Coach Denney and former UNO program honored this weekend in Omaha

Updated: October 12, 2023

Photo: Mike Denney spent 32 years coaching at Nebraska-Omaha, where he led the Mavericks to seven NCAA Division II team titles … before the school announced it was dropping the program in 2011. Denney, who announced his retirement from Maryville this spring, and his former UNO teams will be honored this Saturday in a special ceremony.

By Pat Kelly

“We want to invite all of the UNO and Omaha University wrestling family to the reunion we are having on October 14th in the Lee & Helene Sapp Fieldhouse…”

With that statement in a video posted on Coach Mike Denney’s Facebook page on August 9, 2023, he broke a 12-year moratorium on the use of the phrase “UNO,” “Nebraska-Omaha,” or just about any other term or phrase associated with the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

To him, the school had become known as “The Other Place.” And who could blame him for the slang intended as a slight?

The date was March 12, 2011 on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, site of the NCAA Division II nationals. The UNO Mavericks had not yet left the arena after celebrating the eighth national championship in program history (7 in NCAA DII with Denney, 1 in NAIA with Coach Don Benning).

A voicemail from then athletic director Trev Alberts was delivered to Denney letting him know his 32-year tenure as head coach was over and the program was being dropped. The 2011 team was devastated when Denney met with them shortly after in the hotel.

The entire University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling community was dealt a blow that was incomprehensible and inconceivable. The program was winning. The athletes were behaving themselves. They were performing in the classroom. The program was virtually self-sustaining financially. The coach? Mike Denney was what any university, parent, athlete, and fan would want in a coach. His teams won on the mat, but were also recognized for community service on campus and in the community.

No matter the academic department or extracurricular team or group, Coach Denney and the wrestling team was known in a good light. Denney was an icon on campus. His guys went on to lead productive lives, and they kept in touch, returning for golf outings, home duals, NCAA tournaments, and weddings. UNO Wrestling remained a fabric of their lives.

Coach Denney and Bonnie, his wife of 54 years, were the glue that held it together. Ron Higdon, Assistant Director of the Nebraska School Activities Association since 2011, was an All-American for UNO and assistant coach for the Mavericks from 1992 – 2011. He will be present for the gathering on October 14th and thinks the timing is right, especially after Denney announced his retirement after coaching the past 13 years at Maryville near St. Louis.

“Coinciding with Coach Denney retiring, there couldn’t be a better time to do it. I appreciate that they are wanting to do this. There needs to be some healing. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take some time, but I’m glad they’re doing it,” said Higdon.

The story is part of wrestling lore. ESPN picked it up. Newspapers from coast to coast ran the story. A documentary was produced. As the ten-year anniversary approached in 2021, talk-forms lit up and wrestling media reminded its audience of the event and its aftermath. Award winning journalists Andy Hamilton and Kyle Klingman authored a three-part story for Flowrestling that continues to be well-received.

Most of the time that is where this type of story ends. The injustice remains just that. People move on. Alberts left for Lincoln in 2021. Chancellor John Christensen, Albert’s partner in the decision, retired in 2016.

Denney moved on as well. He had a good run building the Maryville University program from scratch in 2011.

Enter current UNO Vice Chancellor of Athletics, Adrian Dowell and University Chancellor, Dr. Joanne Li. In 2011 Dowell, a basketball star at Roanoke College, was finishing up his Master’s degree at West Virginia University. Li was a professor at Wright State University. Their histories began at UNO only two years ago, but they get it.

The pair became aware of the situation with the wrestling program and wanted to make it right. Through a mutual contact, Dowell reached out to Denney. An initial meeting was set, but it was still too painful for Denney to even set foot on campus. The meeting took place in the clubhouse at a local golf course. After Dowell’s first words the tone was set, “What can we do to heal the wounds?”

Follow-up meetings were held remotely on Zoom. Then an on-campus visit was planned. Denney arrived early and walked into the fieldhouse alone. Overcome by emotion, he welled-up as he walked into the place where he left so much of his heart and soul over a decade ago.

By the late 1990s, the team finally had a state-of-the-art wrestling room located on the upper level of the fieldhouse that came with other significant additions and renovations to the fieldhouse. Prior to that, mats were rolled out daily and practice was held on the east end of the fieldhouse, a curtain separated basketball and wrestling practices.

That wrestling room, the hallmark of Denney’s time at UNO, is now an academic support facility. More tears. The scars will remain, but Dowell’s gesture has lifted a burden from Denney. He feels a sense of peace and relief.

“After all of these years, I finally feel like I can move on,” Denney recently said.

Special emphasis of the October 14 gathering will be placed on the 2011 national championship team that was not given their due by the university. Part of the weekend will include a fitting and likely emotional entry into Sapp Fieldhouse.

UNO’s teams now host events at Baxter Arena, a six-minute drive south of the main campus. In 2011, Sapp Fieldhouse, located in the center of campus, was the hub of indoor athletics. When the team arrived home from Kearney on Sunday after the NCAAs, the locks to the fieldhouse doors had been changed. The national champions were locked out of their own home.

Denney was later given 24 hours to vacate. Banners were hastily removed. Other memorabilia and personal items in the fieldhouse, wrestling offices, and practice room were gathered and have been in storage since. Alberts and Christensen seemed eager to rid the university of any sign of the most successful athletic program in the history of the university.

The plan is for the team to gather at the doors of Sapp and make a triumphant entry. There will be food and fellowship to follow. The fieldhouse will be decorated with trophies and the long absent memorabilia from not only the 2011 team, but the entire 63-year history of the program.

Last January, Dowell spearheaded an effort to reach out to and recognize the UNO football program that was also dropped in 2011. Team members were honored at a UNO hockey game as will be the case for the wrestling program during the October 14 gathering.

Will UNO Wrestling one day be restored? For some that’s the elephant in the room. That’s for another day. October 14th will be about making peace, lifting burdens, and celebrating the past.