Maryville program gives Denney a fresh start … and chance to rekindle UNO’s past

Updated: October 18, 2011

By Mike Finn

Mike Denney went 32 years since having to start a new college wrestling program, forcing the four-time national coach of the year to dust off some memories and clothing.

“It’s like wearing a leisure suit again,” joked Denney, who is inaugurating the NCAA Division II program at Maryville University near St. Louis, Mo.  “I think I still have a few leisure suits. I think I’ll pull them out.”

Mike Denney produced seven team titles, 33 individual champions and 181 All-Americans in 32 years at Nebraska-Omaha before the program was dropped last March.

It’s a good thing the 64-year-old Denney can find humor in his life this autumn.

It wasn’t the case last March 12, when he first learned — hours after his former team, Nebraska-Omaha, won the 2011 NCAA Division II national team championship for a seventh time — that the UNO administration was dropping its heralded wrestling program.

And there was nothing funny in Denney’s life March 25, when the Nebraska Board of Regents voted to endorse the idea of Maverick athletic Trev Alberts — who hoped to move the program to Division I in basketball and hockey — and thus killing the national tradition of success in a program that yielded 33 individual national champs, 181 All-Americans and a 314-111-5 record between 1979 and 2011 … not to mention seven national titles between 1991 and 2011,

“After what happened to us, you feel like you’ve been cheap-shot,” said Denney, who along with many of his wrestlers were given an alternative to continue the Maverick tradition when Maryville brought Denney and eight of his former wrestlers to the St. Louis campus this fall.

“It has been a test of the faith of mine and my wife’s faith,” said Denney, married over 40 years to Bonnie Denney. “We keep looking at each other and say it’s not really our faith that has been tested. But that’s what it is.”

What made it even tougher was that two former friends and mentors — UNO chancellor John Christensen, a former wrestler of Denney’s, and former Maverick AD Don Leahy, who brought Denney to UNO — were aware of the move, first considered a year ago, but did not tell Denney.

“There is kind of an open wound there and Maryville is trying to do all they can do to help heal it,” Denney said. “I am so appreciative of that.”

The Maryville administration, which includes president Mike Lombardi, vice president Jeff Miller — who first contacted Denney after the Board of Regents decision — and athletics director Marcus Manning, has been sensitive to the feelings of Denney, his wrestlers and the UNO fan base.

In fact on Nov. 4 they are joining Denney and former UNO friends and alumni for a dinner in Omaha on Nov. 4 to hope blend this group of people who became orphans in the college wrestling family.

“(The Maryville administration is) saying we’re doing everything that we can do to keep it going down here,” said Denney. “We want to reassure people that we are going to do all that we can to keep it going.”

In addition to current Maryville coaches, James Reynolds, Mario Morgan and Aaron Denson — who were either assistants or wrestlers (Morgan and Denson won titles in 2011) of Denney at UNO — the eight other former Maverick wrestlers include sophomore Terrel McKinney (125), freshman Joey Moorhouse (157), senior Brett Rosedale (165), junior Marvio Tischhauser (174), junior Matt Baker (197), junior Matt Spain (197/Hwt), sophomore Zack Wilcox (Hwt) and freshman Morgan Denson (Hwt).

McKinney and Baker both earned All-American honors at UNO — McKinney was seventh in 2010 and took an injury redshirt last season, when Baker finished eighth at his weight class — and are expected to be starters. Denney said he hoped to bring additional former Mavericks to the Maryville program for the second semester.

Among last year’s UNO All-Americans who would have been eligible to compete this year, Esai Dominquez (7th at 149 pounds) has remained at UNO to complete his engineering degree while George Ivanov (3rd at 157) transferred to NCAA Division I Boise State.

With the number of former UNO wrestlers making the 435-mile trip from Omaha to St. Louis, there are many who believe the 2011 Saints should be just as good as the 2010 Mavericks.

Denney believes that is an unfair comparison.

“If we could have gotten our whole bunch, we could have done that,” Denney said. “We’re young and we have a very good young bunch (freshmen), perhaps the best we’ve ever had. But we’d also like to redshirt these guys. We’re going to have to use some of these guys and it’s hard to predict how they’ll do.”

While his current team’s nickname is the Saints, Denney refers to his staff as the Builders.

“We’re taking the attitude that we are builders,” said Denney, whose team will compete in the non-Division I NWCA National Duals in mid-January in Bloomington, Ill. “We don’t want to say this year we’re not going to be that good or that we’re going to be simply nice.”

The NCAA Division II level will be going through many changes in the next couple years as former NAIA powers Notre Dame College, McKendree and Lindenwood are expected to begin competing in the second level of NCAA wrestling in the 2012-13 season.

“Division II wrestling is the fastest growing NCAA sport right now,” said Denney. “We have so many teams coming in. It’s great.”

Denney also is happy that the Kaufman-Brand tournament, held annually at UNO the weekend before Thanksgiving, will move to the Maryville campus on Saturday, Dec. 4.

“Missouri is bringing its entire team and other strong teams like Iowa will also have wrestlers there,” said Denney, who had over 700 wrestlers compete on 16 mats at UNO last fall. He will only have room for six mats this year in the Maryville arena but hopes to find additional space at a local high school in the future.

“It’s been humbling, the support from so many people asking what can we do,” he said, “and the high school coaches down here have been tremendous.”

For now, Denney — who grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska — has adjusted to the St. Louis area — “I’m a big Cardinals fan now,” he laughed, speaking of the local major league baseball team prior to the 2011 World Series — and is preparing his team, which opens competition, Nov. 13, at the Central Missouri Open.

“Years ago we (at UNO) used to go to that tournament,” said Denney, who admits this transition has forced him to look back at what it took to make the Nebraska-Omaha program so powerful. “Hopefully, it won’t take 32 years for it to happen here (at Maryville). I don’t think I have 32 more years in me.”