Column: McPhee’s Northeastern legacy extends beyond baseball diamond

Column: McPhee’s Northeastern legacy extends beyond baseball diamond
News Photo/Kevin Ahearn
The Huskies celebrated after their 2013 Beanpot win.      News Photo/Kevin Ahearn

The name Neil McPhee is synonymous with Northeastern University baseball. For more than two decades, he’s been the man at the helm of the program, and he’ll end his career as a Husky just a season shy of a full three decades on Huntington Avenue.

On Aug. 6, McPhee announced that the upcoming 2014 baseball season would be his last, ending the longest head-coaching tenure in Northeastern athletics history. With 1,324 games coached at Northeastern dating back to 1986, McPhee stands above .500 with a 697-623-4 career record which stands to improve if his Huskies can match their 2013 season’s success.

Northeastern’s red and black runs through McPhee’s veins. He became a Husky long before he took the reigns of the university’s baseball program, competing for both the baseball and hockey teams as a student athlete before graduating from NU and beginning a professional baseball career.

And although McPhee’s record is a great one, it hasn’t always been easy at Friedman Diamond in Brookline. In recent years, the program struggled to return to its glory days as perennial contenders. In 2010, the team finished 13-31, 2011 and 2012 brought 18-33 and 23-28 records respectively. But the 2013 season brought a 30-plus win season and a deep run into the CAA tournament, despite the team being voted to finish second-to-last in the preseason polls.

There have been times that I’ve called McPhee more than five times in a single afternoon to interview him for stories on deadline. After days of phone tag when we didn’t connect until close to 9 p.m., he was as gracious as he was after a five-run win, willing to talk for as long as I needed. And at the end of the conversation, as I apologized for essentially nagging him for hours on end before we were finally able to sit down for the interview, it was him who was thanking me for our interest and coverage of the team. He was always grateful when I offered to email him a link to the story once it was published, as he’ll readily admit technology is not his strongest suit.

The last time I interviewed him was for a story last month on Aaron Barbosa, arguably Northeastern’s best player, departing college a year early to sign with the Seattle Mariners. Barbosa was undeniably a catalyst for the Huskies’ standout season, but McPhee said his young player had made the right decision for his career at the time. As our talk came to a close, I asked if there was anything McPhee wanted to say that hadn’t been addressed in any of my questions. We had already talked about Barbosa’s contributions to Northeastern, how the team would fare without him and how Barbosa had already made an impact in the minors.

Of all the things he could have said about his program’s continued success without Barbosa, McPhee took the chance to sing his player’s praises, and not just as an athlete.

“He’s really the supreme student athlete, dean’s list, engineering major and terrific young man as much as he was a baseball player,” McPhee told The News on July 30. “He is a college coach’s dream, in terms of being that athlete any one of us wants in any of our programs both athletically and academically.”

That speaks to McPhee’s personality as a coach more than any of his stats, records, or numbers of players he’s mentored who have gone on to play in the majors. Because given the opportunity to speak his mind when it came to a player’s choice and the status of his team, he took the chance to cement Barbosa’s legacy at Northeastern.

McPhee’s time at Northeastern isn’t over yet, and if last season’s 31-26 record and a semifinal loss in the CAA tourney are any indication, he stands to lead another winning Husky team once the winter’s snows have melted and Friedman Diamond is once again home to double plays and stolen bases. If there was ever a time for NU’s baseball players to prove themselves as conference best, McPhee’s final swing is certainly it.

Here’s to one of Northeastern’s all-time greats, and to saving the best for last.

– Jill Saftel can be reached

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