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Meet Sherry Murray: Assistant to Luke Fickell, gatekeeper of Cincinnati’s program

CINCINNATI — Just about every weekday around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell sheepishly will poke his head out into the reception area of the football offices where Sherry Murray sits behind a large L-shaped desk.

“I’ll say, ‘You want something to eat?’ Murray recited with a chuckle. “He won’t ask, because he’s so gracious and so kind. But he’ll just give that look.”

Most mornings she’ll whip up a quick egg sandwich, frying the eggs on a mini waffle maker she keeps in the office. Murray tries to have a couple of options on hand to keep Cincinnati’s star head coach well-fueled.

“He probably wouldn’t eat anything if I didn’t put it in front of him,” she said.

Personal chef is not Murray’s job, nor is it part of her official job description as associate to the head coach. But it is one of the many, varied responsibilities she has taken on during her 13 years and three head-coaching regimes with the Bearcats. Murray first joined the staff in 2010 under Butch Jones and has been at that front desk on the seventh floor of the Lindner Center ever since. From Jones to Tommy Tuberville to Fickell. From the Big East to the AAC and soon the Big 12. From a program on the rise, to rock bottom, to the College Football Playoff. Murray has been a constant through all of it.

Her role has evolved during that time, to the point that she is absolutely vital to the ever-growing day-to-day needs of the program and athletic department. Murray handles anything and everything ranging from coordinating recruiting travel for Fickell and his assistant coaches, regularly communicating with players’ parents, helping wrangle and accommodate recruits and staff families on game days, to organizing team events, hiring student workers and ordering office supplies. She even updates the Victory Bell trophy after each win over rival Miami (Ohio), which has become a near-annual occurrence the past two decades.

“It’s a mish-mash of stuff that needs to get done,” said Murray, 52. “The coaches are all so stressed and work so much, so I try to make it easy and peaceful on this side. All the little things that need to happen to make everything run a little smoother.”

All of that comes on top of managing Fickell’s calendar — and often his meals. There’s a shelf behind Murray’s desk that has become Fickell’s personalized snack cupboard, stocked with the favorites of a conscientious snacker: peanuts, rice cakes, peanut butter, Cheez-Its, bananas (“until they get fruit flies”). Lunch is often catered in during the season, another thing Murray helps coordinate, but during the offseason, she will wing it and either grab something for Fickell nearby or bring something from home for him. After five years, she has a good sense of his likes and dislikes, absentmindedly rattling off how he doesn’t care for chicken salad or tomatoes.

A shelf behind Sherry Murray’s desk has become Luke Fickell’s personalized snack cupboard. (Justin Williams / The Athletic)

That part of the job has evolved as well. Fickell is a devout Catholic, as is Murray, so during his first offseason at UC back in 2017, Murray started making him a grilled cheese sandwich on Fridays during Lent. In the five years since, the combination of a papal city like Cincinnati and the intoxicating aroma of melted butter has turned Fickell’s meatless Lenten lunch into a building-wide weekly tradition.

“I whip up about 100 grilled cheese sandwiches every Friday during Lent. The whole staff eats it, and then half the building ends up coming in because they can smell it,” Murray said. “I have two griddles. We go through like five pounds of butter, six loaves of bread, three big things of cheese. I put tomato soup in the crock pot, and we have pickles. So that’s another random, weird thing that I do.”

It’s all a day in the life for Murray — coach’s assistant, office manager, gatekeeper and staff mom.

“Yeah, she does a lot of different things,” Fickell said. “I’m not one who is able to relinquish a lot, but I learned quickly that she is very well trusted and can do whatever you need her to do. She’s a mother, whether that’s to her kids, our kids, me, all the coaches. There isn’t anything she wouldn’t do if you asked her.”

There was a strong sense of familiarity when Fickell hired Kerry Coombs as cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator this past offseason, bringing the former Bearcats assistant and legendary coach of Colerain High School back to his hometown. No one felt that reunion stronger than Murray, who started working for Coombs at Colerain almost 30 years ago.

“High school football coaches don’t get secretaries, at least not at Colerain, but I had one because I was also the assistant principal,” Coombs said. “Sherry came in and thought she was interviewing for an assistant principal secretary, when in reality, she was interviewing for all of it.”

Murray worked for Coombs for 10 years, the two of them basically raising their kids in the halls of Colerain High School. Coombs remembers Murray always going above and beyond, whether it was overseeing the team car wash or making sure both the academic and athletic worlds were kept in order.

“She’s an incredible person,” Coombs said. “It became very readily apparent to me that I had struck gold when I hired her.”

