Harvard University's Derry coach McDevitt setting his sights on Championship glory

Crossing the Charles River that dissects Harvard University’s Cambridge campus, students are greeted by a sporting utopia.

Friday, 26th March 2021, 1:00 pm
The Magee University team which won the Irish Universities' League title in 1997, the only time in history the Derry college claimed the prestigious title.

There’s the 40,000 seated Harvard Stadium, the oldest permanent concrete structure dedicated to intercollegiate sport in the US. The Bright-Landry Hockey Centre is a 3,095-seated ice-hockey arena. Then there’s Lavietes Pavilion, the second-oldest college basketball arena still in use. Jordan Field, O’Donnell Field... the list continues across a sprawling 358 acre site, every inch ripe with history and achievement.

The oldest of America’s Ivy League colleges annually receives anywhere from 45,000 to (most recently) 57,000 applications for approximately 1,500 coveted places but Harvard spots have to be earned, they’re not awarded.

The college’s various sporting arena lie quiet right now, hibernating out the Covid enforced break, but normally the various stadia play host to a cast of thousands, from would-be Olympians, to potential US football and basketball stars and future European and World Cup winners, all being nurtured within Harvard’s 42 sports.

Harvard Crimson Assistant coach Mark McDevitt.

And tucked away in a corner of soccer’s home base at Jordan Field, a distinctly Derry accent helps organise training sessions, tactics, and scouting trips across the globe for the Harvard Crimson Women’s team who compete in the prestigious Ivy League Conference.

Mark McDevitt has been Crimson Assistant Coach for the past three years. The Glenowen Park native is a former Derry City, Omagh Town and Limavady United goalkeeper with Irish League experience but he’s been coaching in the States for the past 20 years.

“The project we’re working on right now really excites me,” explains the former St. Columb’s College student. “In our last full season in 2019, the rankings showed we were a Top 40 team out of 330 plus ‘D1’ schools nationally. Our aims are to compete annually for the Ivy League Trophy and eventually for a NCAA Division One Championship, our equivalent of the Champions League.

“At Harvard, academia will always, and should always, be the priority but we believe our women’s soccer team can come a very close second. At Harvard you can have the best academic experience in the world and also win trophies whilst doing so. You can turn professional and play for some of the world’s best clubs after graduation, or get a job of your choosing with that Harvard diploma.

Looking across the Charles Rover at the Harvard University Campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We are going to have some very talented young female players over the next few years. The College has won the Ivy League a record 16 times but our long term ambitions are to take the next step and challenge for the NCAA Championship. It’s Harvard after all, we have to aim for the top.”

College sport doesn’t enjoy the same profile in Ireland as it does in the States, at least not in soccer, but it has always held an important place for McDevitt. A graduate of the all-conquering, but now defunct, Ashfield junior club under Charles ‘Nucker’ Tierney, fate decreed university soccer be at the heart of Mark’s life journey.

A small, dulled gold trophy sits on the mantelpiece of the McDevitt family home in Boston where Mark lives with his New York born wife, Liz, and their sons Caelan (6) and Ryan (4). Among the many family photos and modern decor, the trophy seems out of place, but it’s a permanent fixture. It’s a non-negotiable. And on the well worn surface the inscription can still be made out.... ‘Collingwood Cup Winners 1969.’

The trophy belongs to Sean ‘Jock’ McDevitt, Mark’s late father, who won university football’s biggest prize with UCD more than 50 years ago. A talented midfielder, Jock was also a mainstay in the Collegians teams of the ‘80s and would often have Mark and his younger brother, Jonnie, in tow for Derry & District games, a venture which sowed the football seed for both the McDevitt boys.

Mark pictured with his wife, Liz, and sons, Caelan and Ryan, at Harvard University.

Those memories are as vivid now as the day the matches took place, sharpened by the fact that cancer claimed Jock more than 30 years ago, aged just 43. No one needs to remind Mark that life isn’t fair. It’s one of the reasons he seized the opportunity of a summer’s coaching in the States in 2000 after some coaxing from his great mate and former Derry City player, Ryan Coyle.

That decision would change his life but not before Mark’s own’s Collingwood Cup adventure with Magee College, a side with whom he had already won the All Ireland Universities League for the first and only time in Magee’s history in 1997.

“I have some great memories of growing up in Derry, going to watch my dad play with Collegians. He always took me with him to the games and there were some great characters about,” recalls ‘McD’, as he’s known within the city’s football fraternity.

“Losing my dad was so, so tough on us all, especially my mum, and something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. We were very fortunate to be surrounded by caring and loving family members and close friends. It’s not something you ever get over, it’s something you learn to deal with but it’s always there. Thankfully I have some great memories to look back on.

“I’ve always had a strong connection with University and College football, whether with Magee, or now that I’m out here in America. When I was playing with Magee we had some great teams and went so close in the Collingwood a couple of times. My dad’s connection made it extra special for me. I wanted to win it so badly because he had which made it all the more gutting when we lost the 2000 final 1-0 to Cork, a game we should have won.

“I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Irish Universities team that year though so I guess I’ve one up on him,” smiles McDevitt, who also picked up two Northern Ireland Cups at St. Columb’s under the guidance of Brian Trainor, “In a way, it seems fitting that I’ve ended up working in Colleges football.”

