. I can’t think of any “Ah-ha” moment along the way. When Van stepped down and I started doing play-by-play in 2004, I remember being very intimidated by the job, but also feeling somewhat comfortable. I felt as if I was in the proper role. Having worked alongside Van Miller for 16 years, I had a deep appreciation for what good NFL play-by-play sounded like and I still strive to reach that level of excellence every game.
I love that challenge--being prepared enough to talk intelligently about the game after a week of preparation and being flexible enough to react to the twists and turns of a game in a coherent and hopefully entertaining manner.
You’ve had the formidable task of succeeding Stan Barron on WBEN in 1984, Rick Azar on Channel 7 in 1989, and Van Miller as the play-by-play voice of the Bills in 2004. What are the biggest challenges associated with taking over a job from a legendary broadcaster ?
The best way I’ve found to do it is to ignore the challenge. I’d be in trouble if I focused on succeeding these legends when I was offered the job. I grew up watching and listening to all of them, and I spent some time working alongside all of them as well. I hope I am able to channel some of what made them all so great as I go about my career.
With Stan Barron, he got very sick at the end of the 1984 Bills preseason. I was producing the Bills broadcasts pregame and halftime shows and WBEN turned to me in a pinch. I remember I went to the late Larry Levite before the season opener that year and told him I wasn’t quite ready to work as the color analyst on the broadcast. His response was simple: ”Yeah, you are. And you’re doing it this Sunday.” What an amazing leap of faith it was for Larry to throw me into that role.
In 1989, when Rick Azar was retiring from Channel 7, they came up with a complicated formula to replace him. I was brought on to anchor the 6pm sports, a fellow named Jerry Azar was hired to do the 11pm sports. Bob Koshinski was named the sports director and he did the noon and 5pm sports. In retrospect, it may have been a test run for all of us set up by management. And I guess that three-person arrangement meant I didn’t think much at all about “succeeding” Rick Azar.
Van announced that 2003 would be his last season and I was immediately interested in taking over the play-by-play. At halftime of the final home game that year, Van went down to the field to accept an award and be honored by the fans. I had to do 2-3 minutes of play-by-play to start the second half while Van made his way back up to our radio booth, and when Van took over, he said “And ladies and gentleman, you’ve just heard a preview of my successor. Murph will do a great job on play-by-play.” What an endorsement!
The issue wasn’t settled until a couple of months later when the Bills called me out to One Bills Drive on a Saturday morning in February and offered me the job. I told them I’d think about it and get back to them. (Yeah right.)
Succeeding Van has been the most significant challenge of any of these successions. He’s in a half dozen Halls of Fame, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for his play-by-play work. His energy and enthusiasm were off the charts. When he stepped down, he had the distinction of being the longest tenured play-by-play man for any NFL team and his voice is the soundtrack of Bills football for most of the franchise history.
A challenge? You better believe it. But working with Van for 16 years was the perfect training for accepting the challenge.
It’s shocking to think there is an entire generation of Bills fans who have never heard Van Miller call a game. What are the most important things that younger Bills fans should know about Van and his place in the team’s history?
It’s hard for me to imagine Bills fans who would not be aware of Van Miller, but I’m sure they’re out there. On a personal level, Van was the most important mentor and role model I’ve had in my career. We spent many hours sitting side-by-side on Bills charter flights talking about football of course, but also families and life. I would regularly pick his brain about his days with the NBA Buffalo Braves. He shared his personal charm and humor with just about everyone who crossed his paths, and I certainly had a front row seat for much of that.
On a professional level, Van was simply the greatest play-by-play football broadcaster I’ve ever heard. He was outstanding in basketball, bowling, and just about everything else, but with the Bills, he became not just the voice of the team, but the soundtrack of the franchise as well. His energy level and enthusiasm reached right through the speakers and dragged listeners along for the ride. His honest appraisal of the Bills, both good and bad, made him trusted among Bills fans. There will never be another one like him, in Buffalo or anywhere else in the NFL.
I think a lot of fans would be interested in learning more about the mechanics of your job. What sort of preparation do you do in the week leading up to a game? What does a typical Sunday look like for you during the season?
At the risk of sounding like a Sean McDermott disciple, I love the process of getting ready for a each Bills broadcast. I like the preparation work almost as much as the game.
I usually spend Mondays re-watching the Bills game from the day before on tape. I like to compare my broadcast observations with what I see on tape; see what I missed, see what didn’t get picked up in the network broadcast, etc.
Tuesday is the first big prep day for the upcoming broadcast. I make up my spotting board for the opponents (a large chart with names and numbers—a depth chart). I also make changes and adjustments to my Bills spotting board if there have been any roster moves or changes.
Wednesday and Thursday are heavy film watching days. Either from the TV broadcast or from the “All-22” feature on NFL.com, I try to watch 3-4 previous games of the Bills opponents. This gives me an idea of who’s lining up where, who’s playing well, and a general overview of the opponent.
