It's a question high school football enthusiasts across the state are asking right now as they scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Who would leave a job as the head coach of one of the best football programs in the state and then -- with roughly two dozen vacant head coaching positions available in the state -- take over a program that has struggled mightily for most of the last half-century?

The answer to that question is, of course, John Murphy.

Mr. Murphy left behind the Masuk High School program he helped build into a perennial powerhouse in December.

He was named the head coach Jan. 30 at New Milford High. He also will coach the Green Wave girls' lacrosse team and begin a job as para-educator at Schaghticoke Middle School.

Why?

Why leave Masuk after 16 triumphant seasons -- including six South-West Conference championships and three state titles -- only to take the job at New Milford, which is one of the league's biggest schools but has had only four winning seasons since 1994 and hasn't made the state playoffs since the tournament was started.

"It wasn't something I planned on," Mr. Murphy said recently over the phone. "I resigned at Masuk and I was just kind of looking for a new direction, a breath of fresh air and something new.

"New Milford really wasn't on my radar," he admitted. "I called just to inquire. I honestly didn't think much of the phone call, but they made quite an impression on me, just with the administration and what they thought the plan was for the future. That intrigued me.

"I was looking at the situation and I thought it was a really positive one," Mr. Murphy continued. "I could see things working out for the best. They really did a lot of good things for me, and here we are."

The 45-year-old Mr. Murphy, who lives in Stratford, is well aware of New Milford's 47-season history of mediocrity on the gridiron.

Yet rather than dwell on what the Green Wave did or didn't do in previous seasons under previous coaches and with previous players, Mr. Murphy is looking forward.

"The first thing, when I met with my (football) team," Mr. Murphy reported, "I said whatever has happened here in the past is truly in the past. I don't want to talk about it. It's not important. It doesn't really matter.

"What I really tried to express to the kids was that it doesn't matter what happened two years ago, six years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago," he said. "Kids are in high school for four years, and we're going to build from today forward. That was my message to them from the first time I met them, which was last Thursday.

"I'm really not worried about what happened in the past, their record in the past, any of that stuff," Mr. Murphy said. "It doesn't mean anything to me. I have a game plan, and we got to work on Monday. We're going to go out and compete, and we're going to work our tails off every single day getting ready."

Just as he is not focusing on New Milford High School's football past, Mr. Murphy is not focusing on his own past at Masuk, either.

He posted a 158-33-12 record at Masuk, reached the state playoffs in 12 of his 16 seasons and reached the state title game seven times, winning three.

David Brennan, the former defensive coordinator at Ridgefield for nine seasons, was hired to replace Mr. Murphy at Masuk.

"I can't dwell on what happened at Masuk," Mr. Murphy said. "I wish them the best of luck. I have a lot of really good friends and great memories from my time there.

"Whatever happens there, good for them," Mr. Murpjhy said. "I hope they go out and win state championships and all those other things. That's not going to take away from or tarnish what we accomplished while I was there."

It takes time

Mr. Murphy's move sent shockwaves across the SWC. Folks are wondering if he can do at New Milford High what he did at Masuk.

"I was surprised at first," said longtime Joel Barlow coach Rob Tynan. "I've known John for a long time.

"I think it's a great move for the league. New Milford has struggled, and John is a fantastic football coach," he said.

"Do I think it's going to be instantaneous? I hope not," Mr. Tynan said. "But John's a heck of a football coach. I live in Monroe and I've seen what John has done with the youth programs and the time he's put in.

"John knows how to build a program really from the bottom up," he said. "If he gets those youth programs organized and doing what he wants to do up in New Milford, they're going to be okay."

Mr. Tynan, who has been at Barlow for 21 seasons, knows a thing or two himself about turning around a football program.

"A long time ago, I took over a Barlow program that people were talking about doing away with," said Mr. Tynan, whose Falcons went 8-2 last fall. "You have to change the thinking and change the culture of what your sport is about.

"It takes time," he said, "but I think John is up to the task."

Mr. Murphy said he has gotten some grief from some people in Monroe who were not happy with his departure.

"There weren't any bad feelings," he said. "It was just one of those things where I felt it was time to move on and try something new.

"I find it a little bit ironic that I got some grief from some people," Mr. Murphy said. "People move careers all the time. Teachers become administrators and administrators become superintendents.

"But coaches are not supposed to leave?" he asked. "That was one part of the process that I was a little shocked by.

"I had no idea I was going to end up coaching an at SWC school. I really didn't," Mr. Murphy added. "It was just time for a change in my life."

He won't have to wait long to face his former team, either, as New Milford opens its 2013 season against Masuk.

Mr. Murphy takes over for Chuck Lynch, who resigned in December after 10 seasons at the helm.

Mr. Lynch took over for Tom Taylor for the 2003 season and was 28-73 during his tenure.

The Green Wave was 5-5 in 2011 and 2-8 this past season.

Perhaps New Milford's best season ever came in 2001 when Mr. Taylor guided the Green Wave to an 8-3 record.

New Milford lost, 7-6, to Foran in the SWC title game that fall.

Youth football

"Everyone keeps saying what a great challenge (it will be at New Milford), but every football season is a great challenge because you don't get to keep the same people," Mr. Murphy said.

"Kids graduate and you start over, and kids graduate and you start over," he added. "It's not college where you get to go pick them, and it's not the pros where you get to sign them."

It is important that a coach does get to oversee the young players' development from an early age.

Like any coach in any sport at any high school, Mr. Murphy's involvement with the youth programs in town could help his cause.

New Milford has two youth football programs, the New Milford Bulls' Pop Warner program, which started in the early 1970s, and the second-year New Milford Saints, who play American Youth Football.

"I'm really excited to get to work with both of them," Mr. Murphy said. "I think both offer something really good for the youth players. I've reached out to both of them already, and we're going to get together here.

"It's important that they know that I care about them," he added, "and I'll be there for them in any way I can as far as coaching clinics, youth camps and being supportive of them.

"Anything they need from me," he remarked, "I'm going to be available for them."

Although his hiring as New Milford High's new football coach has received the biggest headlines, New Milford public schools are getting more than a football coach in Mr. Murphy.

He will serve as a para-educator in the special education department at Schaghticoke Middle School -- he held a similar position at Masuk -- and will also coach Green Wave girls' lacrosse.

Mr. Murphy takes the reins of girls' lacrosse from Bill Kersten.

The Green Wave has qualified for the state tournament each of the nine seasons the tournament has been sanctioned by the CIAC.

NMHS reached the Division II state semifinals in 2007 and 2009.

Mr. Murphy started the girls' lacrosse program at Masuk and was its head coach for all of its 14 seasons.

"I met with the (NMHS) girls and they're all really excited," Mr. Murphy said. "I know we have a tremendous senior class, and I'm really excited to get to work with them and get to know them and get to work on what I think has a chance to be a very special season."

Regardless of whether his teams at Masuk won or lost, it was tough for Mr. Murphy to say goodbye to the school and the people in it.

"Feb. 7 was my last day at Masuk after 16 1/2 years of being in that building," he said. "It's a big change to leave two programs -- one that I started completely and one that I feel like I had a part in making something out of -- and so many wonderful kids that I was so fortunate to coach.

"The reality of driving out of that parking lot today to run up to New Milford ... ," Mr. Murphy concluded. "I looked in the rear-view mirror and it's a wonderful past, but I'm looking forward to a bright future."

The folks in New Milford are too.

rgregory@newstimes.com