‘McD’ grew up going to the Brandywell with his father to see the likes of Da Gama, Kristic and the conquering treble team of 1989, but one 1994 appearance on the bench against Sligo was the sum of his opportunities with City’s first team. However, he was building a decent Irish League career with first, Omagh, and then Limavady United, for whom he made almost 50 appearances, when his US opportunity presented itself. And he hasn’t looked back.

“The best time I had in the Irish League was with Limavady United in the First Division after being signed by Jimmy Calvin. I was gradually establishing myself around the time I went to the States,” he recalls, “They are a wonderful close knit club with some incredibly hard working people behind the scenes.

“I had some great times with Ashfield too, under Nucker who was like a second father to me. It was Nucker, Liam Redden, Jamsey Gallagher, Gerry Duddy and Tony Doc. They gave us all an unbelievable foundation in the game. The club is not about any more but we had a great side in those days. I don’t think we lost a D&D league match in all our years together. We had boys like Tommy McCallion, John McGarvey. Damian Redden, Brian McGlinchey and other very, very talented players.

“I played exhibition games and pre-season games for Derry City but the only time I made the bench for a real game was against Sligo. I think Dermot O’Neill had been injured and Gerry Crossan was in nets. I didn’t get on which was a pity but I loved my time with the club. You couldn’t help but learn from some of those players Derry had in those days.”

Coaching eventually took over from playing with McDevitt initially taking a job at Mass Premier Soccer before accepting his first college full-time role as an assistant coach with the Boston College women’s team where he coached the likes of future US International, Stephanie McCaffrey and Jamaican international, Allyson Swaby, who currently plays for Roma.

“I jumped at the chance to take a Division One College job with Boston and I was assistant coach there for six years before Harvard. The Harvard opportunity was one I simply could not turn down. Harvard is a global institution, people all over the world understand what the name Harvard means, in academia and sport, and I’m relishing the challenge.

“I’m fortunate to have a very good life here. I get to coach football full-time in a superb environment. It’s a very rewarding and enjoyable career.

“An assistant’s job here involves a lot of scouting. Under normal circumstances, we would be travelling across the US or throughout Europe trying to identify the best players who meet the academic requirements. You still have plenty of time on the pitch and we share the coaching responsibilities between Head Coach, Chris Hamblin, Mike Calise, the other assistant, and myself.

“We’re run in much the same way as a professional club. You’re in the office, prepping sessions, looking at opposition, Data analysis, talking to strength and conditioning coaches, medical personnel on the daily status of players as well as your on the field work.

“We have kids from 12 different countries, some players who have played for their full international side, and the majority have played for their youth national sides. It is a very talented, talented roster at the moment.”

Harvard compete annually in the Ivy League against the likes of Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Penn, Princeton and Yale, with the league winners and other qualifiers going forward to the NCAA Championship but the fact there are 340 women’s soccer programmes in Division One, all competing to win the NCAA Championship, is indicative of the level of competition.

“For us, recruiting means we spend a lot of time travelling across the US and in Europe,” explains McD, “The standard of players we are looking for is international level. Nothing would make me happier than to see a girl from home getting a similar opportunity to the one I got 20 years ago, playing or coaching. It hasn’t happened yet although you have players like Roma McLaughlin from Greencastle doing well elsewhere in the US. Harvard may not be for everyone, but there are so many different opportunities that are not available at home, especially for female players.”

Harvard’s draw is universal, a fact which brings an added bonus for coaches at the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States.

“Our players are treated like any other student, that’s why Harvard is one of the toughest places to play and study, there are no corners cut for them. College sports are huge here which people back home tend not to understand. D1 Athletics as a whole, for example, is a multi-billion dollar industry. Ten of the top 15 stadiums in the US are university stadiums, not professional teams.

“Roma FC come out here in the summer to use our facilities for pre-season. Chelsea trained here before the 2020 Europa League final. Liverpool FC is owned by Boston people and they use our facilities as a base in their pre-season. Leo Messi has trained on our pitch.

“Harvard is so powerful, it attracts these types of teams over and they provide perfect opportunities for coach development. I have been able to see how those clubs operate up close and personal, observing sessions and learning from some of the game’s best coaches.

“Europe is now doing so much better in terms of money and development in the women’s game but there is still a long way to go to catch up with the States. There is no better place on the planet for women’s soccer.”

Mark also acts as a scout for US Soccer which means it’s his duty to select players from his scouting area who will have the chance to be considered and represent the US in the various youth World Cups and Concacaf tournaments.

Permanently settled now, Mark admits there is plenty he still misses from home, his mum Geraldine, brother Jonnie, sister-in-law Carolyn, goddaughter Ava and nephew Aodhan front and centre of that list, along with the family trips to his Granny McLaughlin’s Moville home.

“I still miss home, of course I do, the people more than anything. I still love spending time in Moville. My mum’s family, the McLaughlins, are from down there and it’s one of the first places I try to go when I get home, down to my Granny’s house. Growing up, we spent every summer in Moville and there’s no better place. I even played for Moville Celtic and Greencastle when I was younger, it was great.

“It’s difficult to see myself ever moving back but Derry will always be home and I will always be a Derry boy. The upbringing I got from my mum and the people around me has allowed me to work hard to achieve what I have been fortunate to achieve in the sport. I work full-time in football which is a dream.

“We don’t like using the word ‘professional’ at Harvard because we are a College but our facilities are professional standard, they are Premier League level. We have everything we need to succeed. I’ve been very, very lucky.”

Not quite, Mark, remember Harvard places are earned, not awarded.