Dennis Denning is officially retiring on Feb. 1 after 15 seasons as the baseball coach at the University of St. Thomas – seasons that included two NCAA Division III championships. I’ve never met the man and only recently learned, after watching the videotape from his press conference last month, how much I missed.
I knew he was a legendary coach. I’d seen his teams play: well coached, well behaved, well done. What I didn’t know about was Denning the mentor, the teacher … the, well, philosopher. Just listening to him, I came to suspect that baseball for Denning was a metaphor for life itself. He talked of the very qualities that now mark my measuring stick of what a good man is.
“Our goal,” Denning told the assembled reporters and athletic staff, “(was) never to win a national championship. You’re just setting people up for failure. You’ve got to be lucky. You have to be good, too, but you’ve got to be lucky.
“The most important thing for us is the path to get there. Do you practice hard? Do you take care of yourself? Are you a good human being? That’s what is the most important.”
Here’s a baseball coach who won 77 percent of his games at St. Thomas talking about the journey. And how you should conduct yourself on the journey.
“Friendship, getting along together and developing a work ethic – and a path to get to the big game – those are the most important things,” Denning said.
Friendship. The path to get there. Somehow, I can’t imagine too many coaches in multi-million dollar Division I programs making those qualities the bedrock of their recruiting pitch. Denning’s pitch to his baseball prospects was – in D-I terms – unique.
“We got scholarships,” Denning told them. “And our scholarship is … come to St. Thomas and get a good education. You’re gonna graduate; you’re gonna get a great start on career.
“Why would you like to go to St. Thomas? If they tell me baseball (and that’s all), I would tell ’em, ‘You’re going to the wrong school.’ ”
Denning admitted at his press conference that he would have preferred to retire quietly, to sneak off into the “see-you-later stuff. I don’t like cameras,” he said.
The man who doesn’t like cameras certainly did enough to attract attention for his baseball team over the years. Besides claiming national championships in 2001 and 2009, his clubs had runner-up finishes in 1999 and 2000. Prior to his arrival at St. Thomas, Denning was head baseball coach at Cretin-Derham Hall for 17 seasons, where his Raiders won six state championships and 15 St. Paul city conference titles.
John Tauer, a psychology professor and men’s assistant basketball coach, played for Denning on some of those teams at Cretin. The lessons he learned went way beyond baseball.
“Dennis taught you about the ups and downs on the journey, that it’s not so much about winning,” Tauer said. “He talked about being excellent, about how you carry yourself, about being respectful of your teammates and your opponents.”
Maybe it’s because Denning won so many games that he can talk so persuasively about character, conscience and citizenship. Coming from a loser, that kind of rhetoric would sound like an excuse. Coming from a winner, it sounds like creed.
What I liked most of all from Denning’s press conference were his plans for the future, after the 65-year-old takes a couple of months to rest and recover. “My daughter is a teacher in St. Paul,” he said, “and I just might sneak over there once a week to help her out in the first grade.”
Now that’s a man with some courage – and conviction.
P.S. I’ve made a date for lunch with Coach Denning. We’ve got the time to make up for what I missed.