Mike Denney Interview

Jacob Lintner

An older gentleman stands in a converted conference room, walls hidden by banner after banner and with a wooden floor covered by a large red and black wrestling mat with the words “Donated by Old Mill Toyota” emblazoned upon it.  His forehead has the stress of 47 years of coaching worn into it. But those wrinkles pale in comparison to the smile lines permanently etched into his jawbones and cheeks.

He is Mike Denney coach, mentor and master encourager.

Well, maybe not the last one.

“My goal,” Denney said, “I want to become, and I’m not there yet, a master encourager.  When I’m all done, I want, and I’ll probably never get it, that put on my gravestone… ‘He was a Master Encourager. He mastered the art of encouraging people.’”

Since he began the Maryville University wrestling program from nothing in 2011, Denney has preached a positive message that focuses on building the character of his wrestlers.

This message, like all words that Denney speaks, rolls off of his tongue in a didactic torrent, as if it would take more energy to cease his speech than to continue it.

“What is character?” he asked. “So we’ve actually defined it. The ultimate success of all of us… is going to come down to our character. It’s about faith… faith in yourself, faith in those around you… Your work ethic.

“We have a saying; we love work. We love it. You have to stick to things, you have to keep at it, that’s staying power. Empathy. Care about people; care about your organization. Fire power is our enthusiasm. And clean engine power. I’m big on this. I’m always trying to be conscious of it. I just encourage them to stay clean, stay clean, stay clean, stay clean.”

But all of the positivity in the world couldn’t have protected Coach Denney’s blind side from the administration at the University of Nebraska-Omaha when the decision to cut the football and wrestling programs came down in the spring of 2011.

“It actually was like going back and raising your grandkids, like starting over from within a new family,” Denney said of the move from UNO to Maryville. “You can’t raise your grandkids like you raised your kids; it’s just different. I always tell people that there were some dirty diapers, and they were smelly sometimes. Really, we were starting completely over. After 32 years, we were starting all over.”

It is not as if Denney was simply swapping programs. No, the 42-year veteran was out of a job, out of a home, out of a purpose.

An unexpected invitation from Maryville University President Dr. Mark Lombardi to begin a wrestling program from scratch that gave the three-time NCAA II Coach of the Year a chance to continue his passion.

“I felt, and I still feel, a great responsibility to do well for this university,” Denney said. “I even tell my guys that; we have a responsibility to do well. These last five years, I have really emptied the tank. I have given all that I can to really build this up, to create the foundation.”

And in just five years, the Saints wrestling program has built upon a first-season foundation of zero dual wins to two consecutive Midwest Regional championships and three consecutive top-five finishes in the NCAA Division II National Tournament.

Through all of the success, the coach never forgets what he considers his main purpose: to help these young athletes grow in character and in leadership through the sport of wrestling. More than that, he vows to hold his responsibility to his school as the highest priority.

When he was asked what Maryville University meant to him, the normally verbose coach took a much more direct route to the answer.

“We were homeless. Maryville gave us a home.”

“First of all, you have to build a foundation. You want to be a positive force. We want to be known as a force. When you compete against us, in Division II wrestling, we want to be known as a consistent team year to year. You’re going to have to deal with Maryville. Maryville’s going to be right there. Our first year, we didn’t win at all. We never finished above seventh in a tournament. It was a totally different kind of deal. We just kept getting back up and going back at it. We had to demonstrate all of our character.”

“The toughest thing to do is to be consistent. Consistency is the toughest thing to master.”

“I help, teach and build. That’s kind of my vision. I help; I don’t do it all. I help because it takes team power to do that. I help, teach and build.”

“I want to master the art of encouragement. That’s big because everybody’s different, and everybody is encouraged by different things. If I can understand their different strengths, I can maybe maximize that.”

His once-sleek brown hair is now greying at the ends to match his bushy grey eyebrows. His blue-grey eyes hide behind a pair of black-framed glasses.

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