- Allison Farrand
By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published January 30, 2014
Brian Murphy hung his head between his knees, having just lost a state championship. All that had separated him from his first Illinois high-school state title was a one-point escape.
But when the clock expired, his opponent, current University of Illinois wrestler Kyle Langenderfer, threw up two fingers on each hand to tell Assembly Hall that he was a repeat champion, Michael Jordan-style.
“This next match means everything,” Murphy had said to the Chicago Tribune before the final. “I want to finish out with a high-school career I can remember. It won’t be that way unless I win this match.”
The next few months began a journey to Michigan for the former Glenbard North High School starting quarterback and wrestling star. For all the success he had in high school, the nation’s 27th-ranked recruit still had plenty left to prove.
Murphy, now a freshman, was one of the first commits in Michigan’s top-ranked recruiting class, thanks in no small part to his work with his longtime coach and current Wolverines assistant Sean Bormet.
“I knew that I was going to be a wrestler in college my freshman year in high school,” Murphy said. “I knew it really early.”
The Carol Stream, Ill. native began wrestling and playing football in the first grade. It was wrestling he would fall in love with, but only after his dad assured him that there was no punching or kicking involved.
Murphy started attending Bormet’s summer wrestling camps and built himself into a nationally renowned competitor, having particular success in national freestyle competitions in high school.
Murphy and Bormet began working together when Murphy was in middle school, and the duo hasn’t looked back since. Since arriving on campus, Murphy has defeated the eighth-, 14th- and 19th-ranked wrestlers in the 157-pound weight class, suffered an overtime loss to Nebraska’s James Green — currently ranked No. 1 — and shed a redshirt designation. He’s now one of the Wolverines’ three true freshman starters.
“He’s got tremendous work ethic, he’s got great integrity,” Bormet said. “He’s really at the highest end of every category. I think he’s capable of beating anybody, and he’s starting to prove that.”
Murphy’s breakout moment came at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas, where he admitted to surprising even himself by making it to the semifinals before defaulting to fifth place with an injury.
In the quarterfinals, Murphy also avenged a 2012 Illinois High School Association state final loss to Max Schneider, scoring a takedown on the current Cal Poly wrestler in the third period to secure a 3-1 win after pushing the pace all match.
The lone blemish of four lost state championships on Murphy’s otherwise excellent high-school record continues to replay in his mind, but as a collegiate wrestler he’s finding a way to put those stinging losses behind him.
“It was great to get things in the past out of the way,” Murphy said. “It was a great feeling to get that win and get it off my chest.”
As a freshman in high school, Murphy placed third in the state finals, and he finished runner-up every year afterward. The 2012-13 school year brought a particularly excruciating end to both of Murphy’s athletic seasons, when Langenderfer took the title in wrestling and his football team lost to powerhouse Mt. Carmel in the Class 8A finals.
Murphy, a mobile quarterback who still averaged over 100 yards passing en route to Glenbard’s fifth-ever state championship appearance, said that his coaches were extremely accommodating to his dual-sport status. If he had to be in North Dakota for wrestling nationals during a week of practice, his football coaches didn’t mind. If he couldn’t put on weight for football, he heard no complaints from the wrestling side.
“Both sports helped each other,” Murphy said, “because both sports require the drive to win. That’s probably my best quality.”
It’s clear, though, that the transition away from being a dual-sport athlete has let Murphy reach a new level in the ring. The four-time Fargo Freestyle All-American was expected by his own coaching staff at Michigan to redshirt this season, but the results he has produced with his sole commitment to wrestling have surprised those who didn’t know him best.
“When he was in a position to pour himself into wrestling year-round, his upside was really high,” Bormet said. “As he got into some tougher matches in Las Vegas, he had really good composure. Just to see him do that and turn the corner, that was a kind of key element that we were looking for.”
After the injury at the Cliff Keen Invitational sidelined him for nearly three weeks, Murphy returned to the mat with renewed enthusiasm, downing No. 8 Dylan Ness of Minnesota on Jan. 19. The win further cemented his starting spot on the squad and his No. 14 national ranking in the 157-pound class.
“It is special to also have a chance to work and develop a wrestler in their youth,” Bormet said. “And just to see them have the success, and have the opportunities to compete at this level and enjoy these moments makes it that much more special.”
And when asked about the reason for success, Murphy pointed immediately pointed to Bormet as the most influential person in his wrestling career. The rapport between the two, he said, was a relief during his recruiting trip and during his first weeks with the program. Bormet made coming to Michigan a natural extension of the sport Murphy grew up with.
“The thing about college is that the people I’m wrestling with, it’s just a completely different level,” Murphy said. “In high school I would pretty much handle all of my partners. Now there will be practices where I’m just getting my butt kicked by some of these guys, and it’s great.”
The top-level competition in practice will serve Murphy well for the formidable schedule ahead of Michigan (4-0 Big Ten, 8-2 overall), which will face No. 12 Ohio State on Friday and No. 1 Penn State on Sunday. For Murphy, though, the schedule is even more daunting, with matches against Iowa’s No. 2 Derek St. John, the Nittany Lions’ No. 4 Dylan Alton and a rematch with No. 1 James Green of Nebraska in Lincoln on Feb. 7.
“He makes gains every day,” Bormet said. “The key is to continue to focus and to have that hungry mindset.”
Added Murphy: “My main goal at the end of the year is just to get out on that podium as an All-American. I think that should be everyone’s goal in wrestling Division I. If that’s not your goal, I really don’t know what you’re doing.”
Despite the astounding freshman campaign, Murphy has attacked each match like he still has something to prove, in part because he does. It’s in his voice, it’s in his demeanor and it’s in the vicious, aggressive pace he takes to each opponent.
“I think it’s really interesting that Brian Murphy, Domenic Abounader and Adam Coon … really possess a certain leadership quality within their peer group,” Bormet said. “All three of those guys were also really good football players. I think there’s a certain team aspect of football that maybe cultivates that.”
The former quarterback, four-time state runner up, national tournament star and now collegiate wrestler is excited. He’s excited to be wrestling, for the opportunity to be in the starting lineup and to take another shot at a title, this time on an even bigger stage.