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UNO Wrestling Retrospective – Way of the Warrior, House of Pain, Day of Reckoning

August 21, 2011 1 comment

This blog recently featured my story “Requiem for a Dynasty” about the UNO wrestling program being eliminated. The story allowed longtime head coach Mike Denney to reflect on the proud legacy of brilliant achievement he helped build. That legacy ended ignominously, not because of anything he or his athletes or coaches did, but because of decisions made by University of Nebraska at Omaha officials and University of Nebraska regents to unilaterally cut a program that did everything right in pursuit of higher revenue Division I athletics. The action sent a disturbing message to anyone in the university system: namely, that dollars trump integrity and standards. The following three-part series on UNO wrestling was originally published in 1999 by The Reader (www.thereader.com), when I followed the program for an entire season. This experience put me in close proximiity to Denney, his coaches, and his athletes, thus giving me an inside perspective on how he conducts himself and his program, and I walked away from the experience with great admiration for the man and his methods, as virtually everyone does when they get to know him. Now as he starts a new chapter in his athletic coaching life at Maryville University in St. Louis, where he is leading a start-up program with a band of brothers he’s brought with him from UNO, I know that he will have the same impact there he had here.

 

 

 

 

A Three-Part UNO Wrestling Retrospective-

Part I: Way of the Warrior

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Near dusk on a Saturday in southwest Minnesota, ten samurai-like warriors lick their wounds after valiantly waging battle an hour before. Officially, they comprise the starting lineup for NCAA Division II’s No. 2-ranked University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team. But, in truth, they ply the ancient grappling arts in service of a master-teacher, Coach Mike Denney, whose honor they must uphold in extreme tests of skill, will, endurance.

Move over Magnificent Seven. Make room for The Terrific Ten.

Only they’re not feeling so terrific after losing a dual 23-16 to St. Cloud State, a North Central Conference rival UNO usually pummels. Having lost face in this Jan. 16 rumble up north, the Mavericks are bowed and beaten warriors whose dreams of a national championship lay temporarily dashed. Huddled in the close confines of the 28-foot Ford Chateau motor home the team travels in, the men sit in cold stony silence, awaiting their master’s arrival, and with it, hoped for redemption.

Losing hurts enough, but how they lost really grates. The St. Cloud debacle comes 18 hours after UNO defeats Augustana 25-11 in Sioux Falls, S.D. in what is a solid if unspectacular showing for a season-opening dual. Versus St. Cloud the Mavs build a 16-11 lead entering the next to last match, in which UNO’s stalwart 125-pounder Mack LaRock, a returning All-American, holds a 12-4 edge near the very end. But then, all at once, LaRock loses control, gets himself turned on his back, his shoulders driven into the mat and pinned with four seconds left, sending the crowd in cavernous old Halenbeck Hall into a frenzy and putting SCSU up 17-16 with one match to go.

Shellshocked, LaRock lingers on the mat, alone on an island of pain. Wrestling leaves no time for wallowing in defeat, however. Even when humiliated like this you must pick yourself up and shake hands with your victorious opponent, whose arm the referee raises overhead, not yours. As you skulk off in defeat, the next match begins.

Unfortunately, the Mavs’ entry in this Last Man Standing contest is 133-pounder T.J. Brummels, a weak link who quickly folds under the pressure and is pinned too, capping a stunning series of events that leaves Coach Denney staring out at the mat long after the final whistle.

A half-hour later the still brooding Denney tries absorbing what transpired and how to use it as a lesson for his team. He tells a visitor, “Wow.  I don’t think I ever had one turn that quickly. I really don’t. We were in complete control. Mack’s just killing his guy…on his way to a major decision that would put it out of reach. Then it kind of just happened. It was like a knockout punch. I think I’ll tell my guys that back in 1991, the year we won the national championship, Augustana beat us with a team that wasn’t as good as this one. But from that point on our team said, ‘We’re not going to be denied.’ We’ll see what this team does.”

Later, in the motor home, LaRock, propped atop a cooler, head buried in his hands, sobs in front of his teammates, saying, “I’m sorry I let you guys down.” Albert Harrold (174) tenderly rubs his back, telling him, “Hey, when you lose, we all lose with you. We’ve all been there.” Others comfort him too.

As time drags on and the sting of losing burns deeper, the guys grow anxious over what Coach will say when he appears. Not because he’ll go off on some expletive-filled tirade. That’s not his nature. No, because they love him and feel they’ve let him down.

R.J. Nebe, former UNO wrestling great and assistant under Denney and now co-head wrestling coach at Skutt High School, says, “He’s a great motivational coach. The eternal optimist. He’s always upbeat, always supportive, no matter what happens. As much as you want to win for yourself, you want to go out and win for him. Anybody you talk to will say he’s kind of like a father figure. I know that’s a cliche but he truly is an amazing individual and you really do want to make him proud of you.”

Senior Mav Jerry Corner, the nation’s No. 1-rated heavyweight, says he appreciates the strong brotherhood Denney engenders. “Coach Denney impresses upon us to care about the guys we wrestle with. We’re not afraid to say, ‘I love you,’ and openly show some emotion when things don’t go right or when they do go right. That says a lot about the character and nature of the team. Coach Denney is the most positive coach I’ve ever been in contact with. He’s a coach, and then he’s a friend.”

For Denney, in his 20th season at the UNO helm, the role of friend and mentor is not one he feels obligated playing. It is genuinely how he sees himself in relation to these young men. He and his wife Bonnie are parents to three grown children — sons Rocky and Luke and daughter Michealene — and surrogate parents to 30 wrestlers. Serving youths is his fervent calling.

“I have a passion to work with young men and to help them along their journey. To guide them. To get them to get the best out of themselves. To gently nudge them and maybe not so gently sometimes. What I can bring to them is only experience and encouragement. They don’t have to listen to me. Some don’t. They learn the hard way. I don’t have great wisdom to share, but I do have great desire and I do care about them. It’s all teaching,” says Denney, who holds a master’s degree in education from UNO.

His desire to be a positive force in young people’s lives is partly a response to not having had a stable male role model while growing up on his family’s 160-acre farm in the shadows of the Sand Hills near Clearwater, Neb. His late father, Duke, was an alcoholic who abandoned Denney and his younger brother Dave and was abusive to their mother Grace. Filling the void were several key men in his life, among them his high school and college coaches. “They were all great role models. They had a big influence on me. They saw some good in me and kept encouraging me,” he notes.

He tries being this same nurturing figure to the athletes he coaches by creating “a family away from home” for them, especially those from single-parent backgrounds like his own. The “We Are Family” theme is one he and his wrestlers often reference. This sense of sharing a special bond is something he’s borrowed from his old high school coach, Roger Barry.

When Denney finally does climb aboard the motor home in St. Cloud, his big solid body filling the door frame, he speaks with the quiet authority and gentle compassion of a father consoling and fortifying his hurt sons.

“We didn’t give Coach Higdon a very good birthday present did we?” he says sardonically, referring to top assistant Ron Higdon, who stews behind the steering wheel, having turned 32 but feeling 72 . “What happened today I’ve seen happen to us before.” He goes on to tell about the ‘91 team rebounding from an unexpected loss. “And as we look back at that year, it was the best thing that could have happened. If it hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t have taken it up to another level.”

His dejected young charges listen carefully, fighting back tears.

Weeks earlier Denney confided he thrives on moments like these: “I honestly think I do the most good when they are at their lowest, most vulnerable. It’s when I can really make a difference with my guys. I actually like to see it happen because I think it’s then you can do so much building and can make a lasting impression. I try to be real sensitive to that.”

Back on the motor home Denney places a hand on LaRock’s shoulder, saying, “Nobody feels worse than this guy. Raise your hand if you’ve been there before.” The rest raise their hands in a show of solidarity. “It wasn’t like we performed terribly, but it’s going to take each one of us to get a level higher in conditioning. I see that. We have to do it. We’re going to do it. It can be just what is necessary for us to take the next step.”

Denney speaks in a deep voice whose easy cadence is soothing, almost mesmerizing. Then, like the taskmaster he must sometimes be, he promises he’ll push them in practice into the region he calls “Thin Air,” where they will train beyond exhaustion, beyond self-imposed limits, to reach the next highest rung. They will gladly endure it too.

“Be prepared men. We’re going to get after it. I’m going to take you until I see some of you over the trash can. I’m not doing it to be an a-hole.  I’m just trying to take you to another level. I gotta do it. I just gotta do it. We have to push. We’ve got to get to Thin Air, when you don’t think you can make another step, but you can. And you will. So that when you get in the 3rd period or that overtime you’ve got something left.”

With his guys still smarting, he ends on a motivational note.

“You’re only one performance away from feeling good. We can’t really spend a lot of time feeling sorry for ourselves. Now let’s pull together and feel thankful. There were no injuries. This wasn’t the end. We’re not sitting here feeling like this after the national tournament. Be thankful for that. Be thankful there’s two months left. Be assured, all is well.”

Then, en masse, they kneel in prayer, holding hands. After being braced by their coach’s words and sated by a meal the sullen team loosens up on the drive back home, playing rounds of Spades, laughing, joking, being care-free kids again. They’re young, resilient. Yes, all will be well.

True to his word, Denney takes his team into Thin Air at practice the following week and, as predicted, a couple guys hurl from sheer burn-out.  “It was one of the hardest practices I’ve ever had,” he says. “They were hurtin’, but they just wouldn’t let themselves break. Nobody hit the trash can until it was all done. They want to do well and know they can prevent what happened up there by being in better physical condition than anyone they go against. It gives each of them confidence that if it gets down to sudden victory, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve been in Thin Air.’ It can only help.”

The benefits of all that work show up in the Mavs next competition, Jan. 22-23, at the National Showdown Duals in Edmond, Okla., where UNO squares-off with four elite teams, finishing 3-1, advancing to and losing in the championship round to top-ranked Pitt-Johnstown 21-16. Bolstering the attack is junior Boyce Voorhees, a returning All-American, who goes 4-0 at 149 pounds in his first action since an early season injury. Voorhees is an intense wrestler capable of lifting an entire team with his dynamic style. The Mavs gain confidence coming so close to the No. 1 club without senior stud Braumon Creighton, the nation’s top-rated 141-pounder and a returning national champ, who injures a knee and forces UNO to forfeit his match.

Following another Thin Air day, the Mavs maintain their momentum Jan. 29 with a 21-18 win over No. 5 Central Oklahoma that is not as close as the score indicates since LaRock, nursing torn rib cartilage, forfeits. He also misses the next evening’s dual against the University of Nebraska-Kearney, which UNO runs away with 30-10. But Creighton returns triumphantly and he and his mates exude confidence that comes with Thin Air days being a weekly fixture. It’s all about keeping an edge.

 

 

 

 

The Mavs, with seven of their starting ten rated nationally, are back. Their aim on a national title still true. Denney feels good: “In some real close matches we’ve stayed confident, stayed strong, stayed focused. I like that. We now seem to have the reserve at the end to be able to do what we need to do. This team is on a mission.”

When the Mavs butt-kicking ways end abruptly in a Feb. 19 home dual loss to long-time nemesis North Dakota State, Denney isn’t so sure anymore. “As a team we have to hit on more cylinders. We have to perform better. It’s in us…but, I don’t know, maybe our expectations are just too high.”

After the less-than-inspired showing versus NDSU Denney issues an uncharacteristic in-your-face challenge to his slackers. “I wanted to shock them a little bit. They don’t see that side of me, but I needed to challenege them, and they responded — they really stepped up.” The Mavs respond with a 24-17 win over Div. I Northern Iowa to end the dual season 10-3.

The days leading up to the NCC tourney include intense practices that leave Denney feeling secure once again: “Honestly, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked a team — but they took it. I’m really confident we’ll perform better. On paper North Dakota State’s the favorite, but we have no fear.”

Steeled by grueling workouts and bolstered by LaRock’s return the Mavs outlast the Bison 78-77 and win the NCC. In the process they regain face and inch closer to wrestling nirvana.With nationals a week away Denney likes how his team refuses to let injuries, forfeits or losses become distractions. “Those things are going to happen but I’m pleased with how our guys aren’t worrying about it. Each guy is staying focused,” he says.

Focused best describes Denney during a match. He never sits. Instead he prowls the sidelines, intently watching his men in action. He raises his voice to offer instructions (“Finish strong,” “Break him down,” “Let it flow”). His expressive face says it all, ranging from a pinched death mask to an open Irish mug. He’s the first one to congratulate his guys after victory
and to offer solace after defeat. After a rough outing he takes a wrestler aside to whisper encouragement– to put things in perspective.

“I tell our guys when they lose to not get that tied in with their self-worth. It’s got nothing to do with it. It’s completely separate.”

After home duals he works the crowd like a seasoned politico, pressing the flesh with boosters, fans, alums and other members of his extended wrestling family. His charismatic side shines through then. When greeting you he makes you feel you are the only one in his orbit. It’s the way he sidles right up to you with a sloppy grin splayed on his face, the way his big warm paw grasps your arm, the way his kind eyes meet yours, the way his “Aw Shucks” manner strikes instant rapport. But like any driven man his extreme focus sometimes catches up with him, putting him in a black mood.

His magnetic presence dominates team practices, which unfold in a sleek retro-style room brimming with banners, posters, plaques charting the program’s storied history. The room reflects different facets of the man, serving for him as training center, tabernacle and sanctuary all in one. With almost ministerial zeal he demands, prods, preaches adherence to the sport’s strict regimen. Indeed, Denney, active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and in ecumenical outreach activities, regards the room as “the Lord’s House” and himself as its “watchman” (his church’s pastor blessed it). He even lays hands on his wrestlers with a healer’s touch.