More film work on Friday, plus a chance to talk to Head Coach Sean McDermott for a few minutes for background info. Saturdays can include travel to the game site, but whether it’s home or away, I try to make some notes (4-5 pages) of issues going into the game and fit them into our pregame discussion. Mark Kelso and I have about 25-minutes of pre-kickoff time to talk and I like to provide a structured environment for that discussion and incorporate some of the sponsored elements of pre-kickoff.
Jacqui Walker at WIVB asked me once how much time I spent during the week preparing for Bills games so I kept track for a couple of weeks. It typically adds up to about 20+ hours per week Monday through Saturday.
On game day, I usually get to the game 3-3/12 hours before kickoff. Most games we have to shoot a TV show for MSG, “Bills All Access”, that airs at 11:30am. Then I take a look around the field, check weather conditions, and head up to the booth to settle in. At home, I’m familiar with the surroundings but on the road, I typically have to get comfortable with the vantage point, where the scoreboard is, where they flash up down and distance, and where the play clock is located.
I crack a few jokes, watch the warmups, and then get ready to go. I trust the process.
My guess is that most of the stress in the booth is rooted in the fear of missing a call or misidentifying a player. Looking back on your time broadcasting Bills games, can you point to a huge mistake you made on air that still leaves you shaking your head?
Like a good defensive back, I try to put my mistakes behind me as soon as possible and get to the next play. Most mistakes are rooted in not being able to see clearly, being obstructed by other players or officials or just the angle. I acknowledge that we’ll never have as good a vantage point as the 8-10 network TV cameras combined, but our challenge is to call the game in real time.
One of the mistakes I made years ago that haunts me a bit dealt with bad arithmetic on my part. I got confused before a 2-point conversation attempt and said the Bills would be going for a tie rather than a win. A stupid mistake.
You’ve always been a very popular broadcaster over the course of your career here in Buffalo. The only knock I’ve ever heard about your work is a criticism every play-by-play guy in the country has heard at one time or another: you’re not nearly as critical of the team as you should be. What is your response to a fan that tries to stick the “homer” label on you?
I’ve become immune to the “homer” label. The fact is, I am the home team broadcaster. I have insight into the process and relationships that impact game performance on a weekly basis. I see the work that goes into each game on the part of the players and coaching staff, and try to have empathy for what they go through.
This insight is not available to every broadcaster or reporter. The fact that I work for the Bills and am here every day provides me with an approach that outsiders do not have.
The drumbeat of criticism from radio hosts who never show up to interview players or coaches or reporters who never bother to cultivate sources I find bothersome. I appreciate honest criticism and value impartial observation, but I prefer that it’s rooted in some sort of knowledge of the intent of the football play, or the design of what was intended.
I think it’s easy to go through a season and say “So and so (player or coach) has to go.” Being on the inside has allowed me to see how hard these people work, how focused they are on being successful and winning, and how unfair it is to call for firings and releases without giving people enough time to do the job or the right support or resources to be successful.
Does that make me a “homer”? Ok, I can live with that.
I will say that as far as rooting for the Bills, I find myself mostly rooting for Bills fans. The loyalty and support the fans have shown for the franchise for decades is amazing. I love looking out of our broadcast booth at New Era Field and watching the fans celebrate a Bills victory. That’s my favorite part of my job.
What’s your greatest source of optimism and your greatest concern when you think about the upcoming Bills season?
I am guardedly optimistic about the Bills next season, and extremely optimistic about the longer-term view.
The team has some challenges ahead in the offseason, including solving the QB issue (still), improving the front-seven on defense, finding at least one more receiving threat for whomever the QB is, and building depth. But based on the aggressive personnel moves made by Brandon Beane and his staff, I am optimistic that they will find creative, out-of-the-box ways of addressing their personnel needs.
Long term, I think the direction provided by Beane and especially Sean McDermott bode very well for the future of the team on the field. Beyond ending the playoff drought, to me the number one achievement of the 2017 season for the Bills was the foundation that was laid for the future. There is a new standard of work and expectation that has been established for everyone at One Bills Drive that I believe will serve the franchise well into the future.
I know it’s still very early, but how would you contrast the general team environment under Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane vs. the environment created by other coaches and administrators you’ve seen over the years?
I believe McDermott and Beane have created a new atmosphere and expectation around the players and coaching staff. They are no-nonsense, but especially in the case of Coach McDermott, he is not unduly harsh or impersonal when it comes to his players. They have a good appreciation of how to motivate players and how to instill confidence in their approach.
You’ve worked with hundreds of people in a number of different media jobs in a career spanning almost four decades. If you had the ability to go back in time and relive one specific day or game in your work life, what would it be?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I have had so many memorable, great days in my career.