Working for Coombs also meant Murray had to greet and make small talk with college coaches who would stop by Colerain on recruiting trips — a world Murray admitted was (and remains) completely foreign to her. She and Coombs still laugh about the time then-Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis came to visit, and Murray had no clue who he was.

“Do you remember the store Steve & Barry’s, with all the college clothes? Well, one day, Charlie Weis comes to my office to see Kerry, and he’s wearing this big Notre Dame letterman’s jacket. So as I’m walking him back I said, ‘I love your jacket, did you get that at Steve & Barry’s?’ And he’s like, ‘Uh, I’m the head coach at Notre Dame,’” Murray said. “It just came out of my mouth. My husband was crying — crying — when I told him that story.”

After Coombs was hired to UC as an assistant under Brian Kelly in 2007, he recommended Murray for a job with UCATS in the fundraising office. Then a couple of years later, after Kelly left for Notre Dame and took his assistant with him, Coombs told Butch Jones he knew exactly who he should hire.

Every coaching staff is different, something Murray has learned many times as she enters her 13th season as the gatekeeper of the program. Assistants and support staffers are always changing, which creates a constant cycle of relocating, onboarding and managing new personalities. A lot of that falls to Murray, who has spent hours on the phone with assistants’ wives helping to answer questions and finalize paperwork while the coaches hit the ground running.

The head coaches have their own style as well, which often molds and dictates Murray’s job. Each one needs and prioritizes different things and has his own temperament that Murray must navigate. Needless to say, working for Jones, Tuberville and Fickell has been three very distinct experiences.

“My sisters will tell you it’s a gift, but I have a good ability to read people. It takes me a year to get to know these coaches, and once that year is up, I’m a step ahead of them all the time, on everything,” Murray said. “With Fick, it was obvious the job was going to be at a different pace. I don’t know that he sleeps. He’s here every morning to work out by 6 or 6:30. People don’t believe me, but there are days I hardly see him.”

Recruiting has developed into a bigger part of her position under Fickell. In addition to coordinating the coaches’ travel, Murray helps organize and host official visit weekends and other recruiting events, and she works the recruiting check-in tent on game days. She’s currently in the process of passing some of that to Ashley Hecimovich, who recently was added as Cincinnati’s director of on-campus recruiting.

Murray is also the main conduit for communication to player parents, something that started under Jones with a parents club and is a major emphasis for Fickell. Murray puts together a guidebook each season with everything parents need to know about tickets for home games, traveling to away games and general schedules. Due to compliance rules, Murray can’t run or organize the parents club, which has officers in different roles each season, but she can help facilitate through weekly email blasts and other necessary messaging.

She works closely with the coaches’ wives and families as well, something that is a major emphasis for Amy Fickell, Luke’s wife.

“People don’t realize what an integral part Amy is, and really she has been more than any other coach’s wife,” Murray said. “He and her are so good, and she keeps Fick grounded on all the non-football stuff. The coaches get so caught up in this world here that they sometimes forget that babies are being born and there are real-life things happening that you need to give people some grace on.”

Murray helps Amy plan various outings or events for wives and significant others, including those of graduate assistants and support staffers, which Murray stressed is not usually the norm. The two of them hit it off immediately after Fickell was hired and work closely together on a number of team-related matters — an impact the head coach feels at home and in the office.

“She probably works and deals just as much with my wife. You know, you think as the head coach you get to go into the office and make all the decisions, but the two of them make more decisions together than I do,” Fickell said. “But it’s all about how we can take care of the parents and families. Sherry really fights for that.”

Sherry Murray is entering her 13th season with the Cincinnati football program. (Courtesy Eichel Davis / Cincinnati Bearcats Athletics)

A few years back, Amy wanted something to lessen the stress and chaos of home games for coaches’ families, particularly those with young children. So Murray started booking a classroom on the top floor of Lindner Center, which overlooks Nippert Stadium next door. It opens two hours before kickoff and stays open all game with beer and food — all donated — and water and soda. During the winter she’ll have hot chocolate. A bunch of the moms donated toys, and a few student workers will staff it and keep an eye on the kids. They put the game on the big screen, and families can come and go as they please. Some pop in for warmups and halftime; others stay for the whole game. Moms can bring their kids to get them out of the weather or ward off a meltdown as needed.

“I’m a mom — a mom of boys, who don’t tell you anything. So it morphed into one of the biggest things I pride myself on in this job: the communication we give to not only the parents but our coaches wives too,” Murray said. “That’s how I look at it: as a mom. And I love to serve people. It’s the perfect job for me.”

