December 11, 2018

“I’m All in Now:” Karen Dennis’ Career Relay Race

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There are countless metaphors and quotes about life, career and the successes or failures within them.

“Life is like an echo. What you send out, you get back.” – Unknown

“Success is a journey, not a destination.” – Arthur Ashe

“It’s not what you achieve, it’s what you overcome. That’s what defines your career.” – Carlton Fisk

For Karen Dennis, director of the track & field and cross country programs at Ohio State, you can describe her professional life—and the ups and downs in it—like a relay race.

As cliché as it may be in regards to her profession, each phase of Dennis’ journey has been one leg of a race started by her predecessors and mentors, has continued through her for three decades.

The Starting Block

Dennis got her start as a grassroots participant at the state championships sponsored by the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department.

“My first race was in a park,” Dennis recalls. “I won the 100-yard dash but was disqualified because I ran out of my lane. I didn’t know better and was confused. How could I win and then not win?”

It’s not the ideal way for one’s career to start, but that letdown opened the door for an influential person to come into her life. As she was crying in the back of her father’s car, a knock on the window queued up a change of course in Dennis’ life.

“The man knocking on the window told my dad, ‘I’m going to teach her how to run straight.’”

Those were the key words from Jim Bibbs, who subsequently became Dennis’ first coach. Bibbs coached the Detroit Track Club at the time, a grassroots organization he founded for young athletes to travel around the country to compete in track and field competitions. Through the Detroit Track Club, Dennis competed and learned how to become an accomplished sprinter.

When it was time for Dennis to move on to compete at the intercollegiate level, she didn’t have a lot of options to choose from as her student-athlete career predated Title IX, a time when athletic opportunities for girls and women were scarce.  Only four programs in the country offered athletic scholarships for women and Dennis attended Tennessee State University for a year before joining her youth coach and mentor at Michigan State University. At Michigan State, Bibbs had become the Spartan men’s track and field coach and a coaching legend in his own right.

It was there Dennis met another mentor named Dr. Nell Jackson, Michigan State’s women’s track and field head coach and its first-ever Director of Athletics for Women under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) governing body.

As Dennis’ time as a student-athlete started coming to a close, Dr. Jackson persuaded her to go to graduate school so she could stay and help build the women’s program. However as Title IX went into effect, the AIAW was merged under the umbrella of the men’s governing body the NCAA.  As an indirect outcome, female administrators were either forced out of their positions or left their current position for other administrative opportunities. Dr. Jackson, feeling forced out, left Michigan State University.

“This woman was a former Olympian. She had her doctorate in higher education. Why should she be subordinate to a guy?”

Dennis recalled as she rationalized her mentor and role model leaving. Dennis considered leaving in light of this change, but Bibbs convinced her to stay on to lead the women’s program.

Being a head coach has its own challenges. Being a young coach adds to those challenges. Being a young, female coach? Well, that’s a whole new beast. In her early coaching years, this reality hit Dennis mercilessly during the recruiting process.

“One of the things I found out as a young coach was that women gravitated to men. I didn’t understand that until a girl I was recruiting out of New York told me straight up, ‘Karen I’ve never been coached by a woman,’” Dennis said.

“That’s when it became personal for me. I’m losing athletes because of my gender. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a coach, but at that point, I realized that was what Dr. Jackson was trying to get me to see. She was trying to groom me because she knew women needed to see people that looked like them. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I’m all in now!’”

Dennis’ tenure with her alma mater spanned 14 years, four as an assistant coach and 10 as the head women’s track and field coach. Once her daughter graduated high school, she saw an opportunity to expand her coaching prowess and moved west to head the University of Nevada Las Vegas women’s program. It would be another decade there before she would become a Buckeye.

The Acceleration

“This has, by far, been my best coaching opportunity.”

