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February 22, 2020

O’Leary: A Q&A with retiring official Kim Murphy

Kim Murphy/CFL.ca

After 26 years, Kim Murphy’s difficult balancing act is winding down.

He’s split being a full-time firefighter in Hamilton — a job he’s held for 31 years — with being a CFL referee. Murphy announced his retirement from officiating on Sunday. A subsequent outpouring of thanks and congratulations flooded his timeline, with players, fellow refs and media personalities wishing him the best.

“In our world, similar to the CFL, we have a rule book,” explains Dave Cunliffe, the fire chief of the Hamilton Fire Department. He’s known Murphy for the last 15 years.

“That rule book is called our policy and procedures manual. To be a good officer, to be a good firefighter, you need to understand and know the rules. That helps you to be able to do your job properly. That’s no different than in the CFL, where he has to know the rules inside and out because the knowledge of those rules is the trait that he’s applying as the official.”

Cunliffe sees fairness, strong communication skills, relationship building with those around you as skills that are all interchangeable in both of Murphy’s professional lives. What he’s seen the most from Murphy over their 15 years together is leadership.

“The official on the field exudes leadership because they are the ones that are in command of how the game is going to go,” he said.

“Kim’s leadership skills are what make him stand out amongst others. He has phenomenal leadership skills and people respect him. They listen to him. They want to be under his command.

“When Kim talks, as they say, people listen to him because they know that through his knowledge and experience, he talks and he tells people the things that they need to know.”

A lifelong football fan but an undersized player, Murphy fell into reffing 40 years ago when an official needed someone to help him work a kids’ game. He called offsides and procedures that day and after the game, the ref invited Murphy to an officials’ camp for the following season.

That started a journey that saw Murphy make it to the CFL level, where he worked almost 500 games and nine Grey Cups; the pinnacle in Canadian officiating. In an hour-long conversation with CFL.ca this past week, Murphy shared fascinating stories about the league and how the game has evolved through the last quarter of a century. From U.S. expansion to the unfolding of Anthony Calvillo’s brilliant career to decades of sideline conversations with coaches and players, Murphy has had one of the most unique, up-close views to the CFL that one can be afforded.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Kim Murphy (second from the left) with the 2008 Grey Cup officiating crew (Kim Murphy/CFL.ca)

Chris O’Leary: What have you thought about the most since announcing your retirement?

Kim Murphy: There were so many significant moments. If you’re looking for a specific thing that I’ll always remember it’ll probably be the ’08 Grey Cup game. It was Jake Ireland’s last game. I’ve always looked up to Jake with our local amateur association. He started in the CFL in 1979 and I started reffing football in 1979. I always looked up to him as a mentor and I always dreamed of doing a Grey Cup as a minor league official at some point in my life. It would be a dream. Then to actually get into the CFL, work with Jake Ireland and to work Jake’s last game. Then it gets better. I became a crew chief and took on Jake’s crew following that game. It was a pretty significant event for me.

I molded myself as an official and a referee in particular after Glen Johnson and Jake Ireland. I tend to pick and choose things that I see other referees (do at) work…you make those adjustments and adopt their ways. The respect they got from the players, coaches, fans that sort of thing. I molded myself around them, honestly.

Four of those officials in that game in ’08 are all from the same local association. Dave Foxcroft, Jason Maggio, Jake Ireland and myself are all from the Lakeshore Football Officials Association.

CO: Do you think a ref needs a certain type of personality to be successful?

KM: Yeah, I think you do. It has to be one that’s well balanced. It’s not being an egotistical person, it’s not being someone who’s bigger than the game. It’s somebody who understands people. You can manage personalities, you’re a good communicator.

It’s one where you interact with players and coaches constantly and I think it’s how you present yourself, is really important. Being able to communicate clearly with them and to show compassion for them, for their concerns. Anybody who addresses me in a proper manner, I will address them back the exact same way. But if you want to yell, rant and scream and chew me apart, well, I’m just going to walk away. I’ll let it cool down and then I’ll come back and address it. I don’t ever let it go away, but I will address it at some point. I think that’s a skill set that’s important for an official.

