Rich Muraco immediately realized something was removed from his key ring. How could he not? The missing key was bigger than the others and was the most significant — the master key for Liberty High.
He had entrusted the key set to one of his football players to open the press box before practice, but that player slid the key off the ring. Muraco questioned the player, who initially denied the action.
After further questioning, the player’s lie grew deeper as he claimed the key fell off the ring. Muraco told the player the only way to make the situation right was the tell the truth and admit to the wrongdoing.
But what about the punishment?
“I want kids to learn you can overcome mistakes and improve yourself as a young man if you can make changes and follow the rules,” said Muraco, one of 32 coaches nationally nominated by the NFL team in their city for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. “I’m an educator first. I am here to make a difference in a kid's life.”
There’s no policy on giving a child a second chance, as it’s left exclusively to the discretion of the coach and administration. Other Las Vegas coaches would have kicked the teenager permanently off the team, and rightfully so because that key would have opened many doors on the Liberty campus.
But Muraco believes in second chances, knowing the importance of not quitting on a player and showing him a path to rehabilitation. So Muraco, like he had done many times before, allowed the player to stay on the team — of course, with the stipulation of a behavior contract and the understanding that a second chance wouldn’t equal a third.
Sometimes, his decision isn’t popular with colleagues.
“I have had disagreements with people, even on my own staff, about whether we should cut a kid,” he said. “But I am not willing to give up on a kid that easy. Of course, there are some lines you can’t cross, like respect. If you come in and start swearing at the administration, that’s it. But if a kid comes in and shows remorse, is willing to admit the mistake and follow a behavior plan, I will work with them.”
Muraco is in Orlando, Fla., this week for the NFL Pro Bowl, where he’ll gather with the award’s other nominees for activities such as observing Pro Bowl practices and interacting with some of the league’s notables. It’s an all-expenses-paid trip for he and his wife, thanks to the Raiders, who picked Muraco as the first Las Vegas coach for the honor. They could have selected a coach from their former home in Northern California.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another coach nationally who led their team to such a noteworthy victory this season. Liberty upset Bishop Gorman in the regional championship game, becoming the first Nevada team since 2008 to beat the nationally ranked Gaels and ending their state-championship run at 10 seasons. Along the way, Gorman had knocked Liberty out of the playoffs most seasons, including in the 2016 state title game in a crushing 84-8 defeat.
Yet, on this cold Las Vegas Friday night, Liberty did what every other Las Vegas team so desperately wanted: The Patriots delivered the knockout blow to Gorman’s dynasty.
“I really wanted to be the team that beat Gorman,” Muraco said. “I am a believer that if you work hard and put the time and effort in, that good things will happen.”
Lost in the wild celebration was the significance of the victory for former players, many of whom connected via FaceTime with people at the game to be witness the madness. When Liberty won the state championship a few weeks later, more than 40 former players attended the game, and posed afterward with Muraco and the trophy. It, after all, was the first title in school history, something Muraco stressed those players from past seasons had a hand in winning.
To a player, their loyalty to Muraco is unmatched. Many have a story of a second chance, whether that’s when they were late for practice or weren’t performing up to standards in the classroom, and Muraco’s methods taught them the importance of making the most of another opportunity.
For one player, the next chance came after fighting with a teammate following a loss in a dispute that became so heated multiple coaches were needed to break it up. It was an embarrassing moment for school officials as the fight happened in front of fans, and involved one player already on a second chance. So, Muraco kicked him off the team.
Two weeks later, the player showed up in Muraco's office asking for another chance. Muraco knew the player was contrite and gave him a path to re-enter the program, which included apologizing to teammates and missing four games. The player wound up returning by the end of the year. He’s now playing at a junior college.
“His style works here,” said Preston Goroff, the Liberty athletic administrator. “His job is to teach the kids the game of football as well as the game of life.”
Muraco has been at the school since it opened in 2004. He was elevated to head coach in 2009. The Patriots went from being one of the worst teams in Las Vegas to ranked in the national top 20.
His personality is a big reason why. He empowers those around him to be themselves, whether that’s an assistant coach being criticized for how they manage a game, or players unsure of themselves in a pressure situation. He’s also massively competitive — something his players can’t help but to pick up on.
One of the nominated coaches will be the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year. Two finalists will be picked Sunday for a $15,000 stipend for their program and a trip to next week’s Super Bowl in Miami.
Simply being identified by the Raiders has been more than Muraco had expected. It’s a fitting ending to the best season in school history and an honor for an educator long deserving of recognition for his forward-thinking methods.