In a space dedicated to mastering the rigors of the mind and body, he is a high priest in this Temple of Fitness. A Master in the Way of the Mat training young ascetics to develop the gift of serenity and the art of physical combat. He is, in fact, a longtime martial arts practitioner, owning high black belt ranks in judo and jujitsu, and incorporates aspects of these Eastern disciplines in the wrestling program, such as greeting visitors by bowing and saying, “Welcome to the dojo,” or his disciples adopting as their mantra, “Ooosss.”

His men are models of cool, calm, collected poise. They accept cutting weight, the bane and burden of all amateur wrestlers, with stoicism.

Finally, Denney is a sentinel keenly attuned to all around him. A most honorable sensei seeking to embolden and enlighten each of his warriors.

“I make it my goal every day at practice to touch every one of my guys physically, with a pat on the shoulder, and to do the same with a positive statement. I like to circulate through the whole group so I can sense when somebody needs a little extra help. I try to catch them doing something right and reinforce that. As a coach you have to focus on doing that because you can get caught up in the other side of it — the negative side. Very seldom to people react well to negativity. I never did,” says Denney, an ex-college and semi-pro athlete and a still accomplished sportsman today. “My philosophy is that so much of the stuff outside of this room is negative that I try to have a positive atmosphere and environment, and it starts with me.”

When he spots one of his guys is down he has him home for dinner or takes him to church. To build togetherness he holds retreats and gets feedback from a team unity council. To help his wrestlers keep a mental edge and handle the pressures of being student-athletes he has two sports psychologists work extensively with the team. To make them better ciitzens he has wrestlers make goodwill visits to hospitals, nursing homes and prisons and assist with youth wrestling clinics.

“I believe in the whole person approach to coaching,” he says.

His wife Bonnie, who is quite close to the program, says he has the tools necessary for this empathic approach: “I think he’s a great communicator and is very wise about what a person is all about. He can listen and read a person and see where they need to be directed. He can motivate them. And he cares. It’s not fake either. He really cares.”

But don’t confuse caring for softness. His practices are pictures of hard work. He’s always pushing for more. More effort, more desire, more, focus, more tenacity, more commitment. He demands nothing more than he does of himself.  At 51 he still works out religiously every day, stretching, hitting the treadmill, pumping iron. He refines his judo and jujitsu skills by  training with the U.S. National Team at the Olympic Training Center in Boulder, Col., and still mixes it up in martial arts competitions. In 1982 he won the national masters judo championship at 209 pounds. He teaches judo at UNO and self-defense for area law enforcement agencies.

During the season he regularly works 12 to 15-hour days. Hard work and long hours are old hat for Denney, who from the time he was a boy did most of the farming on his family’s spread, where they grew corn, alfalfa, rye and vetch and raised livestock.

“I worked the fields. I helped cattle and sheep deliver their calves. My brother and I milked cows every morning before we went to school. We broke horses. When I began driving a truck and tractor I had to sit on a crate to see over the steering wheel.”

Minus a TV, he and Dave made their own entertainment. “Looking back, I suppose it was a meager existence, but we never thought so.” He variously rode a horse or drove a tractor to the one-room schoolhouse he attended. The school doubled as the community church. His mother taught Sunday School there. He and Dave didn’t dare miss.

Denney concedes his mother, who still lives on the farm at 84, has been the greatest influence in his life. “My real hero is my mother. She’s a rock. She had it real tough raising us on her own and just scratching out a living, but we never wanted for anything. She’s a woman of strong faith and positive attitude. She’s an inspiration to me. She’s amazing.”

Bonnie feels her husband owes much of his iron will and true grit to Grace. “His mother’s a marvelous, strong individual. He got from her a strong character and work ethic that you can’t believe. Nobody will outwork him. He just covers every base. He puts his entire self into it.”

He admits it’s easy losing one’s bearings amid coaching’s endless demands. “In this profession you can get your priorities mixed up pretty easily. It can really consume you. There’s always somebody else you can recruit. Always something else you can do. You really have to work at keeping a balance in your life. My wife has really helped me a lot on that.”

His Never-Say-Die credo served him well during UNO Athletics’ lean times. In the late ‘80s state funding was cut, resulting in severely trimmed budgets, some men’s programs relegated to club status and pickle card sales begun as a last ditch revenue-making source. And until last year’s long overdue fieldhouse renovation Denney got by with second-rate facilities. The old wrestling room, charitably remembered as “a hole in the wall,” was so bad he steered recruits away from it.

“When UNO athletics went through that down period it had a negative effect on all the men’s sports, except wrestling. One of Mike’s supreme accomplishments was to keep right on winning championships. He had no facilities but the man never came to me with anything even resembling a complaint. The truly amazing thing was him getting quality athletes under those conditions. He’s a terrific salesman and has the insight to find the right young men who fit our program. Plus, he’s a great motivator,” says former UNO Athletic Director Don Leahy, now Assistant A.D. at the school.

Assistant Ron Higdon says the new facilities bring higher expectations and added “pressure” for Denney. “He doesn’t look at it like, ‘We’ve got it made, but more like, ‘We don’t have any excuses any more. Let’s not leave any rock unturned. We don’t want any regrets.’” He’s tightened the screws.

Bonnie Denney says her husband thrives on adversity. “He likes it tough. His whole life philosophy is: ‘Get out of the comfort zone in whatever you’re doing. That’s when you will grow.’” He simply says: “I like challenges.”

It’s the same resolve he showed farming and as a football-wrestling standout at both Neligh High School and Dakota Wesleyan, the NAIA college (in Mitchell, S.D.) he attended and whose Athletic Hall of Fame he’s inducted in. As a college lineman he played both ways, often never leaving the field. When the gridiron season ended he went right into wrestling. “One day off was enough. It was a year-round deal,” Denney recalls.

After graduating with a teaching degree his goal was making it in the National Football League. It was 1969. The Vietnam War was hot. The military draft in effect. His kid brother, then an Army grunt in ‘Nam, wrote home warning to “stay out of this mess.” Luckily, Denney got a deferral upon landing a contract with the Omaha Public Schools. When the NFL did not beckon he signed with the Omaha Mustangs, a semi-pro football club popular with area fans in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even after moving to Omaha with Bonnie, whom he married that summer, he kept alive his NFL hopes.
“I spent a number of years on that mission.”

Life in the ‘70s revolved around teaching (math) and coaching (wrestling, football, track) — first at South High and later at Bryan — and playing ball. He paid a steep personal price for the grueling schedule.

“I’d go early in the morning to lift weights, then teach all day, then coach and then practice with the Mustangs all night. I’d travel on the weekends. There were times when I never saw our first son awake. I really neglected my family. I don’t know why my wife stayed.”

Despite the costs, he would not be deterred from his dream. “Playing with the Mustangs filled the need I had to still compete and play. It was my NFL. I loved it.” He played seven years and concedes only the club’s folding prevented him from continuing. Judo then became his competitive outlet.

What is the appeal of athletic competition? “Unlike the corporate world, you have instant feedback with it. It tells you right away how you did. You can look at wins or losses. Or, like I do, you can base it on performance. The real opponent is yourself — trying to get the best out of yourself.”

He could have coached football in college but chose wrestling. Why?

“You look for vehicles to teach and build and what a great vehicle wrestling is because it’s so demanding. It takes so much discipline, dedication and commitment. You’re going to get beat right out in front of everybody. You can be humbled at any time and very quickly. It brings out the best and the worst in you. And you get so much closer to your athletes in wrestling.”

He finally did get his shot at the big-time via a free-agent try-out with the Chicago Bears in the mid-70s. He was among the final players cut.

“I worked so hard at it and spent so many years pursuing that mission, but in the end I was a marginal player. I faced that fact. And I realized the NFL was not the ultimate answer to my needs. The Lord had other plans for me…much better plans than I could ever have imagined.”

Those plans brought him to UNO in 1979 when Leahy, who saw his work ethic up close as a Mustangs coach, hired Denney, despite no prior college coaching experience, to lead an already respected program.

“Mr. Leahy took a chance on me,” he says, “and I’m forever thankful for that. It was a tremendous opportunity.”

Denney’s made the most of the opportunity by taking UNO wrestling to new heights, annually contending for the title. The year UNO won it all, ‘91, posed a severe trial for him and his family. First, a former Mav wrestler he was close to, Ryan Kaufman, died in a car accident. Denney calls him “our guardian angel.” Then Bonnie, who has multiple sclerosis, fell gravely ill, enduring a lengthy hospital stay. She fully recovered and is healthy today. She says the experience deepened the family’s bond and faith.

Also deepened is her husband’s outlook on athletics. “He used to have a terrible time dealing with losing,” she says. “But now the process has become as important as the result. He’s discovered the joy is in the journey.” Indeed, he preaches to his troops, “Respect the journey, but don’t sell your soul for it.” It’s why he emphasizes the values and lessons to be gained from competition over records and wins. It’s about helping young men “feel somebody cares about them. That there’s an investment in them. That they have some worth. Basically that’s what we’re all looking for,” he says.

It’s a message he delivers in public motivational talks. It’s why he calls his job “a privilege” and twice turned down the head coaching post at Division I Wyoming. Why he is at home with his wrestling family. “I honestly think I’ve been put here as the watchman. I’ve been assigned this. It’s meant to be.”

 

 

Championship banners hanging in the UNO wrestling room

 

 

Part II: House of Pain      

Destiny seems on the side of the No. 2-ranked University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team entering the NCAA Divison II national championships Friday and Saturday in Omaha: UNO’s nine individual qualifiers match the most of any team; the school is hosting the finals in it own Sapp Fieldhouse on the UNO campus; and the tourney will coincide with Head Coach Mike Denney’s induction into the Div. II Wrestling Hall of Fame.

It is, as Denney’s fond of saying, a time “to shoot for the stars.” The source of UNO’s tempered-steel toughness is forged not in the stars, but in the inferno of practice and in the heat of battle. In a journey through pain.

A UNO practice resembles a “Guernica-like” scene with its entangled heaps of twisted, wreathing bodies and flushed, grimacing faces belonging to a sect of athletes who endure punishment as a badge of honor. Some lay sprawled on the mat, limbs clenched in a contortionist’s nightmare. Others crouch in a gruesome dance, pushing and pulling like territorial bulls.

More than any other sport, wrestling is a survival contest. Technique, fitness, power are all vital qualities but when these things are relatively equal, as they often are, it ultimately comes down to a test of wills. A confrontation to see who can withstand more, who can outlast the other.

Wrestling is a sport of resistance, using the body as a pinion and vice to gain leverage and control. It’s countering your opponent’s moves with ones of your own. It’s long stalemates followed by lightning quick reversals, take-downs, pins. One tiny slip in concentration can prove your undoing.

In the heat of action bodies become locked in vicious embrace. One torso tightly wound around another. A leg wrapped around a neck. Arms ratcheted back from the socket with enough torque to tear ligament and snap bone. Tongues hang out from sheer exhaustion. Sweat runs off in sheets. The thud of bodies on the mat mixes with anguished cries and grunts. As if this agony isn’t enough, there’s the bane of all wrestlers — cutting weight. Truly, it’s as much penance as sport.

Welcome to the House of Pain. Every wrestling club or program has one. It’s often only a ratty old mat in a cold dark gym. Until this season UNO  made do with a pit too small to accommodate a full practice. For years its teams trained around the school’s other sports, carting and rolling out mats onto the fieldhouse floor and rolling them up and carting them back off when done. With the completion of a multi-million dollar fieldhouse renovation last year, the Mavs finally have a training facility all their own and one commensurate with the program’s powerhouse status.

Located in the northeast corner of the fieldhouse’s top floor, the UNO wrestling room, a.k.a. the dojo, is a 5,000-plus square-foot facility where all 30 wrestlers can work out in at once. It includes a kick-ass mat, a video station, a digital scale and a sound system. It’s clean, well-lit, ventilated. It’s also where guys shed sweat, blood and tears and gasp for air.

On “Thin Air Days” UNO coaches push their athletes past fatigue, past the breaking point — all in an effort to build mental-physical endurance. A trash can stands nearby for those who get sick. On those days practice begins at 3 and goes full bore past 5. One drill immediately follows another, pairing wrestlers off on the mat as coaches hover above goading them on.

“Your body can do it,” assistant Cory Royal shouts at a prone wrestler one recent practice. “It’s mind over matter.” With that, the spent lad drags himself to his feet and gets after it again. There’s always more to give.

To cap off practice the team runs stairs. The late afternoon session is in addition to a morning workout and individual running and lifting drills. On competition days the demands only increase. In tournaments, such as the nationals, entrants may wrestle multiple matches on day one and still run that same night to ensure making weight for day two’s action.

“In no other sport do athletes have to put themselves through what wrestlers put themselves through,” says top UNO assistant coach Ron Higdon. “As coaches it’s what we love about this sport.” Denney says, “You look for vehicles to teach and build and what a great vehicle wrestling is because it’s so demanding. It takes so much discipline, dedication and commitment. You’re going to get beat right out in front of everybody. You can be humbled at any time and very quickly. It brings out the best and the worst in you. I like these challenges.”

Why do athletes do it?

“I don’t know, maybe I’m a masochist, but I love it. Wrestling is a sport that’s so demanding. It takes the mind, body and soul. It takes everything that you can possibly muster and I guess that’s the challenge I really enjoy,” says senior Jeff Nielsen, (133 pounds), who went 0-3 in the NCC tourney.

 

 

 

 

There’s more to it than that. It’s being cast alone on an island of pain and using every ounce of courage and skill to try and best your opponent.

Senior Mav Braumon Creighton, a national champion at 134 pounds last year and top-seeded at 141-pounds this year, is a fluid methodical performer who appreciates wrestling’s intricacies.

“I like the science of the sport. The leverage, the speed, the techniques and the type of physical attributes you need to be a good wrestler. I like the mental preparation that goes into it. I like the battle. I like the nervousness. I like how it’s a chess match out there and you’ve got to  make the right moves. I love everything about it except the cutting weight part,” Creighton says. “And when the lights go on it’s my opportunity to put on a show. To say, ‘Look at me. Look at how good I am. Look what I can do.”