These are the words Dennis uses to describe her time thus far at Ohio State. Following a successful, decade-long stint with UNLV, she made her way back to the Midwest in 2002. She was an assistant coach of men’s and women’s programs before being promoted to women’s head coach in 2006 when the programs were split. Prior to Dennis taking the reigns over the women’s program, it had never won a conference championship. Conversely, Dennis had never been at a school where she didn’t win a league title.

“I knew it would be an uphill battle, but when I’m in the fight, I’m all in.  At that point, our new staff would start off recruiting a few cornerstone athletes and beg them to come, beg them to trust us. We made a promise that if they came we would win a Big Ten championship and build from there,” Dennis said. “I told my administrator I planned on winning in five years. As promised, we won our first Big Ten Championship in my fifth year.”

That was in 2011 when the women’s track & field team won the Big Ten indoor championship. Throughout her tenure, Dennis and her staff have established the Buckeye track and field and cross country programs as some of the premier teams among the Power 5 conferences. In her 12 years, Dennis’ program has produced:

56 Big Ten event titles

29 First Team All-America awards

8 Coach of the Year awards

6 Big Ten team titles

3 NCAA individual champions

2 Big Ten Freshmen of the Year

As for her personal accolades, they are numerous and continue to roll in. At the end of the 2017-18 seasons, she became the first woman in Big Ten history to guide a men’s team to an indoor and outdoor conference title sweep. Dennis also is the first female to earn the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors for a men’s program in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. On December 18 in San Antonio, Texas, she will be inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Coaches Hall of Fame.

Dennis has also made a name for herself on the international scene, highlighted by an appointment as the head coach of the U.S. women’s national team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Most recently, she was the head coach for the Americas Team at the IAAF Continental Cup in Ostrava, Czech Republic. She led a team made up of athletes from North, Central and South Americas and the Caribbean to the title.

In all of that, she still finds inspiration and motivation from her student-athletes, staff and her fellow coaching colleagues.

“I’m inspired by the great coaches that are here, and I don’t want to be the slug on Gene (Smith)’s coaching staff. I’m not going to do that!” Dennis said. “They (the Ohio State coaches) inspire me to become better.”

Coach Robinson and Coach Dennis

The Baton Pass

All sports continue to evolve due to external factors like advances in technology and nutrition. One aspect that has been slower to evolve has been diversifying head coaching and administration positions within sports. A combined program led by an African-American woman is still uniquely rare in 2018, but what her and her staff is doing is encouraging to Dennis.

“There’s a stereotypic misconception that men can’t work for women. Our program defies that myth. I think that if I wasn’t getting results, then maybe I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘maybe I’m the problem.’ But right now we’re getting results so I’m thinking maybe we’re the solution.”

Dennis has worked to build a diverse staff of abilities and personalities that reflect the student-athletes she coaches. Her staff includes The General (Joel Brown), The Preacher (Khadevis Robinson), The Detailed One (Sara Vergote) and The Hyper One (Ashley Muffet).

“I think the diversity on our staff is a good thing because of the diversity of our student-athletes. Collectively our diversity gives us great collaborative ideas, as well as the ability to appreciate one another and work together as a team to get something accomplished.”

Like the lessons and encouragement passed along to her from Bibbs and Dr. Jackson, Dennis is looking at the next generation. But when asked what advice she has for young coaches (especially females and other under-represented groups), her response is interesting.

Don’t do it.

She said straight-faced before grinning.

“I encourage them to go into administration. We have to have to have more people at the table who are making decisions like the Dr. Jackson I had. Like Miechelle Willis that was here. Like Gene. There has to be people like my boss T.J. (Shelton) who can know other administrators and say, ‘who did you hire?’ Administrators who actively seek a candidate pool that is both talented and diverse. We have to have more voices sensitive to hiring both men and women making decisions.”

The race is not over nor will it ever be. For Dennis the baton was passed from Bibbs and Dr. Jackson. She took it and ran her leg in extraordinary fashion. But her work is not done. She still continues to build a competitive program while also looking at the next crop of coaches.

Who’s next?