Denney faces ‘delightful challenges’
Controversial shuttering of UNO leads coach to Maryville
Mike Denney likes to put in the work.
Last March in Kearney, Neb., that work was again on display as the Nebraska-Omaha Maverick wrestling team won a third consecutive Division II championship.
But UNO athletic administrators took the thrill of victory and agony of defeat to a new level just hours after wrestlers were hoisting a trophy representing No. 1 status.
A phone call let Denney and his team know a program he ran for 32 seasons was gone.
"It never crossed our minds, the thought of not having a program," said Esai Dominguez, an All-American finisher last March. "It was a weird night. We were all kind of dazed for awhile."
The reason? UNO athletic director Trev Alberts said the university could not afford to keep football and wrestling in its move from Division II to the Division I Summit League, which doesn't sponsor the two sports.
When the team returned to Omaha the next day the doors to their facility were locked.
As expected the wrestling community nationwide rallied around the wrestling program and those affected by the decision.
Now, Denney simply calls it the "other place."
And the wrestling community is certainly not surprised that a coach who led that "other place" to 314 dual wins that included a .730 winning percentage and seven national team titles is back to work.
In April, Maryville hired Denney to lead its fledgling program. The university, located in St. Louis, is completing its provisional year in the reclassification from Division III to Division II athletics.
Talk about starting from scratch.
"Let's just say there have been some delightful challenges," said Denney, who will take his first group of Saints wrestlers to the Central Missouri Open on Nov. 13 for its first competition. "The biggest positive in all this has been the way Maryville has attacked this entire process. From the beginning they were aggressive and really wanted us and we felt called to do it.
"My wife gave up more than I did. I can come down [to St. Louis] and get focused, put the blinders on because there is so much to do but she gave up a home we'd lived in for 37 years. That's tough to do."
Building a competitive squad is any coach's goal. For Denney, however, it was originally about simply finding a place to practice.
"I have to commend those that stuck with us," said Denney, whose staff includes James Reynolds and 2011 Division II champs Mario Morgan and Aaron Denson, all UNO transplants. "They have really helped put things together; the schedule, a place to practice and simply getting equipment.
"Our practice room was originally a meeting room with chairs. I slept on [Reynold's] couch for awhile because there wasn't time to do any house-hunting. People keep telling us about all these places we need to go. We haven't been anyplace. We've barely unpacked.
"And we were fortunate that most of the recruits stuck with us. I've told them they have to dream a little bit. At the same time we want to make an immediate impact. We don't want to just have a 'nice' team."
The first roster of Saints initially included 19 wrestlers, 12 of them freshmen. Junior Matt Baker, a 197-pounder, was an All-American at UNO last season. Terrell McKinney was an All-American in 2010 as a freshman. Brett Rosedale, a senior from Iowa, and heavyweight Zack Wilcox, a sophomore, also have varsity experience.
"We have to be realistic," said Denney. "We are taking the attitude of being builders right now. We did recruit a great freshmen group. We are not starting at ground zero and everybody is excited about the opportunity."
For student-athletes it is not always as easy as simply signing a change-of-address form. Out-of-state tuition, among other things factor into the equation.
For Dominguez, a three-time All-American with one year of eligibility remaining, the decision to stay in Omaha was anything but easy. A construction engineering major, the 149-pounder would have had to attend Maryville for a year and return to UNO to finish his academic work in his field of study.
"I always wrestled so I could go to school," said Dominguez, who plans to graduate next May. "There were a lot of reasons for me to go ... being a four-time All-American, get that national title ... it was a tough decision. But academics are very important for my future."
Dominguez is still on the mat, honing his Greco-Roman skills at a USA Regional club in Omaha. He plans to compete at the 2010 U.S. Olympic Trials, seeking the 145.5-pound spot on the U.S. Greco squad which will wrestle in London.
"I'm trying to make something out of nothing," he said. "I'm still getting used to not seeing 30 of my closest friends every day, beating up on each other. My schedule is a complete 180 from what it used to be. I have a class at 3 [p.m.] during a time when we are usually practicing. It's kind of a weird thing, something I'm still getting used to this time of year."
Dominguez received a few calls from other programs, including Divison I Nebraska in Lincoln. Former teammate George Ivanov, a two-time All-American, took the plunge into DI landing at Boise State.
Ivanov’s decision was a bit easier than others. His parents live in Boise with his dad coaching at a wrestling club.
“I started getting calls the Monday after [DII nationals],” said Ivanov, who was born in Bulgaria and attended high school in Iowa for one year before enrolling at UNO. “[BSU assistant coach] Chris Owens called me long after and made me a scholarship offer I could not refuse. I was considering two options: following Coach [Denney] to Maryville or not wrestling at another Division II school because of my loyalty to him.
“I still miss UNO.”
Like Dominguez and the rest of the former Mavericks, Ivanov is trying to make the best of the situation.
“I have two years left,” he said. “I’m going to make the most of it and win a national title in DI.”
On Dec. 4, Denney and company will host the First Maryville/Kaufman-Brand Open. Originally named the UNO Open, the annual tournament was renamed in honor of the late Ryan Kaufman, a national champion for UNO who was killed in an automobile accident in 1991. The late Glen Brand, an Olympic champion and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, provided financial support and his family wants to continue in the same capacity in St. Louis.
"We only have room for six mats so if 700 [wrestlers] show up we might wrestle for a week," said Denney. "There is a lot of excitement around here about the tournament but we are going to have to have a Wrestling 101 class to get everybody ready. Ryan's wife is going to be the first inductee into the Maryville/Kaufman-Brand Hall of Fame."
The first dual meet in the Simon Center will be Jan. 26 when Missouri Valley visits.