For two-time All-American Boyce Voorhees, a junior contending for the 149-pound crown this weekend, it’s “the competition.” He adds, “The best part about it is it’s just one guy against another. It’s you against him. Nobody else has anything else to say about it. You have no excuses.”

“It’s a great challenge every time I wrestle,” says junior Chris Blair, a two-time All-American competing at 165 pounds in the NCAA finals, “It’s a test of all my training methods and everything I believe in. When I win, everything about me wins. When I lose, I lose all that stuff. In order to be a champion you’ve really got to work hard at it every single day.”

For motivation UNO ‘s athletes need only look at the wrestling room’s walls adorned with banners and plaques honoring the program’s many All-Americans, national titlists, Hall of Famers and championship teams.

The swank new room has made a deep impression on the team, serving as inspiration, validation and challenge. For senior Jose Medina, a returning All-American and a national qualifier this year at 197 pounds, the space is a source of good vibes. “The room has so much character and Coach Denney’s put all that character in there with the All-American plaques and the banners listing the national champs and the records. It’s awesome to be around all that.”

Sophomore Scott Antoniak, a national qualifier at 184 pounds, says, “We walk around with a bit of added confidence. We have our own room. We have something to be proud of. It gives us something to brag about.”

Blair feels the room sets a serious, no-nonsense tone: “Having something like this makes you feel like you’re in an elite program. It really helps mentally coming into a place everyday that’s this businesslike and professional. It gives us added confidence and strength.”

“I can’t even tell you all the things it does for us,” says sophomore Mack LaRock, a national qualifier at 125 pounds. “It gives us a home, for one. I think it also raises the expectation level of ourselves. We feel we’ve got to rise to the occasion and perform, almost as if we’ve got to earn what we’ve been given.”

 

 

Ron Higdon

 Ron Higdon

 

 

Indeed, Higdon says the new facilities have added “pressure” on the coaching staff. “Coach Denney doesn’t look at it like, ‘Ah, we’ve got it made, but more like, ‘We don’t have any excuses anymore. Let’s not leave any rock unturned. We don’t want any regrets.’”

Reminders of UNO’s high expectations are everywhere. Banners displaying each wrestler’s personal symbol of commitment hang from the ceiling. Ringing the mat are nine plastic cones spelling out the team’s keys to achieving its mission. Far from arbitrary words, these mottoes grew out of a preseason November retreat with a decidedly martial theme at which the team set team objectives, ideals, rules, et cetera. Blair says the messages represent “what UNO wrestling is all about. We can see it every day. We can be a part of it every day. I look up and see all these different symbols and it’s who we are. It’s the heart and soul of every single guy on this team.”

That the retreat resembled boot camp is no accident. Military themes are commonly applied to competitive athletics. After all, a solid platoon and an effective team both require discipline, loyalty, unity, commitment, physical fitness, mental rigor, honor, duty. Both require a warrior’s mentality. Even the way teams practice is patterned after the army or marines, with coaches putting their warriors through training “drills” like any DI bastards.

Thus, UNO turned the Old Country Buffet on Dodge Street into a war room one fine November morning. Setting the tone was Denney, who fittingly wore camouflaged fatigues and a painted war face. Several troops followed suit. Together, they plotted strategy for the upcoming campaign. Later, they went to a camp grounds near Plattsmouth to play paint ball.

The idea, Denney told his warriors that day, “is establishing our destination — where we’re trying to get to — and our compass for getting there. It’s kind of what we’re all about and what is necessary for our team to accomplish its mission. We’ll organize and execute practices around that.”

The annual retreat is among many traditions he’s added to the program. He’s found such activities effective ways of building a solid group identity and bond. He uses these sessions as teaching opportunities. At one team meeting he did a “Home Improvement” routine — complete with tool belt, framing hammer, nails and two-by-fours — to make the point that in order to be “straight and strong every practice and every match” his team must “hammer” and “push” themselves through the whole season. After hammering home some penny nails he brought out some rusty ones and said, ‘If you guys are coming in rusty…you’re going to bend.’”

For Denney the demonstration was fun but its message dead serious. “I challenged our guys to be straight and strong because for us to effectively perform we’ve got to challenge ourselves. This is athletics. You can’t be in the comfort zone too long. I need to challenge myself, too, to be more of a hammer as a coach. Sometimes I’m almost a little bit too understanding.”

Mastering the mental game is something Denney constantly emphasizes. “I tell our guys we’ve got be strong in three areas. Physically, mentally, spiritually. As you get closer to competition the importance of the mental part increases. Those people that can stay confident, stay calm, stay relaxed, stay focused — all those things — have an advantage. We try to get our guys to look forward to competition and not dread it. Sometimes though you get anxious about failing. We try to instill the attitude, ‘I can’t wait to get out there. I practiced for it, prepared myself physically for it and now I want to do it.’ You’ve got to be confident you can perform well and perform well against good competition. It’s actually not directed at the opponent. It’s trying to get yourself to perform well. It’s a battle with yourself.”

To help instill such poise Denney has two prominent area sports psychologists, Dr. Jack Stark and Dr. Todd Hendrickson, work with the team. As Denney sees it, it’s all about helping athletes find avenues that best reduce anxiety and maximize effort.

“The whole thing is not on winning, it’s on performance,” he says.

 

 

 

 

Consider the scene in the visiting locker room at Augustana College shortly after UNO’s 25-11 dual victory over the Vikings on Jan. 15. Denney singled out Antoniak for praise despite his having lost in overtime: “It shows here,” Denney said, holding up the scoring sheet in his hand, “he lost 3-1, but I don’t even look at that. I look at performance. He performed. He
wrestled with heart.” Later, Antoniak said how much his coach’s words meant: “What means more to me than a win or a loss is knowing I didn’t disappoint Coach Denney. I know he’s still proud of the way I performed.”

Higdon, who wrestled for Denney and has coached under him for seven years, says, “One of the reasons he’s so good at getting guys to perform well is that they’re not only performing for themselves but they honestly want to do well for him too. When you disappoint him, oh, the guilt is unbelievable.”

R.J. Nebe, former UNO wrestling great and one-time assistant under Denney and now co-head wrestling coach at Skutt High School, says, “He’s a great motivational coach. The eternal optimist. He’s always upbeat, always supportive, no matter what happens. Anybody you talk to says he’s kind of like a father figure. I know that’s a cliche but he truly is an amazing individual and you really do want to make him proud of you.”

 

 

The late R.J. Nebe

 

 

Massaging hurt egos, boosting flagging spirits, instilling guilt. It’s what coaches do in their role as amateur psychologists. What often separates a mediocre wrestler from a superb one is the mental factor. Higdon says some wrestlers shine in practice but wilt in competition: “Some guys are great practice room wrestlers —  they’re unscored on and can’t be taken down. But when they have the pressure of being in the starting lineup or in a tournament they don’t wrestle near as well. That gets down to mental toughness. The sports psychologists we work with are really good at making our guys believe in themselves. One guy may need this. Another guy may need something totally different. As a coaching staff we try to
provide all those different atmospheres. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but once you figure it out, it’s half the battle.”

As Denney says, “We try to get each athlete to develop a ritual at practice. It’s finding ways of preparing mentally and physically that help you perform well at every practice and then carrying that over into competition. It’s a trial and error thing finding what works for you. It takes lots of repetitions. Part of it may be your diet or isolating what things are producing anxiety. The way one guy prepares may not work for another.”

Virtually all UNO wrestlers use visualization, along with deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to get ready for matches. Sometimes, all the preparation in the world doesn’t prevent a poor showing.

“You’re going to have times when you just don’t perform well. I’ve been coaching 30 years and every individual, every team has hit one real low every season,” Denney notes. “I’ve found if you have work ethic and perseverance you’re going to endure through those ups and downs. You can’t replace it. Our work ethic is good. We have good leadership too.”

Denney’s a master at sensing the psyche of his team. How he handles his wrestlers, especially how he prepares and motivates them for competition, reveals much about him, his athletes and his program. He circulates through the wrestling room to drop a positive word here, a does of constructive criticism there. He lays hands on his men like a healer. His door is always open for consultation. His charismatic presence and caring demeanor create a powerful Brotherhood of the Mat.

“Coach impresses upon us to care about the guys we wrestle with. We’re not afraid to say, ‘I love you,’ and openly show some emotion when things don’t go right or when they do go right. That says a lot about the character and nature of the team,” says senior heavyweight Jerry Corner.

While wrestling is a series of one-on-one competitions, a single stunning win or loss can spark or deflate an entire team. The chemistry of a squad and the support of teammates are crucial performance factors. Denney’s teams are known for their togetherness. “It’s a family. It’s a real close-knit group. Coach Denney promotes that. He’s like a second father. And all those guys in the locker room are like my brothers,” Nielsen says.

Denney says camaraderie is vital given wrestling’s severe demands.

“It’s a long season made even longer because we beat on each other so much. It’s such a physically and mentally demanding sport. And at the end they’re going to raise just one hand. Even when our guys have been working hard and doing the right things there’s still going to be adversity. They get injured. They don’t perform the way they want. Something bad happens back home or their girlfriend leaves them. They need the support of their teammates when they’re down. They need positive reinforcement.”

He likes the way his current squad senses when a teammate is low and tries picking him up. He says his guys have done a great job of helping pull Medina, Voorhees and LaRock out of deep funks this season.

“I see our team helping each other out by sitting and talking with guys who’ve hit a low point. I like that. We’re totally a family here.”

He likes the way Voorhees and LaRock, two mainstays sidelined by injuries earlier this year, responded to their tough luck. “They stayed positive. They were up at the fieldhouse every day doing everything they could even though they couldn’t wrestle. They ran every day. They went to every meeting. They’ve been great examples of how to handle adversity.”

Denney, a Power of Positive Thinking disciple, says maintaining an upbeat attitude is not just mental window dressing but a prerequisite for reaching peak performance. “Losing doesn’t mean we’re failures. We don’t even talk about that. We talk about making adjustments to do better next time. In the scheme of things a disappointing performance is not that big a deal, except we’ve been blessed with some abilities and we want to make the most out of them. Performing well shouldn’t be an option. Not with this team and the way we work our butts off. It should be a responsibility.”

He has approached this season as a journey and each segment as a various leg on the trek. UNO’s journey began with five early open meets pitting Maverick wrestlers against top competitors from Div. I and II. Unlike many programs UNO waits to wrestle duals — when teams must settle on 10 starters — until the second semester, preferring instead to throw everyone into the mix in open competition.

“What it does is offer everybody an opportunity to compete and make the varsity,” Denney explains, “and that kind of determines who filters to the top and who redshirts. It takes wrestlers about 20 matches before they really start refining things, so I tell them to be patient.”

He sees the open part of the season as a time for experimenting too. “We actually tell our guys to open up and try some things. To make adjustments and find what works for you.”

In the Nov. 15 season opening Central Missouri State meet UNO recorded the most place finishers (18) and most finalists (six) it’s ever had in the annual competition. Three Mavs won their weight classes. Although UNO had no individual champions the Mavs held their own at home in the Nov. 21 Kaufman-Brand Open, the largest open meet in the nation, as Creighton and LaRock went a combined 9-2 against top-flight competition.

UNO followed with a disappointing showing in the Dec. 9 Northern Iowa Open but, as has been characteristic of this year’s team, rebounded strongly in the Nebraska-Kearney Open and in its own Brand Open. Once the Mavs started their “big push” the second semester, Denney returned again and again to such key themes as “No regrets” and “Start strong, stay strong, finish strong.” The dual season found UNO on the road most of the time. Following a devastating loss at St. Cloud State, Denney assured his  team “all is well” but promised to take them “into Thin Air” as a way of deepening their conditioning and will. He did, too — working them until some hurled from sheer burn-out.

The benefits of all that work showed up in the Mavs next competition, Jan. 22-23, at the National Showdown Duals in Edmond, Okla., where UNO squared-off with four elite teams, finishing 3-1, advancing to and losing in the championship round to top-ranked Pittsburgh-Johnstown 21-16. Bolstering the attack was Voorhees, who went 4-0 at 149 pounds in his first action since an early season injury. The Mavs gained confidence coming so close to the No. 1 club without their stud, Creighton, who injured a knee and forced UNO to forfeit his match.

With Thin Air days a weekly fixture, the Mavs won a Jan. 29 home dual, 21-18, over No. 5 Central Oklahoma that was not as close as the score indicated since LaRock, nursing torn rib cartilage, forfeited. It marked the first of five straight dual wins the Mavs reeled off, prompting Denney to say: “In some real close matches we’ve stayed confident, stayed strong, stayed focused. I like that. We now seem to have the reserve at the end to be able to do what we need to do. This team is on a mission.”

Yet when the Mavs butt-kicking ways ended abruptly in a Feb. 19 home dual loss to long-time nemesis North Dakota State, he wasn’t so sure anymore. “As a team we have to hit on more cylinders. We have to perform better. It’s in us…but, I don’t know, maybe our expectations are just too high.”

After the less-than-inspired showing versus NDSU Denney issued an uncharacteristic in-your-face challenge to his slackers. “I wanted to shock them a little bit. They don’t see that side of me, but I needed to challenge them, and they responded — they really stepped up.” The Mavs responded with a 24-17 win over Div. I Northern Iowa to end the dual season 10-3 overall and 4-2 in the North Central Conference.

The days leading up to the NCC tourney included intense practices that left Denney feeling secure once again: “Honestly, that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked a team, but they took it. I’m really confident we’ll perform better. On paper North Dakota State’s the favorite, but we have no fear.”

In the postseason the starters become the sole focus. They get all the reps, all the performance enhancement goodies. Denney assigns each “a  commission” that lets them know what’s expected at crunch time. He makes-up T-shirts with the wrestlers’ nicknames and slogans on them.