Last New Year’s Eve, when the Bills won their finale in Miami and ended the playoff drought moments later with the Bengals win is certainly the most recent memorable moment. We signed off the air from Miami before the game was over between Baltimore and Cincinnati and just the other day I was wondering if there might have been a better way to handle the timing. I don’t think there was.
The only thing that mattered to our audience at that time was the outcome of the Ravens-Bengals game, and there was no way I could watch on TV from the radio booth in Miami and call the play-by-play of that game. So we signed off– the only thing we could do, I believe.
Given the access you’ve had to the team over the years, is there a player or coach that sticks out as someone who was completely misunderstood by fans and/or the media?
Another great question—there have been many. I think of Wade Phillips as a Bills coach who was unfairly criticized and even ridiculed in some quarters.
Wade was an outstanding defensive coordinator for the Bills and a very good head coach here. He had the Bills in the playoffs in two of his three years at the helm here and finished with 29 wins and 19 losses. He was ridiculed by one particular radio host back then and described as stupid and unsophisticated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wade was (and remains) a defensive savant in the NFL. He had a knack of getting players to play hard on a weekly basis, which is not always easy to do in the league.
I think he was targeted by media critics and some fans followed along down that path.
You’ve conducted thousands of interviews over the years. What are the keys to getting an interviewee to open up and give you an interesting answer to your question?
I wish I had the key at my fingertips. If an interview subject isn’t interested in talking, I’ve found you’ll probably never succeed in getting them to engage.
If they are nervous, I’ve found that putting them in a comfortable spot and conducting the interview on a conversational basis usually gets them going. Direct eye contact is critical. And most importantly, listening to the answers– especially the tone of the answers– is a good direction on where to go next and which questions are appropriate. It’s tough doing good interviews!
You’ve been an easy guy to interview, John. Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to do this.
Let’s finish up with a quick lightning round. We start with my favorite all-time question: What’s the first concert and the best concert you’ve ever attended?
First: Crosby, Still, Nash and Young at Rich Stadium in August 1974. Santana opened.
Best: Any show locally by “Yali” (my son Jack’s band.)
What’s your favorite city to travel to for an away game?
Two favorites; Seattle and Nashville. We don’t get to either one of those cities often enough.
Please give me your vote for the best restaurant in an out of town NFL market.
Pane e Vino in Providence, Rhode Island on Federal Hill. Great Italian.
Your wife, Mary, seems like one of the coolest people in town. How did you manage to marry so far out of your league?
I’ve been out-kicking my coverage with Mary for decades now.
Fifteen years down the road, does your failure to receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Bruce Almighty still sting?
It does. And what hurts more is that I’m still waiting to receive a suitable script for my second film. I haven’t received any scripts now that I think of it.
A bomb is set to go off in your house and your family and pets are safely outside. You have time to carry three items out of your home. What are they?
It would probably be three pictures—we have hundreds of family and friends pictures framed and on display at our house.
My favorite non-family picture would be one of me and Van Miller, taken in the radio booth in Foxboro, moments after Van signed off for his final Bills play-by-play broadcast. It’s a classic that instantly evokes the relationship I had with Van.
Aside from New Era Field, what’s your favorite NFL stadium to call a game from?
They are becoming more rare. More and more NFL team are moving the radio booths to provide more space for premium seats and suites.
New Era Field is probably the best broadcast location in the league now. And Gillette Stadium in Foxboro has a great vantage point from which to work—probably my favorite road venue, despite the home team there.
“The John Murphy Show” was renamed “One Bills Live” at the same time that Steve Tasker became your new co-host. Did Tasker’s ego demand that your name be taken off the show’s marquee?
Yes. Steve wanted to change the name to the “West Herr Ve-hick-el Show.” I fought back. We compromised on “One Bills Live.”
Stepping outside the broadcast booth, what’s the greatest game in any sport you’ve attended as a fan?
The final round of the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in Rochester in September, 1995 was just about the most drama I’ve ever witnessed at a sports event. Midway through the round, I went into the press tent and insisted that the late, great Larry Felser of The Buffalo News join me out on the course so he could feel the tension in all the rounds being played.
Greatest sports performer I ever saw in person? Secretariat. I saw the Triple Crown winner run his final race at Woodbine in Toronto in October 1973. I still have the uncashed $2 betting ticket. I think it paid $2.10
On a rainy Thursday in June when no one is thinking about football, who is your “go to” guest that you can count on to create an interesting segment on the show ?
Right now, it’s probably Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander. After more than 12 seasons in the league, ‘Zo has seen it all and is ready to talk about it. Rules changes, union matters, different positions on the field—whatever it is, Lorenzo finds a way to make it interesting and usually funny. If he wants to, he will become a TV superstar when his football career comes to an end.
Follow Tim Hirschbeck on Twitter @TimHirschbeck