After more than two decades, Poppe turns over the CWS reins
After spending the last 26 years as the lead championships administrator for the Men’s College World Series, Dennis Poppe announced his full-time tenure with the NCAA will end on Jan. 1, 2014 earlier this year. Poppe has run the CWS and the Football Championship Subdivision since the 1987-88 academic year. NCAA.com's Amy Farnum sat down with Poppe for a question and answer session as he enters his final CWS as the man in charge.
What will you miss most about the CWS and Omaha?
The conversations around batting cage and during the downtime. Baseball is a sport where you do have some downtime and it gives you the opportunity to tell stories or catch up on family. Those are the type of things I’ll miss as much as anything, as well as the postgame celebration. That was always a fun time for me when the trophy was presented.
What do you remember about that first CWS you were in charge of 1988?
My first memory was being booed by the crowd when I was introduced because there was some tension between the NCAA and Omaha folks because of something that I don’t even remember. I also remember an old baseball stadium with a lot of character and my reaction was that we needed to do a lot of work on the place.
Talk about what you saw from college baseball when you took over in this role and what you're seeing now?
I guess if you look at the numbers and it's not what it's all about, but the attendance of the College World Series, we were averaging about 8,000 a night, and now we're at 23,000 plus. But the one constant, and sometimes we always ask about what's changed, and sometimes I'd like to refer to what's been there all the time and that's been the passion of the community of Omaha, and the support for the College World Series. Maybe there were fewer back then, but that's never changed. It's always been the home of the College World Series and it's always been a continuing thing.
What has stood out as your favorite baseball memory?
I’ve been asked this several times, and it’s almost like having to name your favorite child. There are several accomplishments that I look back on which are pretty significant, one of them being Oregon State winning back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007. In those days, the Northwest, particular Oregon State was not considered a baseball school. What Pat Casey did was phenomenal. Of course, there was also the Warren Morris walk-off home run (that lifted LSU to the 1996 championship against Miami (Fla.)).
There are also personal moments that I remember like talking football with Phil Nevin from Cal State Fullerton in the dugout about football before he took the field for the championship game in 1992. (Nevin was also a punter for the Titans’ football team.)
What kind of advice have you given Damani Leech, who will replace you next year?
I’ve said to stop and watch the games. I was so involved in running the games and security and weather and details that there were times I would know who won, but I didn’t know the score.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The new stadium is the obvious one. The stadium took a lot of negotiations, a lot of meetings, a lot of trips to Omaha, and at times we weren’t sure we would get it done. At times, there was a lot of negative reaction to it, yet in my mind I knew it was important for the future of the College World Series in Omaha that we have a venue of championship quality. We had to provide that type of playing experience for the future. Omaha stepped up to the plate and we got it done.
But to steal a line from my successor Damani Leech, what has made the College World Series is not bricks and mortar, but the support of the fans and community of Omaha. Disneyland is the “Happiest Place on Earth”, but for 10 days in June I think this is the happiest place on Earth.
Baseball-wise, what has changed the most?
Things have changed, and a lot of it has been because of the bat. We had a 21-14 championship game when USC beat Arizona State in 1998. References were made to being like a softball game and we all know it was attributed to having a very lively bat. The effort of the baseball rules committee to go back to a bat that is more wood-like and the result has been low-scoring, close games and very few home runs, which some people find as a negative.
As a baseball purist, I think there is nothing more exciting going into the ninth inning with a score of 2-1. You start to see the wheels turning and guys aren’t just swinging for the fences. You start seeing bunts and walks and taking pitches and strategy. Even I, as an old football player, can appreciate the mental aspects of the game because you know how hard it is to get that run across. You just can’t go up there and “gorilla” it out. You have to play baseball.
When you’re planning a big event, there are lots of details. Has there been any situation that you haven’t planned for that has totally surprised you?
Every year. To be honest, a person would be lying if they think they have everything covered for every detail. I will brag a little bit about the opening of the new stadium. I don’t know if I ever put more time in for an opening. It came off without a hitch as far as the players and the coaches. I did not get a complaint about the important things like the playing field, the dugouts, the batting cages – the things that are important to the players and coaches. I think I walked away a little smug after that one. With an outdoor event, you can’t go into it without having some type of surprise. The wind shear the first year in the new stadium – all of a sudden the tornado sirens started and the sky was dark. We’re looking around and the players are still playing. It was a learning session. We took a better look at our inclement weather plan after that.
Do you have favorite places to go or things to do in Omaha other than the ballpark?
I’ve been doing this so long that I really enjoy the friendships I’ve made, and just going to their houses to have dinner. We have a tradition of going to (College World Series of Omaha, Inc. president) Jack Diesing’s house with the staff for dinner before the CWS starts, and that is always a relaxing time. Not only have Jack and I been partners in this, but our families are very close. It’s been more than just a professional relationship.
Obviously, Omaha has a significant number of restaurants and I used to joke that I don’t know if any of the wives cook in Omaha because every time I go to a restaurant it is packed.
What’s your plan for the future in relation to the CWS?
I definitely won’t be in this position. I told Damani, I’m not going to worry about thunderstorms or floods or tornados. It’s time to move on – I’ve done that for 26 years and it wears on you. I couldn’t be happier that Damani will be the one to replace me. We have a great working relationship and I’m very at ease he is going to take the reins. I’ve used the term I’m stepping back, rather than stepping away if that makes any difference. They’re going to give me the opportunity to work part-time or to consult, and I haven’t really determined what that might be. It’s not really for me to determine. Damani will assess what he needs and where he needs help.
I told my wife I’m not retiring to work. There are some things I want to do. I’ve led such a structured life and I’m looking forward to determining my own schedule. I’ve never taken a trip in the fall because of football and my wife and I are going to take a two-week trip to New England. I’ve never taken two weeks off before.