- Alma School District
Tommy Boy! Longtime Alma coach, teacher ready to call it a day-05/07/2021
By Kevin Taylor
This time a year ago, Tom McMurray was still thinking about calling it a career.
But, as COVID-19 stretched on, first into April, then May and June, the man kids long ago nicknamed "Coach Mac" decided to run the table one final time.
Hold the cake, kids.
Alas, 42 years after signing on to coach and teach at Greenland High School, where he cut his teeth for three years before relocating to Alma, Tom McMurray is ready to call it a day.
But not without a little history lesson along the way.
"I thought about retiring last year, but the way the school year ended, to me, I just wasn't ready," McMurray said.
McMurray announced earlier this year he would be retiring at the end of school.
“Anyone who’s been around Alma knows what the McMurray name means,” Alma High School Principal Brian Kirkendoll said. “Tom McMurray is a respected, beloved educator who is a true Airedale. We know what that means when someone has that kind of dedication to us.”
A longtime football and track coach, McMurray once taught a youthful Stan Flenor how to properly tape someone’s ankle.
“Think about that,” Kirkendoll said. “Here’s a guy (Flenor) who is retiring after 36 years, and he (McMurray) taught him how to tape an ankle. Most of our coaches that have been here, coach McMurray coached them, and sometimes coached their parents.
“He did everything and he coached everything at some point.”
Just when you think you’ve done it all, a pandemic brings you — and your co-workers — to their knees.
As COVID-19 brought the school, then the world, to a near standstill, Tom McMurray began doing things he never dreamed of. Teaching school soon involved Zoom and online teaching. "It's been a very eye-opening learning experience," he said.
In retrospect, the 2020 pandemic was like seeing history repeat itself.
"I teach history, and if you go back and if you look at the way things were after World War I, with the (Spanish) flu that came through, you will find some old pictures, and everybody's wearing masks," McMurray said. "If you look at football games that were being played that year (1918), everybody in the stands is wearing masks. If you work your way through all these other epidemics that we've gone through, you still see people wearing masks.
"Like I told the kids last year, 'You're going to be somebody's History Day project one of these years because you lived through it. You're going to be a source of information, so be prepared and give them the good answers — let them know everything that you had to go through.’"
Reared in Van Buren, where the McMurray boys, Tommy, Teddy, and Toney, answered to James and Joyce McMurray, the eldest of the brothers ended up spending two-thirds of his life at the rival school — not that Van Buren and Alma had much of one back in the early '70s.
"We had just started back up (Alma and Van Buren’s football rivalry) my sophomore year in high school," McMurray said. "From a Van Buren standpoint, we didn't think much of Alma, because we hadn't played them in so long, and all of a sudden it became a pretty heated rivalry. Coach (Frank) Vines actually came in to be the (defensive) coordinator the year after I graduated.
He was over there a short period before coming to Alma."
A 1974 Van Buren graduate, McMurray has fond memories of riding bikes, sandlot baseball, and spending far more time outside than in. It was a simpler, if not somewhat complicated time, as the Vietnam War drudged on.
Marcia Brady, John Wayne, Three Dog Night.
The McMurrays, Tom, Teddy and Toney, were there, too.
"We grew up on North 12th Street in a great environment and great neighborhood," McMurray said. "We were outside all the time; we never stayed in. As long as there was sunlight, we were outside playing."
The McMurray neighbors, the Scotts, McDaniels, Weathertons and Shibleys, were raised with the same salt-of-the-earth intangibles — do the right thing.
And for the brothers McMurray, that meant teaching school.
"I knew when I was in junior high I was going to be a coach; that was my plan all the way through," Tom McMurray said. "Ted kind of followed the same route; he knew he was going to teach. Toney kind of followed a different path. He went to seminary school out of college, then later on, decided he wanted to teach."
A little bit country
In the fall of 1982, after three years at Greenland, a clean-shaven, youthful-looking Tom McMurray took a coaching job with Vines' Airedales.
There were no paved parking lots, air conditioning, computers, or (gulp) carpeting. Most classrooms in the early '80s had concrete floors.
"It was a lot different than it is right now," McMurray said. "It had a gravel parking lot, the classrooms you entered from the outside pretty much, and the main hub was Crabtree (Grym). Pretty much anything we did revolved around Crabtree.
"It was a little bit more rural back in those days."
Today, Alma High School is much different.
"I hit the jackpot when I came to Alma," McMurray said. "Greenland was a good starting point. I probably had more responsibility than I needed to have at that age, but it was good learning for me.
"When I got here, I got a very stable coach with coach Vines; I was able to grow quite a bit as a coach."
Spring weather was easier on him, too.
“When I was in Greenland, a family had a trailer behind their house,” McMurray said. “I moved into their trailer — it was good until it was storm season!”
Everyone on Vines' staff, and many of the school's teachers, coaches and administrators, were close to the same age.
"(Mike) McSpadden and me are the same age, Jerry (Valentine) is a year younger than me. Brooks (Witherspoon) came in the year after I was hired ... so all of us were about the same age," McMurray said. "It wasn't long after that that Stan (Flenor) came, and then Lenn Hall came. There for a while, especially in our early years, before all the kids came along, we were pretty much inseparable.
"We had a really good coaching staff; we all got along. There wasn't any jealousy or somebody trying to grab the spotlight."
Playing in the old configured Airedale Stadium, which included a gold sign atop the press box that read "Airedale Country" in bold green letters, quarterback Skipper Thompson led the Airedales to a 5-5 record.
By the early '90s, a decade into his 39-year AHS run, McMurray began to enjoy the fruits of his hard work.
"I've been very fortunate here," McMurray said. "I've worked for only two superintendents, I worked for three principals, and just three head coaches. There was not much turnover.
"There was a sense of a family; there was a sense that everything's pretty stable."
His calm demeanor helped Vines and the Airedales pile up conference championships and, in the 1990s, play for four state titles — winning back-to-back crowns in 1997-98.
But his real destiny was with those in track and field.
Alma won three state track championships during McMurray’s time as coach.
As for the classroom, the hall he shared with younger brother Toney for so many years, and the teachers he’s been doormates with for two-plus decades, Mary Joslin and Erin Mills, students have more options than ever, he said.
But at the end of the day, students are still students.
"Kids are kids," he said. "You just have to adapt with them as they go along, because all their interests change, and the way time moves along, things that are important to them may not have been important to you as a kid. Our kids at Alma have really been really good kids overall.
"I've had very few classroom problems in the 30-something years that I've been here."