During the Feb. 28 NCC tourney in Brookings S.D. the Mavs, almost to a man, fulfilled their commissions. LaRock “fueled the fire” as team igniter at the top of the lineup, decisively winning his opening round match en route to earning a wild card entry at nationals. Creighton modeled “consistency” in going 3-0 to win his third individual NCC title. Voorhees lived up to his “cool, calm, confident” assignment in nailing down a runner-up finish.

Blair, UNO’s Iron Man award winner his first two years, took “the ultimate warrior” tag to heart by claiming third place. Albert Harrold, earned his “mentally strong” stripes with a runner-up finish at 174. Antoniak epitomized “showtime” by advancing to the finals, only losing the title on criteria. Medina showed “no fear” after a disqualification (for slamming)
forced him into the consolation bracket, where he came back to win a crucial third place match. Corner displayed “amazing power” in capturing his first NCC title in the final and deciding match, giving UNO a one-point winning margin (78-77) over NDSU in the team title race.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” a drained and emotion-choked Denney said afterwards. “They wrestled so hard. They gave everything they had. It was just a war. It went back and forth. One team would get ahead and the other would bounce right back. We were behind and had to win the last two matches. I’d never seen it come down to the end like that.”

With the NCC title secured, one last destination awaits the Mavs on their most excellent journey. In team meetings Denney’s comparing UNO’s quest for the pinnacle of collegiate wrestling to a Mount Everest ascent, saying, “When the oxygen gets really thin it then becomes a mental thing. Totally mental. Your body can endure anything you want it to. It’s mind over matter. You have to push through the pain. The key is working together and pushing each other to reach a common goal. You’re lost without that.”

Mack LaRock is reminding his mates to lay it on the line, as the summit may not be this close again. “We may never have a chance to be part of a team like this that has a chance to win nationals at home. Let’s not let this one get by. It’s all laid out for us. Let’s seize it. Let’s seize the day.”

Denney wants his charges to keep their edge during the climb and ensure they make the most of their opportunity: “Respect the journey. If you don’t respect the journey, you don’t prepare for it. When you step on the mat, be prepared. When you look back, you want to be sure there’s no regrets.This is something you will not be able to play over again.”

His team embarks on its “final assault” — the national championship — Friday and Saturday at UNO. Opening-round matches start at noon on Friday, followed by an evening session at 7 p.m. Semifinal and consolation matches being at noon on Saturday, followed by the Parade of All-Americans at 7 and the finals at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the UNO Athletic Office and through Ticketmaster outlets. For more tourney information, call 554-MAVS.

 

 

 

 

Part III: Day of Recknoning    

The University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling team’s day of reckoning finally arrived last weekend when UNO hosted the NCAA Division II wrestling tournament. In the ultimate setting for this on-the-edge sport, the team title race fittingly came down to a pair of head-to-head matches between No. 1 Pittsburgh-Johnstown and No. 2 UNO, the two squads that led the pack all season long and dominated the March 12-13 tourney.

Holding a four-and a-half-point lead entering the championship round, UNO needed to at least split the two finals pitting Maverick wrestlers against their Mountain Cat counterparts. In the first meeting, UNO’s Mack LaRock, a sophomore from Lawton, Okla., was pinned by Johnstown’s No. 1-seeded Jody Strittmatter in the 125-pound title match. The fall, worth five points, dropped UNO into second place, half-a-point behind the Cats.

That put added pressure on UNO’s third championship qualifier Braumon Creighton, a senior from Millard North High School, who responded, becoming the lone Mav finalist to prevail, by decisioning Paul Konechne of South Dakota State 12-6 at 141 pounds. That victory earned Creighton his second consecutive national championship (He was the 134-pound champ last year.) and canceled out a Johnstown win at 133 pounds, keeping UNO within easy striking distance.

Creighton’s win made the 165-pound championship, the last head-to-head dual between the two title contending teams, the swing match. And it was here that UNO’s dogged, year-long quest to scale the wrestling heights fell just short when Mav junior Chris Blair dropped an 8-4 decision to Johnstown’s Troy Barbush. In the short seven-minute span it took to complete the match UNO went from the sweet anticipation of celebrating a title before family, friends and hometown fans to a feeling of bitter regret.

Blair, an Omaha Gross High grad who sat out last year to rehabilitate a surgically-repaired knee, fought hard, fell behind midway through the 2nd period and could not rally at the end. The loss secured the Cats’ team championship over UNO. In one of the tightest competitions in recent tourney history, Johnstown finished with 110 points to UNO’s 105.5.

Before the finals, Johnstown Coach Pat Pecora called the two-horse title chase “a classic,” adding, “In any other given year either one of us would have had the title clinched by now but this year we have a great team race. The way the fans have packed each session, they deserve a down-to-the-wire battle.”

The margin of victory at this level of competition is often decided by intangibles that coaches are fond of repeating like incantations. Following the tourney’s opening day sessions, UNO Coach Mike Denney described the intangibles that carried his wrestlers to a first place standing: “A lot of times it just comes down to heart. It’s not technique. It’s not coaching. It’s not anything. It’s just heart. It’s reaching deep inside for more They just fought so hard. They just stayed strong. They wouldn’t break.”

The next night, after seeing his team come agonizingly close to grasping the crown before fumbling it in front of the hometown fans, Denney retreated to a corridor of the fieldhouse and, feeling the weight of disappointment in letting it all slip by, slumped against a wall, where his oldest son, Rocky, consoled him. Later, a still reeling Denney said his team showed the heart of a champion despite losing the national championship:

“When we bid on hosting the nationals two years ago it was our dream to wrestle before this kind of crowd with an opportunity to win the national championship. We put so much work into it. Our guys came to wrestle. They fought. They wrestled with heart. We went for it and we didn’t get it, but I don’t look at it like we failed. It was a great battle, but we just came in second. You’ve got to give credit to Pitt-Johnstown.”

 

 

 

 

Destiny seemed on the side of tourney host UNO entering the finals.  The home fans turned out in droves and lent their vocal support to the cause. Local dignitaries — led by Mayor Hal Daub and his wife and UNO Chancellor Nancy Belck — showed up to confer an official seal of approval on the event. Tying the past to the present was a parade of greats from UNO’s 30-year tradition of mat excellence, including the man who put the school’s wrestling program on the map, Don Benning.

Finally, the UNO team answered the challenge again and again, performing well enough to put themselves in position to win. They ended day one with a four-point edge on Johnstown (41.5 to 37.5), rebounding from a mid-round slump to advance all nine wrestlers to the second day semifinal and consolation rounds, ensuring each All-American status. UNO’s school-record nine All-Americans led the 36-team field.

Then, on day two, the Mavs maintained their advantage by going a combined 11-7 in semifinal and consolation matches. While Johnstown sent four men to that evening’s finals compared to UNO’s three, the Mavs still held a four and-a-half-point lead (101.5 to 97). In the end, the difference was Johnstown winning the pair of meetings with UNO in the finals.

The NCAA wrestling tournament, the fourth hosted by UNO over the years, proved a showcase for a sport little appreciated or understood outside the wrestling community and one often relegated to “Extreme Games” status. Consider wrestling for a moment and you soon see why its harsh aesthetic and strange dichotomy make it a sport apart. Consider the monastic discipline required to master its calm mind set, stiff work ethic and strict weight control, but the fierce warrior’s heart needed to compete in such physical one-on-one competition. Consider how a wrestler is a lone wolf on the mat yet a teammate on the sideline. How so brutal a sport is still couched in fine technique. How it rewards control yet penalizes passivity, encourages aggressiveness but frowns on violence.

Collegiate wrestling, with its sober blue-collar mystique, is an entirely different breed from the WWF sideshow. The amateur version is authentic regulated competition. The real thing. The pro game is a bastard, no-holds-barred knock-off. A fraud. The bleachers at any collegiate meet are filled with fans who know the sport inside and out — including past and present wrestlers, coaches and officials. They know the price these athletes pay in dedicating themselves to the grueling training process wrestling demands.

The crowd at the recent national tourney was educated enough to cheer a good move or deride a bad call when they saw it and to recognize which matches meant the most in the team race.

The tournament’s many upsets, comebacks, pins, thrills and spills were witnessed by an SRO crowd of wrestling buffs who found UNO’s Sapp Fieldhouse given an Olympic-style makeover for the event. NCAA regalia hung everywhere. Bunting-draped awards platforms stood tall at one end. A two-tiered scoring table at the other end accommodated event staff and media. A big Daktronics message board flashed the latest standings.

The first day of competition saw simultaneous action on six mats, making for a blur of interlocking bodies. A miked announcer hyped the goings-on with a running commentary that jumped from one match to the next. There was often a pin in progress on one mat, a stalemate on another, an injury time out on a third, and so on.

After his team’s solid opening day showing Coach Denney gathered his warriors in a circle in their fieldhouse sanctuary — the UNO wrestling room — to tell them: “I want you to relax like a bunch of puppy dogs tonight. Get a good night’s sleep. But then come out tomorrow like a pack of wolverines. You guys have got to love this. You have the opportunity with every match to make a difference. So savor it.”

Living up to UNO’s “There’s A Fire Burning” motto and his role as team igniter, Mack LaRock got the Mavs off to a fire-breathing start in the Mar. 13 afternoon semifinals by pinning his man. Moments later, after running into the stands to embrace family members who drove up from Oklahoma, a still delirious LaRock tried describing what happened: “I was in on a deep single. The opportunity was there and I just got it (the pin). Oh, man, it’s a rush. I never thought it would feel this way. The way my year’s been going, with so many ups and downs, I think it’s all going to work out.” Although LaRock lost in the finals that night, his mere presence there as a sixth seed was a victory of sorts itself.

Creighton, operating from his customary low crouch, looked sluggish until winning his semi’s scuffle 7-4 and securing a spot in the finals. Later, he said, “At the beginning I wasn’t focused at all. I just had to regain my focus. It’s a matter of being in those scramble positions and coming out on top.”

By warding off his foe off at the end — refusing to be taken down — Chris Blair earned a berth in the finals with a 7-4 decision. After a short celebration he described how watching his mates’ earlier matches motivated him to nail his opponent too: “I saw Mack and Braumon win and that got me going. I dug deep and put the guy on his back.”

Meanwhile, the Mavs fared well in the consolation bracket: junior Boyce Voorhees advanced to the third 3rd place match, where he lost a tough 2-1 decision to finish 4th at 149 pounds; sophomore Alan Cartwright captured 7th with a 12-5 decision at 157 pounds; senior Albert Harrold pounced on his opponent in the waning moments to clinch a 7-5 win that gave him 5th place at 174; and sophomore Scott Antoniak claimed 7th at 184 when his opponent forfeited.

After being on the wrong end of a pin in his 197 pound semifinals match, Jose Medina recovered from that devastating loss to perform well in the wrestlebacks, winning the crucial 3rd place match to help UNO stay in the title hunt. Medina, a senior from Chicago, said the winning difference was “knowing that I had to beat him to keep the team race close.”

 

 

Denney’s team finished second in 1999, but he led UNO to multiple national titles in the ensuing years

 

 

A costly defeat came at heavyweight when No. 1 seed senior Jerry Corner suffered a sudden-death overtime (2-1) loss in the semifinals to long-time arch nemesis Ryan Resel of South Dakota State. Corner, who twice beat the two-time defending national champion Resel during the regular season, explained afterwards how “hard” it is “to beat a quality competitor over and over again.” With his right eye red and puffy from the fray, Corner, from Wichita, Kan., spent little time sulking over losing his last title shot. Instead, he came back strong — practically crucifying his first consolation opponent to the mat, then advancing to and winning the 3rd place match with a 5-0 decision.

Corner wasn’t the only bruised and battered Maverick. Voorhees hurt a shoulder. Cartwright sported a bloody nose. Harrold threw up. Antoniak took stitches above an eye. Medina got scratched on the hand. “Yeah, but you should have seen the other guy,” goes the sport’s macho creed. Wrestlers like it tough. They thrive on their high pain threshold.

For the finals the fieldhouse became, for one night anyway, a coliseum reveling in the ancient grappling art and its warrior tradition. With the lights dimmed over the stands, the spotlight literally shone on the young men in singlets comprising this Samurai Brotherhood. Like gladiators of old they engaged in hand-to-hand combat that, while not mortal, tested their resolve and preparation through a primal meeting on the mat.

The Mavericks came away from this nearly 400-match wrestlerama with one individual champion, nine All-Americans and a team runner-up trophy, UNO’s 12th Top 3 finish under Denney. UNO’s undisputed star was its lone champ, Creighton, who stalked his finals’ opponent with predator-like cunning, shooting low single leg attacks he turned into points.

Soon after winning his title Creighton, whose mother is KMTV-Channel 3’s Trina Creighton, said, “It’s the best feeling in the world to do it here in front of all your family and friends. I’m proud to be part of UNO history and to be considered one of the greats among those who wrestled here.” Denney, who dubbed him “Mr. Consistency,” said, “He’s an ultimate competitor. He dominated the field. He’s a great ambassador for our wrestling program. I’m proud of him.”

Graceful and grateful even in defeat, Denney summed up the tourney and season-long journey with: “The thing I feel really good about is we were able to provide nine All-Americans and a national champion in our own gym, in front of an electric crowd, in an exciting atmosphere. It was great for our guys. I’m proud of the commitment they made. I’m proud of their work ethic. I’m proud of the kind of people they are. I can’t fault our effort. We performed. We we were just four-and-half-points short. And it’s not like the cupboard’s bare. We return five All-Americans. We’ll be all right.”

Now it’s on to recruiting for Denney. His talent search marks the start of the next journey for him and his band of warriors. Let the quest begin.


