LOWELL, Mass. -– A fierce a competitor on the sidelines, a family man off of the court. It seemed as if everybody at the Tsongas Center on Saturday had their own Mike McVeigh story to tell.
The North Andover coach announced after the Scarlet Knights’ loss to Brighton on Saturday afternoon that he would be retiring after 31 year at the helm for North Andover. It was a decision that McVeigh made in his own mind about two months ago, but it was one that left his players in tears, and those in attendance wrapped up in his "aw-shucks" personality and raw emotion that he was never afraid to share with his players and the media.
Derek Collins, one of North Andover’s senior captains who has played on the Knights’ varsity for four years, has gotten to know McVeigh like few other players have over the course of the coach’s long career. Collins came out of the locker room after the game in tears -- not only because he had just played his last high school games, but from what seemed to be his own reminiscing about his long and storied career under McVeigh at North Andover.
Collins quickly got hold of his emotions for his postgame interview, discussing his recovery from back surgery last year and the struggle that he faced in order to get back into playing shape afterwards. McVeigh was there when Collins was a freshman phenom, there when surgery put his career in jeopardy, and there on Wednesday after the Wakefield game to give his recovered senior a hug after perhaps the best game of his career.
“You’re the best,” McVeigh said to Collins on Wednesday night, wearing the grin of a proud mentor.
For all his gathered emotion, Collins couldn’t hold back on Saturday when asked about his reaction in the locker room to McVeigh’s retirement announcement.
“I don’t know what to think about that,” Collins said, with his jaw shaking at a loss for words. He exhaled, “I wish him the best with whatever he goes on doing. He’s had a great career through my four years and his whole career—as long as it’s been. He’s a great coach.”
McVeigh finished his career with 497 wins, but learned early in his career that he wanted to be defined by the impact he had on young men, and not so much on his career win total. He reflected on his transformation as a coach:
“I know coaches just say that, I knew [my win total] in my younger years, but man does that go. After 10 years, 12 years, and kids come back with good things, kids come back with tough things, and you want to support them. Your job changes, you appreciate different things as you get older.”
One thing that he appreciated the most was the loyalty of his former players to the current program. He said he got several text messages throughout the playoffs from former player from the classes of 1984, 1985, 1989, 1991, and so on.
“I can go right up the list,” he joked.
He said that he didn’t know what to expect this year. McVeigh knew he had a talented team, but he wasn’t sure how his team would fare in their first year in the Merrimack Valley Conference.
The MVC -- with stellar seasons from the Knights, Andover, Central Catholic, and Lowell -- was the state’s most competitive conference this year, and McVeigh’s team shared the league championship with Central Catholic. Chris Bardwell, a transfer from Central whom McVeigh admits he didn’t always get along with early in the season, led North Andover to a 19-4 regular season record and was named the MVP of the conference.
“You ask him, and I think the two of us have a very great relationship. I thought he started to come around to my coaching, and I took a couple breaths sometimes to allow him to be himself,” McVeigh said.
Bardwell, a 6-foot-5 forward with smooth post moves and a high motor, came to North Andover with a chip on his shoulder after spending the majority of his junior year at Central on the bench. Bardwell’s fiery personality took some adjusting-to for McVeigh, just as McVeigh’s zero tolerance policy forced Bardwell to calm his nerves at certain points.
“At first we really didn’t have a good relationship -- now, our relationship is off the charts,” Bardwell said.
The senior forward described the emotional scene in the locker room after the game.
“I just felt heartbroken, we all really wanted to win the state championship for him because he’s never won one," Bardwell said. "Right when he said that [he was retiring], everybody was heartbroken and emotional. We really wanted the state championship—we wanted everything for him.”
Captain Isaiah Nelsen, who will be playing hoops on scholarship next year at St. Anselm’s, seconded Bardwell’s comments.
“Unbelievable coach, better person. It was so much fun to be a part of the program that he has here. Seeing him outside of basketball, he’s a great person, I love seeing him and I’m going to miss him a lot,” Nelsen said.
Central Catholic coach Rick Nault also praised McVeigh for his illustrious career, but moreso for the way McVeigh always composed himself and garnered respect from players and opposing coaches. Nault said he enjoyed the season series going up against McVeigh, even if it was only for one year.
“If I could ever become like him in terms of his demeanor and the way he conducts himself, and how he represents his school -— that’s what I aim for," Nault said. "For him to be stepping down right now, I think he’s at peace with that, but I think it’s a sad thing for the rest of the basketball community.”
McVeigh expressed too, that he was truly at peace with his decision. On several occasions while answering questions after the game, he glanced over at his family. The last time he glanced, he smiled and made sure to mention the sacrifices and support that have come from his wife Jackie, his daughter Erin, and his son John.
“That group right over there, you can’t do this job for 31 years without a great family...You can’t do it [without them], and they were incredibly supportive.”