Building the Boys of Summer

And his players not only stay out of jail but actually graduate—something that would make headlines at almost any major college these days. A 2002 NCAA report indicated that Division I men’s athletic programs graduated only 58 percent of their players in six years. Big money sports like football and basketball fared even worse, graduating only 51 and 41 percent, respectively. Combined with academic and recruiting scandals that have been a regular fixture on campuses for nearly a generation, the state of college sports is hardly inspiring.

Major college coaches and administrators argue that the time pressures on college athletes makes academic excellence as elusive as a career in the pros. And they are correct in noting that the 58 percent graduation rate is actually slightly higher than the overall campus rate. But is that good enough? Not according to a proposal by the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a blue-ribbon panel which in 2001 recommended that any school that couldn’t graduate half its players be barred from post-season competition. If that proposal had been implemented this year, a good chunk of the teams playing in the NCAA basketball tournament would’ve been disqualified.

The same coaches and administrators have even less to say about the proliferation of scandal among their revenue-producing athletes/celebrities. The litany of recruiting, academic, and other scandals at the University of Minnesota athletic department over the past 30 years is particularly prodigious, but by no means top-ranked in the country. And even at those universities where the concept of the student/athlete still obtains, at schools like Duke and Michigan where academic and athletic excellence coexist, campus culture and the media still create a sort of caste system that separates the paid athlete from the paying student. The players are segregated in special dorms, eat their meals in special cafeterias, and enjoy a celebrity status fueled by newspaper headlines and prime-time TV appearances.

“Revenue-generating” sports are the worst, of course. But as far as Denning is concerned, there’s still no reason why a school shouldn’t graduate all of its athletes, no reason why a university can’t achieve both academic and athletic excellence.

He’s been overachieving for most of his life. The son of a St. Paul machinist, Denning was the first of his clan to make the long trek from Rondo and West Seventh Street up the hill to St. Thomas. A benchwarmer until his sophomore year in college, he put up all-conference numbers for the next two years and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1965.

He spent the next four years traveling through the minor leagues until a broken wrist ended his playing career. The Kansas City Royals invited him and a guy named Charlie Lau to coach at their revolutionary “baseball academy” in 1969, but he declined. “My wife was pregnant with our oldest daughter,” he recalls, “and after traveling around for four years in minor league baseball, I just said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

He returned to the old neighborhood, got a job teaching and coaching at Nativity Elementary School and later graduated to Cretin-Derham Hall, where the teacher-coach-athletic director did everything but make the lunches.

Denning spent 17 years building an athletic dynasty at his old high school, which benefited greatly from a feeder system of grade-school summer camps he adopted in 1977 from the old Catholic Athletic Association. “They dropped the program, and I picked it up,” he recalls. “There was a void.”

He set up leagues for sixth- and seventh-graders, then fourth- and fifth-graders, and before he knew it, there were 300 to 400 kids in the program. “It just sort of mushroomed.”

Denning probably would have been content to fill Cretin-Derham Hall’s trophy cases with baseball hardware into his twilight years, but nine years ago he got a call from St. Thomas athletic director Steve Fritz and once again decided to move up the hill. The money, though not great (“I don’t know if I can afford to retire,” the 58-year-old confesses), was a little bit of a raise, so he took the job. “I’m a pretty conservative guy,” he says, “but you can’t be afraid to change. I’m glad I did it.”

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