Requiem for a Dynasty

July 28, 2011 8 comments

This will likely be my last word on the demise of the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program. As some of you may know from reading this blog or from following other media reports on the story, the program did nothing to contribute to its demise. Quite the contrary, it did everything right and then some. UNO wrestling reached the pinnacle of NCAA Division II competition and maintained its unparalleled excellence year after year. Yet university officials disregarded all that and eliminated the program. The action caused quite an uproar but the decision stood, leaving head coach Mike Denney, his assistants, and the student-athletes adrift. In a stunning turn, Denney is more or less taking what’s left of the orphaned program, including a couple assistants and 10 or so wrestlers, and moving the program to Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. The following story for the New Horizons is my take on what transpired and an appreciation for the remarkable legacy that Denney, his predecessor Don Benning, and all their assitants and wrestlers established at a university that then turned its back on their contributions. It’s a bittersweet story as Denney closes one chapter in his career and opens a new one. It is UNO’s loss and Maryville’s gain.

 

 

Mike Denney exhorting his troops to keep the faith

 

 

Requiem for a Dynasty: 

Mike Denney Reflects on the Long Dominant, Now Defunct UNO Maverick Wrestling Program He Coached, Its Legacy, His Pain, and Starting Anew with Wife Bonnie at Maryville University

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in the New Horizons

The For Sale sign spoke volumes.

Planted in the front yard of the home Mike and Bonnie Denney called their own for decades, it served as graphic reminder an Omaha icon was leaving town. The longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling coach and his wife of 42 years never expected to be moving. But that’s what happened in the wake of shocking events the past few months. Forced out at the school he devoted half his life to when UNO surprised everyone by dropping wrestling, he’s now taken a new opportunity far from home — as head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo.

The sign outside his home, Denney said, reinforced “the finality of it.” That, along with cleaning out his office and seeing the mats he and his coaches and wrestlers sweated on and achieved greatness on, sold via e-Bay.

On his last few visits to the Sapp Field House and the wrestling room, he said he couldn’t help but feel how “empty” they felt. “There’s an energy that’s gone.”

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the golden wrestling program and its decorated coach.

But this past spring the winningest program in UNO athletic history, fresh off capturing its third straight national championship and sixth in eight years, was unceremoniously disbanded.

Denney’s teams won two-thirds of their duals, claimed seven national team championships, produced more than 100 All-Americans and dozens of individual national champions in his 32 years at the helm. At age 64, he was at the top of his game, and his program poised to continue its dominant run.

“Let me tell you, we had a chance to make some real history here,” he said. “Our team coming back, I think we had an edge on people for awhile. We had some good young talent.”

 

 

UNO celebrates its 2010-2011 national championship

 

 

A measure of how highly thought of Denney is in his profession is that InterMat named him Coach of the Year for 2011 over coaches from top Division I programs. In 2006 Amateur Wrestling News made him its Man of the Year. That same year Win Magazine tabbed him as Dan Gable Coach of the Year.

Three times he’s been voted Division II Coach of the Year. He’s an inductee in both the Division II and UNO Athletic Halls of Fame. UNO awarded him its Chancellor’s Medal for his significant contributions to the university.

“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness”

Yet, when all was said and done, Denney and his program were deemed expendable. Suddenly, quite literally without warning, wrestling was shut down, the student-athletes left adrift and Denney’s coaching job terminated. All in the name of UNO’s it’s-just-business move to Division I and the Summit League. The story made national news.

Response to the decision ranged from incredulity to disappointment to fury. To his credit, Denney never played the blame game, never went negative. But as print and television coverage documented in teary-eyed moments with his wrestlers, coaches and wife, it hurt, it hurt badly.

“I suppose you’re bound to have a little anger and bitterness, but it’s more sadness,” he said.

The closest he comes to criticism is to ask accusingly, “Was it worth it? Was the shiny penny worth it? Or are people worth it? What are you giving up for that? Your self? Your soul?”

Referring to UNO officials, Bonnie Denney said, “They’re standing behind a system that treats people very disrespectfully. You just don’t treat people like that, — you just don’t. We’ve got to put it in God’s hands and move on. We’re not going to let it pull us down. We’re going to keep our core and take it someplace else.”

Nobody saw it coming. How could they? Wrestling, with its consistent excellence and stability, was the one constant in a topsy-turvy athletic department. The decision by Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts to end wrestling, and along with it, football, was inconceivable in the context of such unprecedented success.

Unprecedented, too, was a university jettisoning the nation’s leading program and coach without a hint of scandal or mismanagement. No NCAA rules violations. No financial woes. It would have been as if University of Nebraska-Lincoln higher-ups pulled the plug on Husker football at the height of Tom Osborne’s reign of glory.

An apples to oranges comparison? Perhaps, except the only difference between NU football and UNO wrestling is dollars and viewers. The Huskers generate millions in revenue by drawing immense stadium crowds and television audiences. The Mavericks broke even at best and drew only a tiny fraction of followers. Judging the programs solely by winning and losing over the last half-century, however, and UNO comes out on top, with eight national titles to NU’s five. Where UNO won minus sanctions, NU won amid numerous player run-ins with the law.

Noted sports psychologist Jack Stark has said Denney’s high character makes him the best coach in any sport in Nebraska.

 

 

Denney and Dustin Tovar

 

 

USA Wrestling Magazine’s Craig Sesker, who covered Denney for the Omaha World-Herald, said, “He is a man of the highest integrity, values and principles. He’s an unbelievably selfless and generous man who always puts his athletes first.”

“He has a unique way of treating everybody like they’re somebody,” said Ron Higdon, who wrestled and coached for Denney. “He physically found a way to touch every guy every day at practice — touch them on the shoulder, touch them on the head. I learned so much from him. I have such incredible respect for him.

 

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 Ron Higdon after NU Board of Regents approved cutting UNO wrestling, ©photo Omaha World-Herald

 

 

“One of the reasons I never left is I felt it was a special place. I felt such a connection that I felt this was the place for me. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”

The influence Denney has on young men is reflected in the 60-plus former wrestlers of his who have entered the coaching profession.

“They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did”

Denney created a dynasty the right way, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that its seeds were planted a decade earlier, by another rock-ribbed man of character, Don Benning. In 1963 Benning became the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university when he took over the then-Omaha University Indian wrestling program. Having already made history with its coach, the program — competing then at the NAIA level — reached the peak of small college success by winning the 1970 national title.

Once a UNO wrestler or wrestling coach, always one. So it was that Benning and some of the guys who wrestled for him attended the We Are One farewell to the program last spring. The UNO grappling family turned out in force for this requiem. In a show of solidarity and homage to a shared legacy lost. wrestlers from past and present took off their letter jackets, vowing never to wear them again.

“Wrestling is kind of a brotherhood. It was my life, and so I had every reason to be there,” said Benning. “There was a lot of hurt in seeing what happened. It was devastating. We felt their pain.”

Benning said the event also gave him and his old wrestlers the opportunity to pay homage to what Denney and his wrestlers accomplished.

“It was a chance for us to say how much we appreciated them and to take our hats off to them. They not only kept going what we started, they did it even better than we did.”

Benning left after the 1971 season and the program, while still highly competitive, slipped into mediocrity until Denney arrived in 1979.

 

 

Don Benning

 

 

For Denney, Benning set a benchmark he strove to reach.

“When we came one of the first things I said was we want to reestablish the tradition that Don Benning started.”

A farm-raised, Antelope County, Neb. native, Denney was a multi-sport star athlete in high school and at Dakota Wesleyan college. He played semi-pro football with the Omaha Mustangs. He became a black belt in judo and jujitsu, incorporating martial arts rituals and mantras into his coaching. For example, he called the UNO wrestling room the “dojo.” He has the calm, cool, command of the sensei master.

He taught and coached at Omaha South and Omaha Bryan before joining the staff at UNO, where in addition to coaching he taught.

With his John Wayne-esque swagger, wide open smile, genial temperament, yet steely resolve, Denney was the face of an often faceless UNO athletic department. In a revolving door of coaches and ADs, Duke, as friends call him, was always there, plodding away, the loyal subject faithfully attending to his duties. You could always count on him. He modeled his strong Christian beliefs.

Under Denney UNO perennially contended for the national title and became THE elite program at the Division II level. He led UNO in organizing and hosting the nation’s largest single-day college wrestling tournament, the Kaufman-Brand Open, and a handful of national championship tournaments.

He was particularly fond of the Kaufman-Brand.

“I loved that tournament. It was a happening. Wrestlers came from all over for that. It was a who’s-who of wrestling. I mean, you saw world, Olympic and national champions. Multiple mats. Fourteen hundred matches.”

“We were a positive force…”

With everything that’s happened, he hasn’t had much time to look back at his UNO career. Ask him what he’s proudest of and he doesn’t immediately talk about all the winning. Instead, it’s the people he impacted and the difference his teams made. His guys visiting hospitals or serving meals at homeless shelters. The youth tournament UNO held. The high school wrestling league it organized. The clinics he and his coaches gave.

“We were a positive force in the wrestling community. I think its going to hurt wrestling in the area. We provided opportunities.”

Then there was the annual retreat-boot camp where his wrestlers bonded. The extra mile he and his coaches and athletes went to help on campus or in the community. The Academic All-Americans UNO produced. All the coaches the program produced.

Then, Denney gets around to the winning or more specifically to winning year in and year out.

“I think one of the most difficult things to do in anything is be consistent. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. I think that consistency, year in and out, in everything you do is the biggest test.”

In its last season UNO wrestling went wire to wire No. 1. “Staying up there is the toughest thing,” said Denney.

“People don’t realize how difficult what they did really is,” said Benning, who knows a thing or two about winning.

Benning thinks it’s unfortunate that local media coverage of UNO wrestling declined at the very time the program enjoyed its greatest success. “They kind of got cheated in regards to their value and what they accomplished.”

“Whether it was on our terms or not, we went out on top. No one can ever take away what we accomplished,” said Ron Higdon.

Highs and lows come with the territory in athletics. Win or lose, Mike and Bonnie Denney were surrogate parents to their “boys,” cultivating family bonds that went beyond the usual coach-player relationship. Parents to three children of their own, the couple form an unbreakable team.

“When you do anything that takes this amount of time, you gotta have a partnership,” said Denney, who said he often asks Bonnie to accompany him on recruiting trips and invites her to get to know student-athletes.. “She’s a recruiting asset. She’s kind of a second mother to them. They get to know her.”

Bonnie said she learned long ago that “if I wasn’t going to join him in this I was going to lose him –  wouldn’t have a husband.” Therefore, she said, “it’s a shared mission.”

There’s been hard times. She survived a multiple sclerosis scare. They endured the deaths of UNO wrestlers Ryan Kaufman, R.J. Nebe and Jesse Greise.

Next to all that, losing a program pales in comparison.

“We kept this in perspective because we’ve been there when the parents of former wrestlers had to pull life support,” said Denney. “To be in a hospital room and to see a former wrestler take his last breath, to be there with the parents and the wives, this (wrestling getting cut) is not in that same category.”

That didn’t make it hurt any less. The coach and his boys didn’t go down without a fight, either. Denney, his assistants, his wrestlers and his boosters held rallies and lobbied university officials to reconsider, but they could not sway NU regents to reverse their decision.

 

 

Denney keeping things positive

 

 

What cut deepest for Denney is that no one in a position of power took wrestling’s side. No decision-maker spoke up for the program.

“There wasn’t anybody that thought we were valuable enough to fight for us,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that cared. At Maryville, they care, they value us.”

Two men Denney counted as friends, Christensen and Don Leahy, who hired Denney at UNO and whom Denney regarded as a father figure, were not in his corner when he needed them. It stings, but Denney’s refrained from name-calling or recrimination.

Following the lead of their coach, UNO wrestlers took the high road, too.

“One of the things that made us really proud of our group is how they handled all this,” he said. “They really, I thought, did a nice job of showing dignity and class and poise.”

Just like he taught them.

“We always talk about teaching and building …that we’re teachers and builders. Immediately when this went down, I thought, How can we use this? Well, it starts with the family-the team pulling together, supporting each other, picking each other up, and then modeling and displaying character under adversity. It’s easy to do it when everything’s going good. But things are going to happen in life.

“Obviously, we got hit. we got blindsided. We had no idea this was going to happen, no indication. It was a cheap shot.”

On the mat or in life, he demanded his guys show grit when tested.

“I created a family with high expectations for how you acted. You demonstrated character under adversity. You had to be tough. You had to demonstrate moxie. You had to bounce back. If you got knocked down, you had to get up.”

“I kept saying… to expect a miracle”

His boys didn’t let him down. But as hard as they were hit with their team and dream taken away, they were crushed. Naturally, in the aftermath, they looked to their coach for answers. Denney said, “They gave me this look like, ‘Fix this coach.’” Starting the very night the team got the heartbreaking news, right on through the regents sealing its fate, Denney kept his troops together.

“We tried to meet every day and just talk about things,” he said. “It was a significant kind of thing, really.”

In the process, he tried to give his guys some hope.

“I kept saying — and I don’t have any idea why, except I was just trying to keep them up I think — to expect a miracle. First of all, I said, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this for all these years.”

Denney admittedly walked a fine line between keeping things positive and offering false hope, but he wasn’t going to rest without exhausting every opportunity to maintain his program — whether it be at UNO or somewhere else.

“Our whole thing when this first happened, our prayer was, let there be some way that we could somehow continue this thing,” he said. “So, I kept telling them, ‘Expect a miracle.’ They’d kind of look at me like, What are you saying that for? I was kind of having fun with it, keeping things light. You know, we’ve hit some adversity, but we can still laugh, we can enjoy each other, we’re going to make the best out of this deal.”

But it wasn’t only about staying upbeat. Even before the regents made it official and unanimously endorsed UNO’s decision to cut wrestling and football, Denney sent out feelers to other universities to try and find a new home for his program.

Creighton University, it turned out, might have been able to add the program if the timing had been different, but as it was CU was in a budget cutting mode. There were also tentative discussions with Bellevue University and Benedictine (Kansas) College.

