By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
Of all the athletic programs at UNO, wrestling may be the richest in tradition and continued success. Maverick wrestling head coach Mike Denney has been at the helm for 32 years, leading a program that continues to be the envy of many schools across the nation.
Under his watch, UNO has won six national championships, finished in the top-10 every year for the last 30 years and produced 30 individual national champions.
Denney is one of the most respected coaches in all of wrestling, regardless of division. He has been named Division II Coach of the Year three times, coach of the year in numerous wrestling publications and has even won a National Masters Judo Championship.
Coach Denney was kind enough to take some time out of his day to answer a few questions about his championship wrestling program and his career as a teacher and coach.
Nate Tenopir:What does a wrestling coach do besides coach wrestling?
Coach Denney:I am a teacher and a coach, and I love that. I really do love teaching. I love the contact with the regular students. When you look at what I do – the recruiting is a big piece of any coach’s organization. I always say that I recruit like my professional life, my assistant coach’s professional life and our program’s life depends on it. A big part of our thing is fundraising. We have to do a lot of fundraising for our program in order for it to stay at the level we want it at.
NT:With the success of the program, how much recruiting do you actually have to do? Aren’t there a lot of kids who just want to come and be a part of it?
CD: Initially you get some interest in our program. But then you have got to make the visits; you have to go and see them compete. We probably have some advantages. We have 60 of our guys (former athletes) out coaching. We really work on, ‘Does this person fit into our program?’ There’s a lot more than just the wrestling involved. Once you get the recruits in, there has to be a system that develops them. You have to develop a system that fits your culture. You got to develop them I think as students (and) you have a system that develops them as people. We have a system (here) that develops them as full people.”
NT:For those who haven’t been to a UNO wrestling meet or tournament, what is it like?
CD:We want it to be a happening. There’s something going on. We want it to be a family kind of thing. We want to seekids there from (local) programs and high schools, our boosters, our alums. We want to have a little something for everybody. We put on the second largest college tournament in the nation in November (the Kaufman-Brand Open; 700 wrestlers from 40 teams and 14 states). It’s a ‘who’s who’ of wrestling. You’re gonna see world champions there, Olympic champions, people from all over just coming to watch.
NT:How do you train your guys, what kind of things do you do in practice?
CD:I individualize more than I ever have. We always have our team practices everyday, then there’s some individual practices outside of that. We call it a deliberate practice. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. It’s not long, but it’s really intense. Wrestling is such a tough sport; it’s the conditioning that’s involved, the strength that’s involved and that intensity, so it’s a different thing.
NT:What’s it like for a wrestler to have to maintain a certain weight?
CD:You can say a lot of things about a lot of sports, but when you introduce a weight class, it’s a whole different ball game. Not only do you have to maintain that weight, but you have to be so disciplined on what you take in so that you’re able to perform at your utmost. People that haven’t done it don’t understand it. I love it. I love that added discipline part of it.
NT:How have you helped to maintain the kind of championship success that UNO is known for?
CD:You’ve got to surround yourself with the right people. My wife after 42 years of doing this stuff – saint. She’s a big part of the whole family thing. I think a lot of coaches forget about the support system; you have to have it. You have to surround yourself (with good people) and I say that so much, but it’s true. If you look at successful programs you have to have that. Systems and loyalty and people. And it takes a lot of leaders. I don’t think you can come in and have this command style; it has to be a cooperative effort.