Freddie Murray is in his third season at Grambling State University, after arriving in 2015 to serve as an assistant coach to Nadine Domond. When Domond left the program the following year, Murray was named interim head coach. The Tigers’ 10-game Southwestern Athletic Conference winning streak that season helped them win a share of the regular season title, and propelled them into the tournament Championship game for the first time in 17 years. Last spring Murray was named permanent head coach.
A Jackson, Mississippi native and a graduate of Jackson State, Murray began his coaching career there, first as a volunteer coach for men’s basketball and then as a graduate assistant for the women. He had two stints as an assistant coach for North Carolina A&T, was an assistant coach at McNeese State, and served as assistant coach at Florida A&M from 2010-2015 before coming to Grambling.
When did you know you wanted to coach?
Injuries set in and I couldn’t play competitive basketball any longer, and I wanted to be around the game. So I started volunteer coaching with the men’s program at Jackson State. Then I started helping out with an AAU program, and eventually I started my own program. It meant a lot to me to be able to be close to the game.
I played guard, and I was more about doing the dirty work on the court. I was a good defensive guard, doing things that didn’t show up in the stat sheets. That’s kind of how I recruit now. I’m looking for a player to embody the entire game.
You began coaching men. How did you make the transition to coaching women?
It came about when I moved after trying to get custody of my son. I left a job and when I came home to Mississippi I wondered what I was going to do. I started working at a middle school, and they try to get you to coach different sports. So I was coaching soccer, baseball and women’s basketball. I spent six years there and in the summer time I did AAU. That was 20 years ago.
Women don’t get the respect that men do. If you want to watch the game and learn the basics, watch the women. They have the true passion.
At Grambling, the women draw more than the men. I hang our hat on that. They love our style of play. We’re out in the community and on campus; we have that personal effect on fans and the community.
You’re big on community service?
Very big on it. It comes from being raised in a church with a father who was a minister. Serving is part of a coach’s way, because we’re also in this to impact lives. Being in position to be a positive light to young people and give them something to look forward to in life is not something I take lightly.
My coaching staff, when we go to recruit, it’s not about 2-4 years with us – it’s about 40-plus years. We want to be involved in your lives long after you leave. We are blessed to be references for jobs, among other things.
Where did you get your basketball knowledge?
I started playing at a very young age: 3-4 years old. I was blessed to come through an era where the approach to the game was a lot more serious than it is today. Older coaches disconnect with the younger generation because of their lack of work ethic. I applied myself to everything I was a part of, and was a six-sport athlete coming out of high school. My first love was soccer, but it wasn’t popular back then. So basketball took precedence over 80 percent of the day.
Who are your role models?
My grandparents and my parents. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them. They are who I pattern my life after. My mom and dad are blessed to be living in their 80’s now, and they take pride in being a part of everything I do on the court. They come to games.
When I saw they were getting older and slowing down, I thought I needed to be closer to them, and then the job came up at Grambling. Five months after I started, my dad had a major stroke. I take care of them. Every off day and even some other days I go. I’m only two hours away.
Take us into the HBCU experience. How is coaching at an HBCU different than coaching elsewhere?
Back in the day I grew up in the SWAC Conference idolizing Patricia Bibbs, Shirley Walker and Sadie McGee at Alcorn. Those programs dominated women’s basketball before UConn and so many other programs, but weren’t allowed to participated in the NCAA Tournament. The talent level was more appreciated in the 70’s and 80’s. One of best games I ever saw was Jackson State playing Louisiana Tech at Jackson State. There were 8,000 people at the game and at the buzzer in OT, we lost by single digits. That let me know there wasn’t much difference between bigger Division I programs and us. Now the better talent isn’t going to the HBCUs anymore, but I’ve always had a love for way they do things in HBCUs. And now in basketball things have come back around, and there is parity again in women’s basketball. At any time, any team can beat any other team.
Playing at an HBCU is an athletic, social and educational experience. It’s a little bit different in that you have to do a lot more at our level. Many coaches can’t coach here because there is a lot you have to put up with because of lack of resources. But we can be successful.
What is the best thing about your job?
That I get a chance to do what I love every day and go at it with the same enjoyment. Even if I wasn’t getting paid for it, I would be doing this job. Sports is my life, it’s what I love to be around. This is a chance to coach and be around something I truly love.
What are the keys to growing a successful program?
You have to have great assistant coaches. I was always told when I first got into coaching that you have to build with assistant coaches. Right now I’m fortunate to have two young, energetic up-and-coming coaches under me. I got here in 2015, and my learning process has never stopped.
Talent means a lot as well. I’m at a program that won before in the past, and I’m trying to get us back there. The school really wants to get back there. Here, women’s basketball is probably right underneath football on the priority list.
What are the most important elements you want to make sure your athletes retain by the time they leave your program?
There are no shortcuts. We live in a society today where young people want instant success, but it doesn’t happen that way. Whatever you want in life, you have to put more time into it. I hope they can draw from us coaches that there are no shortcuts to success, and you have to fail to succeed. One thing about this generation is that many come out of unstructured backgrounds, and when they get to us and we put them in a structured situation, it’s a tug of war. We try to get them to be consistent with their efforts knowing that eventually they’re going to get it. I oversee the maturity and growth of our players from start to finish, sand I’m starting to see kids get it more and more. When they graduate, move on and have productive lives, they understand it. We prepare them to deal with a cruel world that doesn’t want them to succeed.
What is a Coach Murray practice like?
I’d love to be like (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick but I’m more like the (coach Pete Carroll of the) Seattle Seahawks: you have to bend a little. There’s a lot of music, at practices – some music and some laughter. This generation’s attention span is so short, so I have to tailor practice to an hour and 45 minutes or so. Our practices are early in the morning, so once they’re there the music gets their attention. Then we break skill development into parts.
In what ways have you grown as a coach over the years?
I came along in an era when coaches did everything. I decided I would not be that kind of coach – a micromanager. I give players the freedom to do things, and I allow my coaches to do a lot. That’s all a part of growing. I have been in many situations where I’ve been able to adapt and adjust, but this generation doesn’t do that as well, so you have to help them. I always try to have a balance. The season is long enough, and I can’t wear them out. I want to make it fun for them.
What is on your bucket list?
I was fortunate to go to Sweet 16 of the NIT once, and we were three minutes away from the Elite 8 when one of our guards went down with an ACL injury. I would love to be a part of a team that went to the Elite 8. Last year we were able to beat Ole Miss in the NIT. We showed it can be done.
There’s not much difference between us and other Division I teams. Our guard play is just as good as any guard play in country. The only difference right now is our size, but we are one or two players away from doing something special. One day we’re going to be like (UConn coach) Geno (Auriemma) did when he enticed (Rebecca) Lobo to stay home, which started their whole process in winning.