Prep boys basketball: Former Esko, Carlton coach Mike Devney headed to Hall of Fame

After more than 40 years in coaching, Devney will be inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame at a ceremony in October.

Basketball coach shakes hands with player
Esko boys basketball coach Mike Devney talks to several of his players during practice. After more than 40 years in coaching, Devney will be inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame at a ceremony in October.
2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

ESKO — Mike Devney wasn’t even out of high school when he first picked up a whistle to coach basketball.

While still playing at Eau Claire Regis in the mid-1970s, Devney coached a fifth-grade team. He played for a couple of years in Australia after college and started coaching a junior varsity team in Logansport, Indiana, before leaving the sport.

“I left it for five years and sold highway construction equipment, but I just missed it so much,” Devney said. “Then a job opened up in Duluth to teach and be the freshman coach, so I applied for it and took it.”

Devney went on to coach with Duluth East’s Bob Kunze for two years, before taking over the head coaching job in Carlton.

In 1998, Devney guided the Bulldogs to the state championship game. Sixteen years later, Devney coached Esko to the Class AA championship.


Coach talks to his team during a timeout.
Then-Duluth Denfeld boys basketball coach, Mike Devney, talks to his team in the second half of a 2018 game in Superior.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

After more than 40 years in coaching, Devney will be inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame at a ceremony in October.

Devney credited his kids’ attitudes and willingness to work to improve as a big part of his coaching success.

“They were willing to do what they had to do during the offseason from March until November to get better,” he said. “That really made a big difference. We went to a lot of team camps, we had shooting practices and we had leagues that we were in. The kids really bought in and when they do that, you’re going to have success.”

He also noted an interesting hiring practice as part of his success.

“The other thing is, I’ve had great coaches around me that have influenced me along the way,” Devney said. “We always had the attitude of trying to hire somebody for my staff that’s smarter than me.”

Mike Devney hugs player following the 1999 Section 7A championship.
Then-Carlton coach Mike Devney hugs forward Sam Pearsall following the 1999 Section 7A championship game in Hibbing. Devney led the Bulldogs to back-to-back state tournaments and a runner-up finish in 1998.
Josh Meltzer / File /Duluth News Tribune

Carlton alum Matt Kerttula was on the Carlton teams Devney guided to back-to-back state tournaments, including the Bulldogs’ runner-up finish in 1998. Kerttula, typically the “sixth man” for the Bulldogs, said Devney went “above and beyond” when scouting other teams and keeping practices disciplined and focused.

“I knew my way to get on the court would be to play tough defense,” Kerttula said. “I think that’s what he prided himself on more than anything, was tough, man-to-man defense and he got that out of everybody. We would always know who to key on, but everybody was aggressive with the man-to-man, playing ‘up the line’ where you were in a help position all the time, ready to go and then get back to your player as fast as possible.”

Then-Carlton coach Mike Devney
Mike Devney coached Carlton to back-to-back state tournaments and a runner-up finish in 1998.
File / Duluth News Tribune

Devney said it was “amazing” how the Carlton players adapted from the tiny, sweltering gym at Carlton High School to the college court at Williams Arena. Devney said the bigger court was probably better for the type of player he had, but the gym in Carlton was special.


“The memories there were fantastic,” Devney said. “There were lots of games where that ramp coming down was full and people couldn’t get it in and it was the loudest gym — when it was packed, it was incredibly loud. It was a lot of fun.”

The Esko team was a little different when it won the title in 2014; the Eskomos were among the best shooting teams in the state. The team made 299 3-pointers in the 30 games that season, Devney said.

“We shot the ball extremely well, which makes you look really smart,” Devney said.

Coach talks with ref.
Then-Denfeld boys basketball coach, Mike Devney, questions referee Gregg Perich during a 2018 game in Superior.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

On the other hand, Esko still played fantastic defense. In the Class AA championship game, the Eskomos faced an Annandale team that averaged better than 80 points per game. Devney’s squad held the Cardinals to nearly half of their season average in the 60-41 win.

“Defensively, I think those kids are a lot better than they ever got credit for,” Devney said.

Kory Deadrick, the 2014 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year and now the head coach at Superior, said Devney’s practices were molded to the personality of the team.

“That 2014 team was a very competitive group, they wanted to win — they wanted to succeed at everything,” Deadrick said. “He challenged us against each other, every drill, everything we worked on was competitive. … It really challenged us to continue to play harder and get better because each of us individually wanted to win.”

Mike Devney shakes hands with Peyton Wefel during a 2019 game.
Then-Duluth Denfeld coach Mike Devney shakes hands with Esko's Payton Wefel prior to a 2019 game. Devney is going to be inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in October after leading the Eskomos to the 2014 Class AA championship and Carlton to a Class A runner-up finish in 1999.
Steve Kuchera/ 2019 File / Duluth News Tribune

While Devney’s success on the court is undeniable, he’s had an impact on coaches around the region for much of the past 30 years.


Cromwell-Wright’s Bill Pocernich took over the Cardinals’ program in 1996 and led them to the state tournament in 2019.

“As a young coach, he took me under his wing a little bit and I always appreciated that,” Pocernich said.

While Deadrick is on the bench in Superior, Kerttula said he and his friends from the Carlton program are busy coaching their kids’ youth teams.

“All of us are in the same boat right now, where we’re coaching our kids,” Kertulla said. “Whether it’s travel basketball or some of them have younger kids that are like herding cats right now, but we’re all sort of stealing things from him as far as management and defense in some places. Somebody could get a good scouting report if they got their hands on some game tape from 25 years ago. They’d probably see a lot of the plays we were running back then.”

Coach talks with player.
Then-Duluth Denfeld boys basketball coach, Mike Devney, talks with Armon Freeman (3) in the first half of a 2018 game at Superior. Devney will be inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in October.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Deadrick said growing up in Esko and watching Devney as a child made the coach a little intimidating, but it was something that ended when he stepped on the court.

“He loved working with kids, he loved watching the success that they could have and challenging them along the way,” Deadrick said. “Definitely a huge reason I coach now is because of all the things that I learned from him. He held us accountable, but he was also a lot of fun to play for.”

Devney, 65, who is now retired and living in Altoona, Wisconsin, left Esko following the 2018 season and ended up on the sidelines at Duluth Denfeld, a school he taught at for 30 years, to end his career. His seasons with the Hunters were a struggle, ending with a 13-game season in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He tries to stay active playing golf, working out and riding his motorcycle, but he sometimes considers a return to the sidelines, but most likely as an assistant, but his advice for young coaches remains the same.


“It’s the players, No. 1,” Devney said. “But, secondly, I just think my philosophy of hiring the best people around you that you can possible get on your staff makes a huge, huge difference. I know a lot of coaches out there don’t want anybody smarter than them on the bench because it’s a threat to them. I never cared about that, I wanted guys that we could go in with each other and talk honestly, and that always worked very, very well.”

This story was edited at 11:33 a.m. on May 9 to correct the official name of the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. It was originally posted at 6 a.m.

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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