Mike Murray ’12/G’18 Empowers Urban Youth to Reach Their Fullest Potential

Driven by the power of positive relationships, Mike Murray empowers urban youth to reach their fullest potential—on and off the playing field.

Coach Mike really has it figured out. He has a college degree and a full-time job. He’s put together. He’s professional. To a kid killing time in a Harlem in-school suspension room, what Coach Mike has is a pipe dream.

Mike Murray has an advantage when it comes to motivating student-athletes: the lessons he delivers come from personal experience. And for those kids in the suspension room, Harlem Lacrosse may be their ticket out.

With programs in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, Harlem Lacrosse changes the life trajectories of inner-city youth through hands-on academic support, mentorship, counseling, and—of course—lessons from the field. The non-profit organization uses the sport of lacrosse as a vehicle to open doors and opportunities.

As managing director for Harlem Lacrosse, Murray oversees 10 programs in New York. He ensures effective budget planning, strategizes student retention measures, maps season plans, and collaborates with other regional directors to achieve their three pillars: academic, athletic, and social-emotional growth.

His students are often surprised to learn that the coach who leads their study halls and talks to their teachers did not have a perfect record himself. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

From Challenge to Triumph

The Long Island native grew up with a lacrosse stick in his hands. The sport was his identity, and he arrived at Western New England University eager to join the men’s lacrosse team and major in Sport Management—admittedly, because the field included the word sport. Then, during his sophomore year, Murray became academically ineligible to play lacrosse.

“Priorities were all mixed up,” he said. “I really didn’t understand what it meant to be a successful student-athlete. I just thought I was there to play lacrosse.”

Murray dedicated the remainder of his sophomore year to personal growth and regaining the confidence of his teammates and coaches. Recognizing the need for a significant change in his approach, he committed to a complete turnaround. During this period of self-improvement, Murray drew strength from the support of his teammates, academic advisors, and coaching staff, particularly Head Coach John Klepacki.

“I understood the importance of relationships,” Murray said. Coach Klepacki had recruited Murray to play on the team, and Murray concentrated his efforts on maintaining the trust that he earned back. “It was an eye-opening experience about how to go about my life in a professional way, the right way, an effective way, a confident way,” he recalls.

By the time he graduated, Murray had not just reestablished that trust; he had earned himself a seat on John Klepacki’s coaching staff. Murray coached six seasons of WNE men’s lacrosse under Coach K, and he completed a master’s degree in English for Teachers while he was at it.

As a coach, Klepacki saw in Murray an ability to connect with athletes on and off the field. “He was here to make sure the athletes had someone to go to,” he said. “He wanted to make an impact. He wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.”

In the 10 years that spanned Murray’s playing and coaching career at WNE, he became a member of the Klepacki family. Murray credits his character development and ability to overcome adversity to tough love and the strong relationship he and Klepacki built.

“He told me he was proud of me. That meant a lot.” Murray said of his coach. “I want to do what he did for me and apply it to my kids every single day now.” At Harlem Lacrosse, Coach Mike does exactly that.

More Than a Winning Record

Murray sees elements of his younger self in many of the students he has coached. His ability to relate to their struggles and his openness about his setbacks allows him to break down the barriers and create trust to meet them at their level. Murray relates that he, too, “had to get out of somewhere to be who I am right now.” He provides the same level of investment and support for his students at Harlem Lacrosse that his WNE community did for him.

By this point, Murray has noticed a pattern: “I realized that it wasn’t about the X’s and O’s that I knew about; it’s about the Jimmys and Joes and the relationships I build with those kids.” The effort he invests in stacking offense, planning defensive strategy, and writing academic intervention plans doesn’t pay off unless he invests in that relationship of trust.

One season in particular stands out in Murray’s memory as a Harlem Lacrosse coach. He was leading one of the strongest teams in the city, the student-athletes were working together and peeling off wins, and they were on a championship push. Then, Murray lost both his grandmother and his aunt. Coach Mike was off his game, and his guys noticed.

Just two days before a pivotal rivalry, Coach Mike walked into the locker room to find his team waiting for him, refusing to dress and get on the field. Instead, they huddled around their coach and sat with him until he released the emotion he had been hiding under his sunglasses.

“This is the family that I’d been trying to create for the longest time, and it took me going through this to realize I’m part of the family, too. I’m ingrained in this.”

That year, the team dedicated their championship win to Coach Mike and his family. “When you talk about give and receive, it’s the love that’s two ways, it’s the care that’s two ways, it’s the emotional investment in each other’s lives that’s two ways,” Murray said. “I’m making those kids better every day, I know that. But they’re making me better also.”

Changing the Landscape

Murray has been with Harlem Lacrosse for six years now. In that time, he has witnessed the city become a hotbed for lacrosse. Where basketballs once dominated gray sidewalks and open lots, he sees kids with lacrosse sticks flocking to green fields.

“I could be biased,” Murray said, “but we are opening so many doors, opportunities for these kids with the sport of lacrosse, and the families are seeing it, the communities are seeing it, and they’re coming on full force to support us.”

Colleges and universities are noticing, too. When Murray was one of six Black athletes on the WNE men’s lacrosse team ten years ago, they took pride in having one of the most diverse teams in the country. Though Murray prepares his student-athletes to be one of few students of color on a college roster, he expects to see more diversity soon. Harlem Lacrosse has become a nationwide pipeline for recruiting, and four HBCU schools have adopted lacrosse as a varsity sport—with more on the horizon.

Back in Harlem, Murray activates this change one student at a time. In his former role as program director within a school, he focused especially on the kids facing academic or behavioral trouble. He once awarded an A on an exam with a new lacrosse stick and the encouragement: “You just showed me, your mother, your teachers, and yourself what you’re capable of because you are motivated by a lacrosse stick. I want you to be motivated for your life.”

Now, as managing director, Murray’s reach extends further. The highlight of his day is when he closes his laptop at 2:00 p.m. and heads over to practice. On Thursdays at M.S./H.S. 223, he can watch four programs at once when he stands in the middle of the field. “I can see, this coach needs help here, who needs more support. I’m really enjoying being coach director of all the teams, because now I’m impacting and affecting more kids at a higher rate.”

When you talk about give and receive, it’s the love that’s two ways, it’s the care that’s two ways, it’s the emotional investment in each other’s lives that’s two ways. - Mike Murray ’12/G’18

While Coach Mike’s journey to success was marked by academic challenges, he credits his experience at WNE with developing his skills in building relationships and leading a team of student-athletes and coaches. Those who held Murray accountable through his lowest points—his coaches, teammates, and the Student Success Center staff—and then guided him through his years as graduate assistant and coach, set him up to thrive. Now, he’s paying it forward.

Web Extra: Mike Murray Interview