CO: To me, it seems like that would be a hard part of the job. I think for a lot of people, if they had someone screaming in their face every week, it’d be hard to walk away from that or put it behind you and take on the next interaction.

KM: Being able to handle the pressures is very important. My other profession in firefighting…everybody says, ‘Don’t you find it stressful on the field?’ I don’t know. That’s not stress. That’s not real life, you know? You’re not dealing with life and death. Out on the street I’m dealing with life and death. That’s pressure. This is a release for me when I go and officiate. I find officiating football is a release. For me. It’s healthy. It clears my mind. It doesn’t boggle my mind with problems. For me it’s a relief.

Over a 26-year career, Kim Murphy has worked countless rivalry games, seeing a generation’s worth of talent on the field (Kim Murphy/CFL.ca)

CO: What kind of change have you seen in the CFL over 26 years?

KM: I’ve worked under seven directors of officiating. I’ve worked under 10 acting or commissioners. Jim Lawson has filled in a couple of times. I’ve worked under three logos on my chest. There was the old helmet logo, there was the Canadian maple leaf one, then we have the new one that Jeffery Orridge introduced.

In the 2002 Grey Cup game we wore that logo for the first time, the second one. (Laughs) Our director of officiating at that time was Neil Payne from Winnipeg and his wife, Gloria, sewed on the patches the night before the game. That’s how quickly it was introduced. We didn’t know it was going to be introduced until the day before.

George Black gave me my first opportunity in 2005 as a head referee, that was in Ottawa. That’s an interesting story as well. I’ve officiated all three storied franchises in Ottawa. The Rough Riders, The Renegades and the REDBLACKS. So I’ve seen that transformation there as well. How do you know you’ve been around too long (he laughs again), right? When you wear three different logos, you see three different franchises in the same city?

CO: That sounds like a perfect CFL thing, doesn’t it?

KM: It is, it is for sure. I’ve had a lot of significant events that I’ve experienced in the CFL. When I broke in in 1994, I officiated the very first all-American CFL football game. That was in Sacramento, California. It was between the Sacramento Gold Miners and the Las Vegas Posse.

This was Anthony Calvillo’s rookie year and he was unbelievable. Strong arm, it really stood out and he was playing David Archer. Well, in this particular game, at this field, Sacramento’s home game, we would get changed at a field house kind of away from where the field was and they would transport us in on the back of pickup trucks. They had a temporary tent set up by the field.

So we went out, we officiated the game and there was an official from Winnipeg who made a controversial pass interference call that cost Sacramento the game at the end of the game.

As we’re leaving the park, we’re getting in the back of these pickup trucks and we’re going out through the crowds. All of a sudden the fans are going, ‘It’s the refs!’ And they start to run after us! We thought they were going to tear us apart, tear our limbs off! It was an interesting day, it was a memorable one.

One day years later I was in the league office for a meeting…and Kevin McDonald (the CFL’s VP of player operations and football safety) is walking down the hall with two helmets in his hands. I go, ‘Kevin, what are you doing with those?’ He was cleaning his office out and was getting rid of them. One was a Sacramento Gold Miners helmet and the other was a Las Vegas Posse helmet. I go, ‘Give me those helmets, please.’ I have those helmets at home now and it reminds me of the experience I had doing that.

There are other ones, too. Lui Passaglia is the all-time leading scorer in the CFL. I signalled his last three points in the 2000 Grey Cup game. That’s a significant event. I got an opportunity to be on the field when Anthony Calvillo broke the all-time passing record in 2011. That was significant.

I always reminded him, and I still do when I see him, I lasted longer than you (laughs). He had such a storied career, such a significant career, we always laugh about that when we see each other.

CO: When you look at it all now, what would you say is the most difficult part of the job?

KM: The most difficult part of the job is to be fair, really. Making the tough calls at critical points of the game. As an official, that’s what you want. That would be the toughest thing, but it’s the one thing that everybody wants the most. You don’t want that pass to go to the other side of the field, if you’re the down field official. You want it to come to you. And you want to make the call, whether it’s complete, incomplete, pass interference, no pass interference, that kind of thing. That would probably be the most difficult thing.

