The Best Coach in the Game

Editor's note: Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, submitted a guest column to The Scroll.

Back in the mid-1980s, I was sitting around the St. Paul Pioneer Press newsroom one evening talking baseball with veteran sportswriter Mike Augustin, and I mentioned in passing that Cretin High School had won another state high school baseball title.

“That’s because of Dennis Denning,” Augustin said. “For my money, Dennis is the best coach I’ve ever seen in any sport at any level – high school, college or professional.”
“Really,” I said. “Why is that?”

“Auggie” explained that Dennis did everything right when it came to coaching. He had been a solid player at St. Thomas and in the minor leagues, so he understood the game. He stressed fundamentals – how to hit, throw, catch and run. He was both strategic and intuitive – he had the knack of calling for a sacrifice bunt, a hit-and-run or a suicide squeeze at the right time. He was patient and methodical.

But above all else, Auggie said, Dennis simply loved to teach the game – to be out on the field with players, running drills, hitting fungoes, giving signals and always being aware of everything that was happening around him.

Some 25 years later, I found myself at sun-drenched Koch Diamond on the St. Thomas campus on Wednesday, watching Dennis earnestly go about his business as coach of the Tommies. Louie Salmen broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning with a two-run homer to beat archrival St. Olaf and earn Dennis his 500th win as St. Thomas coach. Coupled with his 378 wins over 17 years at Cretin, he now has 878 wins, along with six state high school titles, ten MIAC regular season titles and that magical NCAA Division III championship in 2001.

In between games of the St. Olaf doubleheader, I stopped down to congratulate Dennis, and he shrugged off the praise. “Just another win,” he said. “They’re all important.” Characteristically, he gave credit to his players – Salmen for the homer, pitcher Matt Schuld for a sterling 1-hit shutout and the defense for flawless all-around play. “Gotta get ready for the next one,” he said, shuffling away.

It has been my pleasure to have watched a couple of hundred St. Thomas games over the last decade and a half – in part because I love baseball and in part because it’s fun to watch a master like Dennis practice his craft and instill in his players a genuine joy for the game.

I just wish Auggie, who died a decade ago, could have been there Wednesday. He would have nodded in appreciation. And he would have said, as he did that evening many years ago, that Dennis Denning is the best coach he’d ever seen.