That sentiment extends beyond the shadow of Nippert as well. Murray and her husband, who everyone calls Droopy, still live in Colerain, where they raised their two sons: Jake, 25, and Luke, 21. Both sons were Division I baseball players, and Jake spent part of his career with the Bearcats, including a home run in his final at-bat. Plus for the past 10 years, the Murrays have had an adopted daughter, Leanne Shollenbarger, 36.

Murray first met Shollenbarger as a special education student at Colerain and later saw her occasionally at the local Kroger where Shollenbarger worked. One year, Shollenbarger mentioned she didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving, so Murray invited her to their house. That led to more dinners and lunches, and eventually, after Shollenbarger’s grandmother and caretaker passed away, a new house guest. Murray has since helped her land a job with the housekeeping staff in the UC dorms, too.

“I called Droopy one day and told him, ‘I think I’m bringing Leanne home.’ Here we are 10 years later, she’s still living in our third bedroom,” Murray said, her fingertips now stained with mascara. “You know when you’re called? That was the one time. You wait your whole life sometimes for a purpose. That was it. That might be the only time, but that was it.”

Although to hear people like Coombs, Fickell and others around the program tell it, that was far from the only time. Among the many reasons Murray is such a beloved, indispensable part of the program is because she’s the kind person who uses her favors, big and small, to help others.

“She’s selfless. That’s why I say she’s a mother. If you’re a great mother, it’s because you’re selfless, and she’s the same way when she’s here at work,” Fickell said. “She’s easy to trust because she’s so genuine. We put her in charge of a lot of stuff because we know she can handle it and she takes pride in doing all of that.”

College football programs are a massive operation: 100-plus athletes on the rosters, nearly as many staffers and student workers, all maneuvering within the structure of the broader athletic department, university and conference. To overhaul a team to the degree that Fickell has at Cincinnati, externally and internally, is a remarkable feat and one worthy of the many awards and accolades that have come his way.

To his credit, Fickell is quick to point out that he hasn’t done it alone. From the outside, it can be easy to overlook the thankless work done by countless people behind the scenes, even those who sit right out front. But no one within the program takes Murray for granted.

“If you have a need, she can probably fill it, find a way to get something done,” said Coombs, who knows it as well as anyone. “I sent her an email late last night to see if she could help me out because I screwed something up. By the time I saw her this morning, she had it taken care of.”

In any organization, there’s considerable value in those who have been around and know how to get things done. UC football is fortunate to have a few, including Murray, director of operations John Widecan and director of football video Adam Niemeyer, each who has been around for at least a decade — and in Widecan’s case, much longer. (Murray, who had been annoyed by an old associate’s degree that felt incomplete, finally graduated from UC a couple of years ago, achieving her goal to do so before she turned 50.) On the slanted playing field that is college football, the Bearcats have earned the reputation of a team that punches above its weight. That’s as true on the field as it is off the field, where people like Murray, Widecan and Niemeyer have embraced the mentality of doing more with less.

“We’re cautious about the budget because we’ve had to be. We make friends, we get things donated,” Murray said. “It’s a west-side thing. If someone is gonna help us, let them help us. And when we can help them, we help them.”

All that tenure and resourcefulness have earned Murray a lot of respect, and she isn’t afraid to wield it. Staffers marvel at how casually she will waltz into Fickell’s office and meeting rooms to get something signed or remind a room of famished coaches deep in film study to break for lunch. She recently crashed a meeting to drop off cookies for graduate assistant Daeshon Martin’s birthday. The young GA blushed as Murray led the rest of the staff in a rendition of the Happy Birthday song.

“She enjoys to do that extra stuff and keep me in line,” Fickell said. “She has the confidence and the autonomy to bust in at any point and time. But she’s really wise in her ability to use her authority. She knows, she peeks through some windows, has a good sense about using her power.”

One way or another, Murray does her best to ensure all the luxury, well-catered trains are moving on time. In a big-ticket, high-pressure industry, she’s the perpetually friendly face greeting you at the door, doing the little things to help it all run a little smoother. Fickell may have revived the program, but Murray is the one keeping him in line. And well fed. And doing so much more.

“Look, I’m not a huge sports person. If I didn’t work here, I’m not sure if I would ever go to a game. Maybe don’t write that,” Murray said with a laugh. “I love winning, I love football, I love everything we do. But really, I love the people more. I love the kids. I love the coaches. I think that’s why I’m good at what I do. My place is here, running all of this so they don’t have to worry about it. Because win or lose, none of the work here changes. This office still has to run no matter what happens out there on the field.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of Eichel Davis / Cincinnati Bearcats Athletics)

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