Murphy made a point of interacting with fans prior to the kickoff of every game that he worked (Kim Murphy/CFL.ca)

CO: Who were your favourite people to interact with?

KM: I’ll start with the fans. I always engaged with the fans at every stadium I’ve ever gone into. When we implemented the CFL pin, I asked when I was the president of the (officials) association if we could get extra pins so we could give them out to the fans. I’d put a pin in my pocket and it’s something I implemented that’s still going on today.

I’d reach out to a young fan ever game, I’d go out of my way to go over to introduce myself, present them with a pin. I’d ask them first if they were going to be booing us or not (laughs). And then if they had any questions I would answer them for them. Then I would put the pin on them. I did that religiously, every game really, until I ran out of them. Even if I didn’t have a pin, I would still engage and I loved engaging with the fans. The fans were terrific.

I would say the toughest fans, the toughest blue collar fans were the fans in Hamilton. I’ve always said — coincidentally, I closed Ivor Wynne Stadium, I worked the last game there — if you could work that north sideline, you could work anywhere in the CFL.

That was the toughest, because the crowd was so close. The sidelines were two to three steps away from the wall, which the fans were sitting at. I’ve always said if you can work the north side line when both teams are on the same side, you can work anywhere in the CFL.

But there are some great players and some great players to talk with. Pinball Clemons comes to mind. He was such a gentleman. He was such a classy person and he is now. He was the same way on the field. He was amazing.

Damon Allen was great. Doug Flutie was unbelievable. I don’t have to dwell on him, he was justa pleasure to watch. And Anthony Calvillo, so classy. Ben Cahoon, again very soft-spoken but a great player. Interesting guys that were always fun were Gizmo Williams. He was so funny. There are so many good players that have played our game that were just amazing.

CO: Do you build different relationships with the coaches? That’d be something that develops over years, I’d imagine.

KM: A lot of them were players and now they’re coaches (laughs). Mike O’Shea is so genuine and so smart. He reminds me of Don Matthews. I officiated Mike at the university level at Guelph. Then I officiated him in the CFL. He was a tough player, oh my gosh. But he’s so smart, and so smart as a coach now.

There’s one coach that’s presently coaching that was such a classy player on the field and that’s Orlondo Steinauer, he’s again, such a personable guy. You can tell that he’s got control of that team. He doesn’t have to rant and rave and scream. It’s his persona, the way he carries himself, you can tell he’s got the respect of his players. He was a respectful player and now players are giving it back to him in the same way.

Murphy always wanted to work in emergency services. After working 10 years as a mechanic, he became a firefighter in Hamilton (Kim Murphy/CFL.ca)

CO: What got you into firefighting?

KM: (Laughs) My first career was as a licensed automotive mechanic. I did that for 10 years. Firefighting wasn’t my first career. I went to school, did an apprenticeship and got licensed as an auto mechanic. In the back of my mind I always wanted to work in emergency services, I always liked to help people. I thought the best way I could do that would be to go and apply for a position within the fire department, or the police. I wasn’t a large guy but I was athletic. I was a triathlete when I was younger.

I went down on my lunch hour into Hamilton at the convention centre and the lineup went from the second floor all the way down the escalator out to King Street. I almost turned around and went back to work in Grimsby. But I stayed and they took my application and they did a brief interview. I think they started the paper shuffle right away. That little interview, I felt so good walking away. As it turned out, I was in the first group that was hired out of all of those people that applied that day. I felt good about that, 12 people out of that huge group. That was April 10, 1989. Come this April I’ll have 31 years in the fire department, all in my station at No. 1 on downtown John St. I’m a station captain there, I oversee the whole station.

CO: So, this May when the officials have their preseason clinic, what do you think it’ll feel like for you? You’ll be free in the spring and summer for the first time in a long time.

KM: It is going to be very unusual. After reffing football for 40 years, 26 at the pro level, it’s going to feel very peculiar. I don’t think it’s going to kick in until I actually see the games on TV. What I miss right now…is the prep work. You never really have much downtime in the off-season. You take a couple months then you jump right into the rules and the mechanics manuals and the fitness testing. That’s what will feel weird, not being tested. It feels weird that I’m not prepping myself for camp. I’d be at my peak right now, working on it.