Denney and wife Bonnie consoling each other after the Regents vote; photo from Lincoln Journal-Star

Just when it appeared all might be lost, Maryville University approached Denney. After much soul-searching and many exploratory visits, now he, Bonnie, a couple assistant coaches and 10 former Maverick student-athletes, plus some new recruits, are taking what’s left of the UNO wrestling brand to inaugurate that small private school’s first entree into varsity wrestling. It’s the only time in NCAA history one university has essentially adopted another university’s athletic program.

“This is a miraculous kind of story really,” said Denney. “That’s why we have to go there. Because of all the things that have happened to set this up, it’s almost like we’re divinely guided to go there. So, I guess, be careful what you ask for.”

 

 

 

 

Thus, at a time when most couples their age prepare for retirement, the Denneys find themselves starting all over again, at a new school, in an unfamiliar city. Except, they have been made to feel so welcome and wanted there that they expect the transition to calling Maryville and St. Louis home will be easier than they ever imagined.

Recently, the Denneys shared how the Maryville option came into focus and what it’s like to be moving onto this new, unexpected chapter in their lives.

It all began with a phone call, which is ironic because once the news broke about UNO wrestling being cut, Denney’s office phone was so deluged with calls neither he nor the message system could keep up. He hardly ever caught a call.

One day, he’d just finished meeting with his team, he said, “when I walked into my office and the phone was ringing and I thought, Well, at least i can get this one. So I picked it up and it was someone saying, ‘I”m Jeff Miller from Maryville University in St. Louis. I’m representing Maryville president Mark Lombardi.’” Miller told Denney that as part of Maryville moving from Division III to Division II it sought to add wrestling and saw UNO’s orphaned program as a ready-made fit.

Denney was skeptical at first. “I said, ‘If this is one of my friends, this is a cruel joke.’ About four times during the conversation, I said, ‘Who really is this?’”

The more Miller, a Maryville vice president, laid out his university’s interest, the more convinced Denney became this was no joke. Miller came right out and said Maryville wanted not only Denney but as many of his coaches and student-athletes as he could bring to come there and start a wrestling program.

“I was like, ‘Really?’”

The clincher, said Denney, was when Miller told him he was flying “up there” — to Omaha — to talk things over.

“So he flew up and we spent time talking at Anthony’s (the venerable southwest Omaha steakhouse that’s long been a UNO hangout). He said this opportunity has presented itself.”

“From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us”

The more Miller talked, the more Denney was convinced this was a one in a million chance come true to salvage a bad situation with something clear out of the blue.

It soon became clear to Denney Maryville had done its due diligence.

“This Jeff Miller studied our program,” he said. “They actually looked at some other things but they just didn’t feel like they fit. They felt like this fit for them somehow. From the beginning, they came after us, they recruited us.”

After the rejection at UNO, it felt nice to be appreciated again.

“Since the new AD (Alberts) came, these last couple years we really felt we weren’t being embraced, let’s just put it that way. We just kind of pulled back into our own area,” said Denney. “But they (Maryville) did embrace us. It was kind of a great feeling. It felt really good, actually.”

In terms of facilities, Maryville can’t match UNO, at least right now. When the deal was struck with Denney, Maryville didn’t even have a wrestling room. A meeting room is being converted into one. By contrast, UNO had a state-of-the-art wrestling room built to Denney’s specifications and that he was justifiably proud of.

Bonnie said what Maryville lacks in tangibles it makes up for with intangibles.

“It is a change to go from UNO to that environment, but there’s something about that spirit and environment that makes you feel valued.”

Besides, it’s not so different from when Mike started at UNO. The facilities were so bad his first several years there he purposely avoided showing them to recruits. Over time, things improved. Bonnie sees the same thing happening at Maryville.

“I think it will be kind of fun to see it grow and change,” she said.

For a UNO wrestler or recruit to buy in to a start-up program in a new locale, “it took some imagination,” said Mike, to visualize what things will look like in the future.

Committing to wrestling is a big thing for Maryville. First, the school already had a full complement of sports. Next, as a D-III school it offered no athletic scholarships and its coaches were part time. Now, in D-II, it’s granting partial scholarships to student-athletes and its coaches are closer to full-time.

“They’re making a real step and you can feel the energy on campus,” said Denney, who’s been impressed on multiple visits there by the buildings going up and the programs being added. “They’ve got a little money and they’re looking for every way they can to build their university. It adds to their campus, it adds exposure for their university.”

Besides, he said, an athletic program can be a revenue producer simply via the out-of-state tuition it generates.

“It actually can be a profitable thing for them. They’re figuring out this is a good business venture. If you look at it business-wise, if you bring in 30 scholarship student-athletes, with an annual out of state tuition of $31,000 each…”

 

 

Denney’s miracle was delivered in a most unexpected way

 

 

Still, Denney said he wasn’t prepared to accept Maryville’s offer unless Bonnie wholeheartedly agreed to the move.

“First of all, I had to recruit her,” he said. “She’s the one who’s going to give up everything. She’s gotta leave everything — all of her friends, our church, our house of 35 years.”

Bonnie knew Mike wanted it, but everything was happening so fast she wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do.

“I didn’t want him to rush into anything,” she said. “We were still in shock, and they (Maryville) were coming on so strong. It’s like it had a life of its own. He took me down there and you get to this campus and the people down there are warm and nice, and I thought, You know, this is possible — I know it’s going to be difficult, but I feel it.”

And so she consented to the move with a philosophical attitude: “You have to say farewell to have that new beginning.”

“‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’”

Denney liked the idea of playing the Pied Piper, but first he needed assurance enough of his guys were willing to follow him there to make it worthwhile.

“I kept telling Jeff (Miller), ‘We’re willing to go, we’re willing to do this thing, we feel like we’re called to do that. But I’m not going to do it if it’s just my wife and I. I’m not doing it just for us.’ I mean, really, we could just ride off into the sunset. We could make it. There’s a lot of things I could do, and we got offered some things to do, but none that I felt called to do.

“It’s not like I was looking to build up my resume.”

His passion to teach and build good people still burns bright, however.

“He’s no where ready to retire,” said Bonnie, adding he outworks assistants half or a third his age.

The Pied Piper next had to re-recruit his own wrestlers and their parents, or as many as he could, to make this leap of faith with him.

“We kind of sold them on it,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘We want to start another fire, but we need some logs.’ I had to sense our guys wanted to help start the fire. I don’t know if you call it an obligation, but I want us to do well. They’ve been so good to us. I want us to make an impact on campus.

“We always said, ‘Let’s be a positive force.’ We’re going to do the same thing down there.”

 

 

After 32 years at UNO, Denney now heads the Maryville Saints wrestling program

 

 

Denney led several UNO contingents to visit Maryville, whose officials always took time to express how much they wanted them there.

Many factors went into determining whether it made sense or not for a UNO student-athlete to take the plunge. For example, geography. St. Louis would put some athletes an even longer distance from home and family. Too far in some cases. Then the academics had to mesh. One of UNO’s best returning wrestlers, Esai Dominguez, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility in order to remain at UNO and finish his engineering degree. And then there was cost. Maryville tuition is higher than UNO’s.

Transplanting the program is historic and given how stringent NCAA rules are, Denney said, “we’re starting to figure out why” it hadn’t been done before. UNO officials worked closely with their Maryville counterparts to make it work.

“Now get this, Maryville sent a whole team of admissions/financial aid people to Omaha,” said Denney. “We met at Anthony’s, and all day long our guys came in with their transcripts, and we tried to get all this to match up.”

“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization”

While Denney tried retaining as much of his wrestling family as possible, “the vultures” — recruiters from other programs — circled about, pouncing on UNO strays who were uncommitted or undecided. He finally had to release his wrestlers to talk to other schools and to make visits. Some of his best returnees left for other programs.

Most of his assistant coaches couldn’t justify the move either between career and family considerations.

In the end, Denney’s brought fewer with him than he would have liked, having to say goodbye to about two-thirds of his former team.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s hard, but you’ve just got to let them go,” said Denney. “Here’s what we feel good about though — we offered everyone of them an opportunity to go.”

Still, he’s brought with him a a stable of wrestlers and coaches who have competed at and won at the highest levels. It’s a transformational infusion of talent, attitude, standard and expectation at a school whose teams have mostly endured losing seasons.

Denney expects to win right away but is enough of a realist to say, “We’re back into a building process here.” It took years to build UNO into D-II’s preeminent program and it won’t be done overnight at Maryville.

He leaves no doubt though he’s committed to making the Maryville Saints wrestling program an elite one. And he seems to be giving himself eight years to do it, saying he’s always envisioned coaching and teaching 100 semesters or 50 years (high school and college combined), a figure he would reach at age 72. Beyond that, nothing’s for sure.

“As long as we can handle it,” said Bonnie. “As long as we don’t fall over at some tournament.”

Ron Higdon can hardly believe what his close friend and old boss is doing. “I have a whole new respect for what he’s taking on and the way he’s handled it and the energy he’s putting into it, because it’s unbelievable.”

Make no mistake about it, Denney’s heart still aches over how UNO did him and his program in, but he has moved on. He does, however, offer a cautionary note for those who so cavalierly discarded the legacy of UNO wrestling.

“If you lose your history and tradition, I think you lose something that’s so vital to your organization,” he said. “You must keep it, you must do everything you can to keep it. You’re going to see the long term effects of this later on. That culture won’t last.

“What happens when you lose your tradition, your history, and you forget about it — then you don’t recognize it. You lose something, and sometimes you’ll never get it back.”

UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change

March 17, 2011 9 comments

 

 

NEWEST DEVELOPMENT: Well, it’s official, the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program has found a new home at Maryville University.

In what has to be one of the most unusual turn of events in collegiate athletic history, the recently homeless UNO wrestling program is going to be adopted essentially by Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. Earlier speculative reports about the move have now been confirmed. Thus, the small Missouri school, as part of a move from Division III to Division II, has decided to take the orphaned program, which was recently eliminated by UNO officials, more or less intact, including up to 90 percent of its student-athletes and its core coaching staff.  There may be a precedent for this somewhere, but I have to think it’s extremely rare and perhaps nothing quite like this has happened before. I think what makes this particularly unusual is the fact that we’re dealing with an elite program here. Head Coach Mike Denney is famous for the deep family bonds of his program but this is taking things to a whole different level when he and his top assistants and the vast majority of his student-athletes are going to move en masse to a different school in a different state to launch a wrestling program from scratch.  Except, of course, it won’t be anything like the typical start-up program because Denney and his staff and team are the best at what they do in D-II. Their track record of multiple coach of the year awards, national championships, All-America performances, et cetera, is unmatched.  That doesn’t mean the gold mine of talent and experience Maryville is inheriting will simply dominate the way UNO did, because these will be different surroundings and circumstances to be sure.  But it’s the latest compelling turn in an already fascinating story that keeps taking on new dimensions.

THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program.  As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs.  It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the incredibly strong and tight family bond built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country.  Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents?  My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved.  Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public. It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty.  That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.

Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract.  By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory.  It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.

NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process.  As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t.  Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison.  Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football.  I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years.  Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard .  UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city.  But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level.  UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages.  UNO wrestling is a whole different story.  It has been an elite program for more than 40 years.  It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years.  No, it’snot  a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period.  The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it:  UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents.  It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.

 

 

Former UNO wrestling coachMike Denney

 

 

Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and  in the city’s and in the nation’s history.  The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves.  Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out.  So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year.   It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.

UPDATE:  Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements.  And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling.  Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates.  Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red.  But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities.  But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved?   I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program.  For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my story below about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change. You can also find on this blog my stories about Don Benning, the coach who began UNO’s wrestling dynasty, and about Trev Alberts, who may go down as the man who took down that same dynasty.

It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded.  Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs.  Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it?  UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders.  The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over  Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.

________________________________________________________________________________

In my view, one of the most underreported stories coming out of Omaha the last 50 years was what Don Benning achieved as a young black man at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  At a time and in a place when blacks were denied opportunity, he was given a chance as an educator and a coach and he made the most of the situation.  The following story, a version of which appeared in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com), charted his accomplishments on the 40th anniversary of making some history that has not gotten the attention it deserves.

One of the pleasures in doing this story was getting to know Don Benning, a man of high character who took me into his confidence.  I shall always be grateful.

 

Don Benning
UNO Wrestling Built on a Tide of Social Change
©by Leo Adam Biga

Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the March 12-13 Division II national wrestling championships get underway at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, it’s good to remember wrestling, not hockey, is the school’s true marquee sport

Host UNO has been a dominant fixture on the D-II wrestling scene for decades. Its No. 1-ranked team is the defending national champs and is expected to finish on top again under Mike Denney, the coach for five of UNO’s six national wrestling titles. The first came 40 years ago amid currents of change.

Every dynasty has a beginning and a narrative. UNO’s is rooted in historic firsts that intersect racial-social-political happenings. The events helped give a school with little going for it much-needed cachet and established a tradition of excellence unbroken now since the mid-1960s.

It all began with then-Omaha University president Milo Bail hiring the school’s first African-American associate professor, Don Benning. The UNO grad had competed in football and wrestling for the OU Indians and was an assistant football coach there when Bail selected him to lead the fledgling wrestling program in 1963. The hire made Benning the first black head coach of a varsity sport (in the modern era) at a predominantly white college or university in America. It was a bold move for a nondescript, white-bread, then-municipal university in a racially divided city not known for progressive stances. It was especially audacious given that Benning was but 26 and had never held a head coaching position before.

Ebony Magazine celebrated the achievement in a March 1964 spread headlined, “Coach Cracks Color Barrier.” Benning had been on the job only a year. By 1970 he led UNO to its first wrestling national title. He developed a powerful program in part by recruiting top black wrestlers. None ever had a black coach before.

