“Nobody ever won the Kentucky Derby riding a mule.”
As the state championships piled up for Soldotna High School in cross-country and track, I would ask head coach Mark Devenney, who died April 4 in Nebraska at the age of 69, why he won so much in post-meet interviews.
He would immediately deflect credit from himself, Kentucky Derby quip at the ready.
And by the time Devenney retired from Soldotna in 2005 after 14 years as teacher, track and field coach and cross-country coach, the Derby line had become a ritual joke between us because of SoHi’s repeated success.
Devenney’s teams won 12 region titles and three state titles in track, as well as three state titles in cross-country.
Those titles have considerably more glow because Devenney won them in sports where the numbers in the student body matter, and the majority of the big schools in the state have at least twice as many students as SoHi.
No other Peninsula coach has been able to win a big-schools state title in cross-country or track.
Journalism school teaches to be wary of superlatives, so I won’t say Devenney is the best coach I have come across in covering over 20 years of prep sports.
Instead, I’ll go with what former Packers general manager Ron Wolf always said when asked if Brett Favre is the greatest quarterback ever: If Devenney isn’t the best prep coach I’ve seen, it wouldn’t take them long to call the roll.
As humble as Devenney could be to those who knew him, he had a personality dashed with East Coast brashness that was off-putting to many.
He loved to tell the story of when he went to a meeting of Alaska track coaches and asked why the state did not have the pole vault. When the reply came that the schools did not have coaches to teach the event correctly, Devenney said, “You don’t have the coaches to teach other events correctly, but you still have those.”
He also liked to put people in their place when they forgot there is a very large world outside of Soldotna loaded with athletes that will leave virtually no NCAA Division I scholarships for the Peninsula.
Another favorite story of his: A fan came up to him during a SoHi basketball game and said, “There are three Division I players on the floor right now.” Devenney replied, “I assume the two referees played Division I. Who is the third?”
Clever stories aside, I came to respect Devenney because he passed what I call the Steve Gillespie test, after a favored litmus of the former Nikiski coach who is also on the roll. Was Devenney good for kids?
The answer is a resounding yes. Not only did the athletes I interviewed while they were in high school rave about his influence on their lives, but the raving kept right on going as those athletes grew into adulthood.
“He had athletes he coached from decades ago come and visit him at the hospital,” said Stu Goldstein, one of Devenney’s best friends from the Peninsula. “He was getting emails from all over the country.”
A good deal of the devotion Devenney engendered came from the time invested in his athletes. He had no family in Soldotna, so if an athlete wanted to lift weights or do a workout, Devenney was there. Without exception.
Brandon Newbould, from the 1999 state champion cross-country team, put it best when he said that everything Devenney did was about serving kids.
Soldotna head football coach Galen Brantley Jr. was Devenney’s first state champion at Soldotna, winning the shot put in 1992 and again as a senior in 1993. He has gone on to become a stellar coach in his own right, winning five state titles at SoHi.
His thoughts in Devenney’s 2005 retirement story sum up the lasting influence of the track coach: “Here I am a 30-year-old man, and there probably isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him if asked. There’s a lot of people like me who owe a lot of success to him.”
Devenney sparked passion in kids, but that is only half of the equation in coaching. A coach must also master the minute details of a sport and, just as importantly, be able to break down that immense knowledge into the appropriate one or two chunks the athlete needs at that precise moment to improve.
The minute details were no problem for Devenney. He coached at the University of Nebraska, an elite program, before coming to Soldotna and rejoined the Cornhuskers when he left.
“The guy coached Olympians and national champions,” Goldstein said.
When he rejoined Nebraska in 2005, then-assistant Jay Dirksen had this to say about Devenney: “His competence as a coach is beyond question.”
Just as a great tennis coach can call a double fault before a serve leaves the racket, Ari Goldstein, who won track and cross-country state titles for Devenney, used to talk about how Devenney could predict winners of races he had never seen midway through the event.
But none of that matters if a coach can’t teach. Back in the days before high school softball, baseball and soccer hit the Peninsula, I actually had time to go to track practices to report for stories.
It was in watching Devenney at practice that I first fully understand that good coaching is nothing more than good teaching.
Good coaching also is focusing on the process and letting the results take care of themselves. Devenney, whose distaste for ends was so acute that he skipped his own retirement party, would often point out the relativity of state cross-country championships by saying a Kenyan foreign exchange student could have just as easily relegated the champ to second place.
What mattered was the work put into getting to the starting line, not whatever opponents happened to be toeing that line.
Part of getting that work out of his athletes was playing the passive jockey fully reliable on his steed. If Devenney would have crowed that he was necessary for the success of an athlete, what incentive does the athlete have to show up in the middle of summer to lift weights?
Devenney kept a lot of personal information from many people he knew, including the fact that he earned a bronze star in Vietnam as a Marine.
But everybody has a desire to be understood, to be recognized for what kind of person they are and what they do for others.
That was the origin of Devenney’s brashness. If he thought someone ill-informed and close-minded, he wanted to leave no doubt who really knew what they were talking about.
That desire to be understood also explains 2005, the final time I would interview Devenney at a state track meet.
He finished talking about Goldstein’s triumphs in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs with his usual, “Nobody ever won the Kentucky Derby riding a mule.”
I pivoted to walk down the track, took a few steps, and heard, “And nobody has won it with a gorilla for a jockey.”
I turned back. A glint in his eye, he broke into a wide smile.
Jeff Helminiak is the Clarion sports editor.