At 4 a.m. Friday morning, Bennie McMurray was restless.
Lancaster’s head football coach rose early and walked about 3 miles through his neighborhood. Later that same day, he held a brief press conference to announce his retirement.
“I’d been debating that for a while,” said McMurray. “Thirty-eight years is a long time and I’d gotten to the point to where I was thinking about it more than I should be.”
McMurray hasn’t nailed down the exact day that he won’t wake up at 6 a.m., get dressed and go to another day of work at Lancaster High School. But he has already mentally drawn the curtains on a 38-year coaching career, in which he won two football state titles and five baseball state titles, all at Lewisville High School. McMurray won 419 games as a baseball coach, 11th all-time in South Carolina history, and won 218 games as a football coach.
The 64-year-old also launched a baseball program at Buford High School, where he got his coaching start in 1975, as well as football and baseball programs at Charlotte’s E.E. Waddell in the early 2000s. McMurray was the North Carolina Shrine Bowl head coach in 2005 and a head coach in the 2010 North-South game.
Records aside, there might not be enough hands in Lancaster County to count the young people impacted over nearly four decades.
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” said Lancaster athletic director Mark Strickland, citing McMurray’s 2005 induction to the South Carolina Football Coaches Hall of Fame. “That sums it up right there.”
The timing was good for McMurray, and it’s also good for the Bruin football program. Resigning barely a month after the season concluded, McMurray gives Lancaster an opportunity to bound into the hunt for a replacement. That should give the new coach a full spring practice and summer 7-on-7 circuit to set things up his way.
“It wouldn’t be fair to the next coach to come in here in June or July, over the summer and try to get prepared for the season,” said McMurray.
As he sat around a circular table Friday across the hall from the school’s front office, McMurray regaled a handful of listeners with tales of midnight film swaps in Timmonsville and Lockhart, of reporters riding the team bus back in the 1980s and a hilarious memory or two involving former Lewisville Lion great Sheldon Brown. He also recalled crying with joy after his Bruins beat a Greenwood team with three future NFL players in 2008. Throughout the 45 minutes, McMurray maintained a wistful air.
“It’s sort of like an empty house in a way,” said Strickland. “I hate to see him go within the next couple of weeks. But I understand his thought process because he explained it to me. He didn’t have to, but he did and I respect him for that.”
Strickland said that the school district will post the job opening and then proceed according to the applications received. Strickland noted he was slightly surprised by McMurray’s decision, even after back-to-back 2-9 campaigns.
“He and I had talked a few weeks ago and he had mentioned last year and this year that there was a chance of it,” said Strickland. “The type of season we had this year, I could see it wearing on him last year and this year. As he said, it takes a toll on you.”
Strickland and McMurray agreed that a coach with abundant energy would be needed to help arrest the Bruins’ football slide in recent years.
“I’m not gonna be in a big hurry,” Strickland said about the hiring process. “I would hope to have something done by the beginning of the new year, but I’m not gonna rush anything.”
Like many people facing the vast openness of retirement, McMurray has no immediate plans other than chauffeuring his wife, Monique, this coming spring. She’s just been promoted to officiating softball for the Atlantic Coast Conference, so McMurray will be squiring her around the southeastern United States. He added he might get back into baseball officiating too.
As it usually does, family played a big part in McMurray’s decision. He was not a “happy camper” at home the last few years, due to the difficulties of his day job leaking into his home life. That’s something he – and Monique – won’t have to fret over anymore. He did mention that he would consider a return to coaching if someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, but discounted the likelihood of that happening. McMurray seemed content Friday.
“There’s plenty of great moments through the 38 years, and it’s not all about the big games,” he said. “I guess the biggest thing I’m going to miss is the relationships with the players and coaches. We spent a lot of time together.”
After years at Buford, Lewisville and Waddell, McMurray came back to Lancaster, his hometown, in 2006. It wasn’t as glorious a return as he would’ve hoped – the Bruins went 39-54 during his eight seasons at the helm – but it did feel right to end his career in Lancaster.
Even with the circle completed, McMurray wasn’t sure why he was so restless Friday morning.
“I don’t know,” he said. “First day of the rest of my life I guess.”
The day is coming soon, in the next few weeks very likely, when McMurray won’t have to rise in the gray-blue of the early morning, put on a pot of coffee, glance at the newspaper, then drive over to Lancaster High School. The venerable shaper of young men is going to have to learn how to hit the snooze button.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T