Omaha photographer Rudy Smith was a black activist at UNO then. He said what Benning and his wrestlers did “was an extension of the civil rights activity of the ’60s. Don’s team addressed inequality, racism, injustice on the college campus. He recruited people accustomed to challenges and obstacles. They were fearless. Their success was a source of pride because it proved blacks could achieve. It opened the door for other advancements at UNO by blacks. It was a monumental step and milestone in the history of UNO.”

Indeed, a few years after Benning’s arrival, UNO became the site of more black inroads. The first of these sawMarlin Briscoe star at quarterback there, which overturned the myth blacks could not master the cerebral position. Briscoe went on to be the first black starting QB in the NFL. Benning said he played a hand in persuading UNO football coach Al Caniglia to start Briscoe. Benning publicly supported efforts to create a black studies program at UNO at a time when black history and culture were marginalized. The campaign succeeded. UNO established one of the nation’s first departments of Black Studies. It continues today.

Once given his opportunity, Benning capitalized on it. From 1966 to 1971 his racially and ethnically diverse teams went 65-6-4 in duals, developing a reputation for taking on all comers and holding their own. Five of his wrestlers won a combined eight individual national championships. A dozen earned All-America status.

That championship season one of Benning’s two graduate assistant coaches was fellow African-American Curlee Alexander. The Omaha native was a four-time All-American and one-time national champ under Benning. He went on to be one of the winningest wrestling coaches in Nebraska prep history at Tech and North.

Benning’s best wrestlers were working-class kids like he and Alexander had been:

Wendell Hakanson, Omaha Home for Boys graduateRoy and

Mel Washington, black brothers from New York by way of cracker GeorgiaBruce “Mouse” Strauss, a “character” and mensch from back East

Paul and Tony Martinez, Latino south Omaha brothers who saw combat in Vietnam

Louie Rotella Jr., son of a prep wrestling legend and popular Italian bakery family

Gary Kipfmiller, a gentle giant who died young

Bernie Hospokda, Dennis Cozad, Rich Emsick, products of south Omaha’s Eastern European enclaves.

Jordan Smith and Landy Waller, prized black recruits from Iowa

 

 

1970 Wrestling National Champions
Half the starters were recent high school grads and half nontraditional students in their 20s; some, married with kids. Everyone worked a job.

 

 

The team’s multicultural makeup was “pretty unique” then, said Benning. In most cases he said his wrestlers had “never had any meaningful relationships” with people of other races before and yet “they bonded tight as family.” He feels the way his diverse team came together in a time of racial tension deserves analysis. “It’s tough enough to develop to such a high skill level that you win a national championship with no other factors in the equation. But if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team. The kids came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a social laboratory for life.”

“We were a mixed bag, and from the outside you would think we would have a lot of issues because of cultural differences, but we really didn’t,” said Hospodka, a Czech- American who never knew a black until UNO.  “We were a real, real tight group. We had a lot of fun, we played hard, we teased each other. Probably some of it today would be considered inappropriate. But we were so close that we treated each other like brothers. We pushed buttons nobody else better push.”

“We didn’t have no problems. It was a big family,” said Mel Washington, who with his late brother Roy, a black Muslim who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, became the most decorated wrestlers in UNO history up to then. “You looked around the wrestling room and you had your Italian, your whites, your blacks, Chicanos, Jew, we all got together. If everybody would have looked at our wrestling team and seen this one big family the world would have been a better place.”

If there was one thing beyond wrestling they shared in common, said Hospodka, it was coming from hardscrabble backgrounds.

“Some of the kids came from situations where you had to be pretty tough to survive,” said Benning, who came up that way himself in a North O neighborhood where his was the only black family.

The Washington brothers were among 11 siblings in a sharecropping tribe that moved to Rochester, N.Y. The pair toughened themselves working the fields, doing odd-jobs and “street wrestling.”

Dhafir was the team’s acknowledged leader. Mel also a standout football lineman, wasn’t far behind. Benning said Dhafir’s teammates would “follow him to the end of the Earth.” “If he said we’re all running a mile, we all ran a mile,” said Hospodka.

Having a strong black man as coach meant the world to Mel and Dhafir. “Something I always wanted to do was wrestle for a black coach. It was about time for me to wrestle for my own race,” said Mel. The brothers had seen the Ebony profile on Benning, whom they regarded as “a living legend” before they ever got to UNO. Hospodka said Benning’s race was never an issue with him or other whites on the team.

 

 

Dhafir Muhammad Dhafir Muhammad (Roy Washington)

 

 

Mel and Dhafir set the unrelenting pace in the tiny, cramped wrestling room that Benning sealed to create sauna-like conditions. Practicing in rubber suits disallowed today Hospodka said a thermostat once recorded the temperature inside at 110 degrees and climbing. Guys struggled for air. The intense workouts tested physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Nobody gave an inch. Tempers flared.

Gary Kipfmiller staked out a corner no one dared invade. Except for Benning, then a rock solid 205 pounds, who made the passive Kipfmiller, tipping the scales at 350-plus, a special project.  “I rode him unmercifully,” said Benning. “He’d whine like a baby and I’d go, ‘Then do something about i!.” Benning said he sometimes feared that in a fit of anger Kipfmiller would drop all his weight on him and crush him.

Washington and Hospodka went at it with ferocity. Any bad blood was left in the room.

“As we were a team on the mat, off the mat we watched out for each other. Even though we were at each other’s throats on the wrestling mat, whatever happened on the outside, we were there. If somebody needed something, we were there,” said Paul Martinez, who grew up with his brother Tony, the team’s student trainer-manager, in the South O projects. The competition and camaraderie helped heal psychological wounds Paul carried from Vietnam, where he was an Army infantry platoon leader.

An emotional Martinez told Benning at a mini-reunion in January, “You were like a platoon leader for us — you guided us and protected us. Coming from a broken family, I not only looked at you as a coach but as a father.” Benning’s eyes moistened.

Joining them there were other integral members of UNO’s 1970 NAIA championship team, including Washington and Hospodka. The squad capped a perfect 14-0 dual season by winning the tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament in Gunnison, Colo. and the nationals in Superior, Wis. It was the first national championship won by a scholarship team at the school and the first in any major sport by a Nebraska college or university.

Another milestone was that Benning became the first black coach to win an integrated national championship in wrestling and one of the first to do so in any sport at any level. He earned NAIA national coach of the year honors in 1969.

University of Washington scholar John C. Walter devotes a chapter to Benning’s historymaker legacy in a soon-to-be-published book, Better Than the Best. Walter said Benning’s “career and situation was a unique one” The mere fact Benning got the opportunity he did, said Walter, “was extraordinary,” not to mention that the mostly white student-athletes he taught and coached accepted him without incident. Somewhere else, he said, things might have been different.

“He was working in a state not known for civil rights, that’s for sure,” said Walter. “But Don was fortunate he was at a place that had a president who acted as a catalyst. It was a most unusual confluence. I think the reason why it happened is the president realized here’s a man with great abilities regardless of the color of his skin, and for me that is profound. UNO was willing to recognize and assist a young black man trying hard to distinguish himself and make a name for his university. That’s very important.”

Walter said it was the coach’s discipline and determination to achieve against all odds that prepared him to succeed.

Benning’s legacy can only be fully appreciated in the context of the time and place in which he and his student-athletes competed. For example, he was set to leave his hometown after being denied a teaching post with the Omaha Public Schools, part of endemic exclusionary practices here that restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs and living in many neighborhoods. He only stayed when Bail chose him to break the color line, though they never talked about it in those terms.

“It always puzzled me why he did that knowing the climate at the university and in K-12 education and in the community pointed in a different direction. Segregation was a way of life here in Omaha. It took a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude of doing what’s right, of being ready to step out on that limb when no other schools or institutions would touch African-Americans,” said Benning. He can only surmise Bail “thought that was the right thing to do and that I was the right person to do it.”

In assuming the burden of being the first, Benning took the flak that came with it.

“I flat out couldn’t fail because I would be failing my people. African-American history would show that had I failed it would have set things back. I was very aware of Jackie Robinson and what he endured. That was in my mind a lot. He had to take a lot and not say anything about it. It was no different for me.  I had tremendous pressure on me because of being African-American. A lot of things I held to myself.”

Washington said though Benning hid what he had to contend with, some of it was blatant, such as snubs or slights on and off the mat. His white wrestlers recall many instances on the road when they or the team’s white trainer or equipment manager would be addressed as “coach” or be given the bill at a restaurant when it should have been obvious the well-dressed, no-nonsense Benning was in charge.

Hospodka said at restaurants “they just assumed the black guy couldn’t pay. They hesitated to serve us or they ignored us or they hoped we would go away.”

 

 

Mel Washington Mel Washington

 

 

Washington could relate, saying, “I had a feeling what he was going through — the prejudice. They looked down on him. That’s why I put out even more for him because I wanted to see him on top. A lot of people would have said the heck with this, but he’s a man who stood there and took the heat and took it in stride.”

“He did it in a quiet way. He always thought his character and actions would speak for him. He went about his business in a dignified way,” said Hospodka.

UNO wrestlers didn’t escape ugliness. At the 1971 nationals in Boone, N.C., Washington was the object of a hate crime — an effigy hung in the stands. Its intended effect backfired. Said Washington, “That didn’t bother me. You know why? I was used to it. That just made me want to go out there more and really show ‘em up.” He did, too.

“We were booed a lot when we were on the road,” Hospodka said. “Don always said that was the highest form of flattery. We thrived on it, it didn’t bother us, we never took it personal, we just went out and did our thing. You might say it (the booing) was because we were beating the snot out of them. I couldn’t help think having a black coach and four or five black wrestlers had something to do with it.”

Hospodka said wherever UNO went the team was a walking social statement.  “When you went into a lot of small towns in the ’60s with four or five black wrestlers and a black coach you stuck out. It’s like, Why are these people together?” “There were some places that were awfully uncomfortable, like in the Carolinas,” said Benning. “You know there were places where they’d never seen an African-American.”

At least not a black authority figure with a group of white men answering to him.

The worst scene came at the Naval Academy, where the cold reception UNO got while holed up three days there was nothing compared to the boos, hisses, catcalls and pennies hurled at them during the dual. In a wild display of unsportsmanlike conduct Benning said thousands of Midshipmen left the stands to surround the mat for the crucial final match, which Kipfmiller won by decision to give UNO a tie.

The white wrestling infrastructure also went out of its way to make Benning and his team unwelcome.

“I think there were times when they seeded other wrestlers ahead of our wrestlers, one, because we were good and, two, because they didn’t look at it strictly from a wrestling standpoint, I think there was a little of the good old boy network there to try and make our road as tough as possible,” said Hospodka. “I think race played into that. It was a lot of subtle things. Maybe it wasn’t so subtle. Don probably saw it more because of the bureaucracy he had to deal with.”

“Some individuals weren’t too happy with me being an African-American,” said Benning. “I served on a selection committee that looked at different places to host the national tournament,. UNO hosted it in ’69, which was really very unusual, it broke a barrier, they’d never had a national championship where the host school had an African-American coach. That was pretty strange for them.”

He said the committee chairman exhibited outright disdain for him. Benning believes the ’71 championship site was awarded to Boone rather than Omaha, where the nationals were a big success, as a way to put him in his place. “The committee came up with Appalachian State, which just started wrestling. I swear to this day the only reason that happened was because of me and my team,” he said.

He and his wrestlers believe officials had it in for them. “There was one national tournament where there’s no question we just flat out got cheated,” said Benning. “It was criminal. I’m talking about the difference between winning the whole thing and second.” Refs’ judgements at the ’69 tourney in Omaha cost UNO vital points. “It was really hard to take,” said Benning. UNO had three individual champs to zero for Adams State, but came up short, 98-84. One or two disputed calls swung the balance.

 

 

 

 

Despite all the obstacles, Benning and his “kids” succeeded in putting UNO on the map. The small, white institution best known for its Bootstrapper program went from obscurity to prominence by making athletics the vehicle for social action. In a decade defined by what Benning termed “a social revolution,” the placid campus was the last place to expect a historic color line being broken.

The UNO program came of age with its dynamic black coach and mixed team when African-American unrest flared into riots across the country, including Omaha. A north side riot occurred that championship season. UNO’s black wrestlers, who could not find accommodations near the UNO campus, lived in the epicenter of the storm. Black Panthers were neighbors. Mel Washington, his brother Dhafir and other teammates watched North 24th St. burn. Though sympathetic to the outrage, they navigated a delicate line to steer clear of trouble but still prove their blackness.

A uniformed police cadet then, Washington said he was threatened once by the Panthers, who called him “a pig” and set off a cherry bomb outside the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.

“I found those guys and said, ‘Anybody ever do that to my family again, and you or I won’t be living,’ and from then on I didn’t have no more problems. See, not only was I getting it from whites, but from blacks, too.”

Benning, too, found himself walking a tightrope of “too black or not black enough.”   After black U.S. Olympians raised gloved fists in protest of the national anthem, UNO’s black wrestlers wanted to follow suit. Benning considered it, but balked. In ’69 Roy Washington converted to Islam. He told Benning his allegiance to Black Muslim leader Honorable Elijah Muhammad superseded any team allegiance. Benning released him from the squad. Roy’s brother Mel earlier rejected the separatist dogma the Black Muslims preached. Their differences caused no riff.

Dhafir (Roy) rejoined the team in December after agreeing to abide by the rules. He won the 150-pound title en route to UNO capturing the team title over Adams, 86-58. Hospodka said Dharfir still expressed his beliefs, but with “no animosity, just pride that black-is-beautiful. Dharfir’s finals opponent, James Tannehill, was a black man married to a white woman. Hospodka said it was all the reason Dharfir needed to tell Tannehill, “God told me to punish you.” He delivered good on his vow.

It was also an era when UNO carried the “West Dodge High” label. Its academic and athletic facilities left much to be desired. “The university didn’t have that many things to feel proud of,” said Benning. Wrestling’s success lifted a campus suffering an inferiority complex to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wrestling was one area where UNO could best NU, whose NCAA wrestling program paled by comparison.

