Hundreds have passed through the Danbury High boys cross country and track and field programs over the past two decades, many of whom have gone onto success at the collegiate level.
One of the few constants is the reason why.
For head coach Rob Murray — who graduated DHS in 1988 and has run all three teams since 2000 — turning the Hatters into a force wasn’t something he expected when he made the program his own. But with the amount of hardware claimed in the last several seasons, it’s hard to argue that anyone other than the Hatters are atop the state mountain now.
“It’s a growth pattern like watering and feeding a plant,” said Murrary. “And it grows and grows and becomes something you don’t know what it’s going to become until time decides what it’s going to become.”
The amount of championships since the turn of the century is staggering: Danbury has amassed 14 cross country, 12 indoor and 16 outdoor titles in the FCIAC alone. Plenty of state championships decorate the trophy case at Danbury, too.
A self-described mad scientist who once had hopes to work for NASA analyzing the effects of space on the human body, Murray — an All-FCIAC cross country runner his senior season — was primarily a personal trainer after graduating from Southern Connecticut State University. He then volunteered for the track teams at Danbury before taking the reigns as head coach along with Marty Ogden.
“I had a strong attachment to running through high school and it was a positive experience,” Murray said. “In college it was the same thing with the family atmosphere; it felt like I wanted to keep that connection to myself and the sport and I went back — it kept growing.”
Murray — who has taught physical education at Danbury for almost 10 years and has completed several marathons — studied the local greats of the sport, including Staples High legend Laddie Lawrence and Bob Michalski of Xavier.
“I wanted to coach at that level and watched them, looked at what they did, how they made moves from one meet to next,” Murray said. “I started seeing the sport from a different angle even besides coaching tactics; there’s a lot you can do to set up a team to be successful.”
The analytical part of the sport was the most appealing given his background, and it’s something he’s passed along to his athletes. Individualized training and tactical race planning are just two benefits of Murray’s ideology.
“Each coach brings their own identity to the table, everyone is different,” said Hatters Athletic Director Chip Salvestrini. “With Rob he’s a tactician; he studies track. He is a technician and is always involved speaking to other coaches across the country finding ways to improve. Not every high school coach goes to those lengths; we have in coach Murray a college-level coach at the high school level, that’s how good he is.”
Danbury soon went from the hunters to the hunted. The Hatters have won all but two FCIAC outdoor titles since 2001, and all but four indoor and cross country titles.
The Hatters’ glory years — everything is relative when it comes to this dominant of a program — came in the mid-2000s. Danbury — which was preseason No. 1 in the nation — took home the New England championship in cross country and finished fifth nationally. During that period, Danbury swept the FCIAC, Class and State Open championships for three straight years across the cross country, indoor and outdoor track seasons.
“That you can’t really create, that just comes from the Gods above,” Murray said. “I can’t take any credit for that; there’s just momentum and a vibe. It was just a very strong, successful group of goal-orientated people that attracted other goal-orientated people.”
Much like his Hatters setting FCIAC and state records, Murray has collected a host of accolades. Named state coach of the year on several occasions for different organizations, he was inducted into the FCIAC Hall of Fame in 2017.
The Hatters claimed their first outdoor track State Open in seven years earlier this month, further signifying they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“He’s done an outstanding job, no doubt about it,” said Lawrence, who is close to entering his 50th season with the Wreckers. “He has a great passion for the sport and he puts in a lot of time and effort. It’s always a challenge for us to go against them because he’s competitive and that rubs off on his kids; he’s organized and very knowledgeable.”
Working with athletes on the individual level is what Murray noted is the most rewarding. Coaching at the largest high school in the state with a diverse population has presented a canvas to make an impact on the lives of many.
“He’s obviously done a lot on the track, but he’s done an amazing job of helping Danbury students be good people,” said Ramon Laboy, who ran for Murray, graduated in 2001 and was inducted into the Danbury High Hall of Fame in 2014. “I think he sets that tone and he made it clear a few times; I remember going through the program and he always wanted us to give 100 percent in life as well as track.”
Murray had an opportunity to coach at Southern after amassing success with the Hatters, but love for school and family was the prevailing emotion. Though scientific at heart, Murray added he hopes to keep honing his craft, including continuing to increase the exposure of his athletes to compete at the next level.
“A lot of people ask how many titles we have won and I don’t know off the top of my head; we keep track of our stats for the program so the kids understand the legacy,” Murray said. “I tell the kids once I start thinking too much about the past and not the present or future I’m going to walk away. I still feel like there are better things to accomplish for the program and the Danbury community.”