“Coach Benning and his wrestling teams elevated UNO right to the top, shoulder-to-shoulder with its big brother’s football team down the road,” said UNO grad Mary Jochim, part of a wrestling spirit club in 69-’70. “They gave everyone at the school a big boost of pride. The rafters would shake at those matches.”

“You’d have to say it was the coming-together of several factors that brought about a genuine excitement about wrestling at UNO in the late 1960s,” said former UNO Sports Information Director Gary Anderson. He was sports editor of the school paper, The Gateway, that championship season. “There were some outstanding athletes who were enthusiastic and colorful to watch, a very good coach, and UNO won a lot of matches. UNO had the market cornered. Creighton had no team and Nebraska’s team wasn’t as dominant as UNO. It created a perfect storm.”

Benning said, “It was more important we had the best wrestling team in the state than winning the national championship. Everybody took pride in being No. 1.” Anderson said small schools like UNO “could compete more evenly” then with big schools in non-revenue producing sports like wrestling, which weren’t fully funded. He said as UNO “wrestled and defeated ‘name’ schools it added luster to the team’s mystique.

NU was among the NCAA schools UNO beat during Benning’s tenure, along with Wyoming, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and Cornell. UNO tied a strong Navy team at the Naval Academy in what Hospodka called “the most hostile environment I ever wrestled in.” UNO crowned the most champions at the Iowa Invitational, where if team points had been kept UNO would have outdistanced the big school field.

 

 

Bernie Hospodka

 

 

“We didn’t care who you were — if you were Division I or NAIA or NCAA, it just didn’t matter to us,” said Hospodka, who pinned his way to the 190-pound title in 1970. The confidence to go head-to-head with anybody was something Benning looked for in his wrestlers and constantly reinforced.

Said Hospodka,”Don always felt like we could compete against anybody. He knew he had talent in the room. He didn’t think we had to take a back seat to anybody when it came to our abilities. He had a confidence about him that was contagious.”

The sport’s bible, Amateur Wrestling News, proclaimed UNO one of the best teams in the nation, regardless of division. UNO’s five-years of dominance, resulting in one national championship, two runner-up finishes, a third-place finish and an eighth place showing, regularly made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald sports section.

The grapplers also wrestled with an aggression and a flair that made for crowd-pleasing action. Benning said his guys were “exceptional on their feet and exceptional pinners.” It wasn’t unusual for UNO to record four or five falls per dual. Washington said it was UNO’s version of “showtime.” He and his teammates competed against each other for the most stylish or quickest pin.

Hospodka said “the bitter disappointment” of the team title being snatched away in ’69 fueled UNO’s championship run the next season, when UNO won its 14 duals by an average score of 32-6. It works out to taking 8 of every 10 matches. UNO posted three shut outs and allowed single digits in seven other duals. No one scored more than 14 points on them all year. The team won every tournament it competed in.

 

 

 

 

Everything fell into place. “Nobody at our level came even close to competing with us,” said Hospodka. “The only close match we had was Athletes in Action, and those were all ex-Big 8 wrestlers training for the World Games or the Olympics. They were loaded and we still managed to pull out a victory (19-14).” At nationals, he said, “we never had a doubt. We had a very solid lineup the whole way, everybody was at the top of their game. We wrapped up the title before the finals even started.” Afterwards, Benning told the Gateway, “It was the greatest team effort I have ever been acquainted with and certainly the greatest I’ve ever seen.”

Muhammad won his third individual national title and Hospodka his only one. Five Mavs earned All-America status.

The foundation for it all, Hospodka said, was laid in a wrestling room a fraction the size of today’s UNO practice facility. “I’ve been in bigger living rooms,” he said. But it was the work the team put in there that made the difference. “It was a tough room, and if you could handle the room then matches were a breeze. The easy part of your week was when you got to wrestle somebody else. There were very few people I wrestled that I felt would survive our wrestling room.”

“It was great competition,” said Jordan Smith. “One thing I learned after my first practice was that I was no longer the toughest guy in the room. There were some recruits who came into that room and practiced with us for a few days and we never saw them again. I was part of something that really was special. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

This band of brothers is well represented in the Maverick Wrestling and UNO Halls of Fame. The championship team was inducted by UNO and by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Benning, Mel Washington, Dhafir Muhammad and Curlee Alexander are in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. But when UNO went from NAIA to NCAA Division II in ’73 it seemed the athletic department didn’t value the past. Tony Martinez said he rescued the team’s numerous plaques and trophies from a campus dumpster. Years later he reluctantly returned them to the school, where some can be viewed in the Sapp Fieldhouse lobby.

UNO’s current Hall of Fame coach, Mike Denney, knows the program owes much to what Benning and his wrestlers did. The two go way back.

Benning left coaching in ’71 for an educational administration career with OPS. Mike Palmisano inherited the program for eight years, but it regressed.

When Denney took over in ’79 he said “my thing was to try to find a way to get back to the level Don had them at and carry on the tradition he built.” Denney plans having Benning back as grand marshall for the March of All-Americans at this weekend’s finals. “I have great respect for him.” Benning admires what Denney’s done with the program, which has risen to even greater heights. “He’s done an outstanding job”

As for the old coach, he feels the real testament to what he achieved is how close his diverse team remains. They don’t get together like they once did. When they do, the bonds forged in sweat and blood reduce them to tears. Their ranks are thinned due to death and relocation. They’re fathers and grandfathers now, yet they still have each other’s backs. Benning’s boys still follow his lead. Hospokda said he often asks himself, “What would Don want me to do?”

At a recent reunion Washington told Benning, “I’m telling you now in front of everyone — thank you for bringing the family together.”

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Tyrice Ellebb Finds His Way

July 6, 2010 5 comments

Go! Victory

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When I met Tyrice Ellebb about a decade ago he was a young man who had turned his life around in a dramatic way through the aid of many caring individuals and institutions, including Boys Town, but he was also reeling from leaving the powerhouse University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program, where he achieved much.  He had personal matters to attend to that in his mind at least took precedence over collegiate athletics, even though he was a key cog for a team poised to win a national title.  He was also a very good football player.  He felt bad about the way things worked out but as my story makes clear the people you may have thought he most disappointed were still in his corner.  I lost contact with Tryice after the story but I understand he did get things together in his life and I know he’s excelled at indoor professional football.  This story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no more, and I offer it here as another example of the kind of sports writing I like to do.

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Finds His Way

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

As the No.1-ranked UNO wrestling team enters the stretch-run in its national championship hunt, the man who should be holding down the heavyweight spot for the Mavericks is no where to be seen. Senior Tyrice Ellebb, projected as a strong title contender, left the team this winter after the latest in a series of personal crises sent him reeling. A sweet, soft-spoken goliath who loves to dance, Ellebb was at his best when he bounced around the mat to the beat of whatever song was in his head. Sadly, he has had his last dance in a UNO uniform.

At only 23, the massive Ellebb (he stands 6’3 and his weight hovers around 300 pounds) has weathered a topsy-turvy life that’s found him both on the side of the angels and the devils. Growing up on Chicago’s south side, he ran with the notorious Gangster Disciples. Looking to escape his hometown’s mean streets, he followed four uncles to the former Boys Town, where he won election as mayor. While he flourished in the nurturing Boys Town setting and, later, in the family-like UNO wrestling program, he also made some bad choices along the way, including fathering three children — all out of wedlock. Still, he applied himself in high school and developed into a standout football player and wrestler — winning two state heavyweight championships (pinning all his opponents as a senior).

Possessing great size, agility and quickness, he was courted by Nebraska and Kansas State as a walk-on gridiron prospect. When he did not qualify academically he signed with Iowa Central Community College, where he twice garnered junior college All-America honors and earned an associate’s degree. At UNO he fought homesickness, endured the death of a dear aunt and worked with teammates and coaches in managing his complicated life. Although an acknowledged leader on and off the mat, Ellebb’s frequent missed practices and late arrivals were distractions. Allowances were made, but it never seemed enough. “We demand a lot here in our program and it was hard for him to get all that together. We tried to be flexible and to give him some leeway, but you can only do so much,” UNO Head Coach Mike Denney said.

 

 

Mike Denney

 

Despite the distractions, Ellebb proved a force to be reckoned with by winning the North Central Conference heavyweight crown and finishing a solid fourth at last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. Heading into this season he was seen as the linchpin of a dominant UNO squad tabbed as odds-on favorites for the team title. After working so hard and overcoming so much, this was going to be his year. Then, last December, it all came crashing down around him and his dreams of glory vanished. His story can be seen as both an object lesson in overcoming the odds and a cautionary tale of taking on too much-too soon.

 

Tyrice Ellebb

 

 

To understand just how far he came, one must understand that for the longest time this product of a broken home appeared headed for prison or a violent death — the fate of several friends he hung out with as a youth. Even though his mother, Sharon, was a security officer, she almost found out too late his gangbanging was threatening to destroy him the way it already had one of her brothers. There were street fights, drug dealings, gunshots, threats and reprisals. Through it all, Ellebb avoided incarceration, completed school and remained close to his family.

“I was letting the streets get to me. You always had to worry about looking behind your back. Somebody always wanted to take you out because they wanted your name. It’s just crazy. It got to the point where in my head I felt I needed to kill somebody if people bothered me,” he said.

It took the senseless death of a family friend who was like a favorite uncle for him to rethink the gangster life. “Two rival gangs were involved in something stupid and a gun went off and it instantly killed him. That kind of tore me up real bad. That made me understand I didn’t need to be involved in gangs anymore. I needed to get away before they beat me or before I wouldn’t see my next birthday.”

When his mother found out she was losing him to the streets she promptly saw him off on the next train to Boys Town, where other wayward men in the family had found refuge. “I listened to her and I’m glad I made that choice to come here. I accomplished a lot at Boys Town,” he said. There, he came under the influence of teacher-coach Don Bader, who said, “Tyrice had a lot of issues. He needed a lot of work. But he got on the right track. He’s a great kid.” These days, when Ellebb visits his old stomping grounds in Chicago, he finds little changed. “My friends are still doing the same thing. The only thing different is everyone is older. When I go back there I’m like, ‘God, I’m glad I left there.’ I couldn’t picture myself being that way now. When I tell people, ‘I used to be a thug,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t see you that way.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I know, I changed. I made myself change.’” UNO’s Denney said despite the baggage Ellebb carries, “he has a lot of good in him.”

 

 

 

Prior to his latest troubles Ellebb’s commitment to wrestling waned at various times, but he always rededicated himself. With the birth of his third child last year, however, his passion lagged. Soon, he fell behind in his classes and was declared academically ineligible the first semester. The only action he saw offered a vivid display of his inner turmoil when, for the only time in his wrestling career, he was disqualified after throwing a punch at an opponent who earlier elbowed him.

According to Ellebb, “When that happened, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this right now. I need to get my head together.’ Coach Denney told me to work through it. He chose for me not to wrestle the following weekend, but sitting out didn’t help. A lot of stuff was going wrong then. It just started piling up so fast.” The final straw was when his beloved grandmother, Anne, who helped raise him, was stricken with cancer. “She’s the backbone of our family. She keeps us together. She’s the only person I can talk to. She’s the one who makes me keep striving to do right. When I found out about my grandmother being sick, it was more than I could handle.”

Overwhelmed, he retreated into a cocoon. “I was struggling with myself. I just stayed away from everyone. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.” Finally, on December 15, he left Omaha for Chicago to be with his family. His departure caused him to miss some final exams, resulting in two incompletes. By re-enrolling this semester as a full-time student, he unwittingly used up any remaining eligibility. No matter, Ellebb had already decided he could not continue wrestling. “I felt (quitting) this was probably the best thing for me and for the team because I couldn’t wrestle to my potential if my head and heart wasn’t in it,” he said. His decision has caused him anguish. “I hate that I’m not part of the team now and not out there trying to help them win the national championship. If things didn’t fall out like they did and if I didn’t make my load as heavy it was, I’d probably still be part of it.” Perhaps his biggest regret is abandoning the team without formally giving his coaches or teammates an explanation. “They deserve to hear something,” he acknowledges.

 

 

 

During Ellebb’s tailspin Coach Denney said he tried contacting him but could not reach him. “I made attempts to find out what was happening. I even tried to contact some of the people he hangs with, but I could tell he was drifting away from us. I could sense as early as last summer he was struggling again and I tried to be really positive with him. But we just didn’t seem to be able to create enough positive power to hold him. The negative forces just kind of overwhelmed him.”

In gauging how much Ellebb’s absence hurts, Denney said, “Certainly, we miss him. We miss what he could have contributed. We were counting on him. The Lord blessed him with a lot of talent. We went from a senior who, in my mind, was the frontrunner to win a national championship to a redshirt freshman, (Lance Tolstedt). Losing all the experience Tyrice had and all the work and time we put into him is a huge impact on our team.”

To a man, Ellebb’s former teammates say they feel no bitterness. Instead, there is frustration and empathy. For 125-pounder Mack LaRock, Ellebb’s departure “was a big disappointment because we know how much stronger he made our team, but we also realize all the different problems and situations he has in life. He did let us down, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. There’s no really hard feelings. Tyrice made his bed and he has to lie in it now.”

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to those who care about Ellebb is that so much effort went into his athletic success that stopping short now seems a waste. Then there is the fact wrestling provided a sometimes uncertain young man a structure and stability he often could not find elsewhere. “Being part of our team gave him a positive force that could really help him, but when he’s away from that he gets into these other forces that aren’t so positive,” Denney said.

As for himself, Ellebb looks forward to making amends with his former UNO comrades and taking care of business with his family. “I have all my priorities in order now and the main ones are being a part of my children’s lives and finishing school. People tell me I’m a good person. I’m just trying to find that person in me and to do what I’m supposed to be doing in life.”

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