If the portfolio — without name or photo — of the director of the Ohio State men’s and women’s track and field teams was plopped onto anyone’s desk, the thud would echo down the hall.
“It’s impressive,” athletic director Gene Smith agreed. “It’s very impressive. We’re a sum of our experiences, all of us, and you look at that resume and there is an unbelievable multitude of experiences over the years.”
Recent additions include leading the Ohio State men’s team to the Big Ten indoor title two months ago and to its first outdoor title since 1993 last week, and being named the conference’s indoor coach of the year and outdoor coach of the year.
That goes along with being a Big Ten track athlete at Michigan State in the 1970s, rising through the coaching ranks on the college and international scenes (coach of U.S. women’s team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics) and serving on various committees that help steer the sport.
Oh, and that coach is Karen Dennis. She was the first woman to be named Big Ten coach of the year for a men’s track and field team.
Smith played a hunch four years ago that she had the goods to run the whole program. Dennis knew she did.
“You know, men have been coaching men and women forever,” Dennis said recently as the men’s and women’s teams prepared for NCAA preliminaries next week. “So there is no secret. They’re student-athletes. They’re people. … It’s just that women have not had the many opportunities that men have had to coach men and women.”
She said she could see years ago the college trend toward combining the programs, “and I had to posture myself in order to be in a leadership position. So when the opportunity be an assistant coach in a men’s and women’s program came up here (in 2003), I jumped at it.”
Dennis was promoted to women’s coach in 2006 when Smith opted to split the programs after a long combined run under Russ Rogers, who had retired. When men’s coach Robert Gary was let go in spring 2012, the men’s team operated under an interim coach for two years before Smith decided to recombine the jobs under Dennis.
“I knew Karen before I came Ohio State,” Smith said. “She and I served on the NCAA track and field rules committee in the early 1990s.”
He had watched her work as a head coach at Michigan State from 1981 to ’92 and had gotten glowing reports from his wife, Sheila, who was associate AD at UNLV when Dennis was the coach there (1992-2002).
“So I have seen her evolve over time, and then here, with what she was doing with our women’s team, it actually was not that difficult a decision,” Smith said. “She is a strong coach in terms of the sport itself. She has a way with her student-athletes. She’s a disciplinarian. She’s just really talented.”
Joel Brown seconded that notion. A three-time All-American at Ohio State as a hurdler from 2001 to ’04, he had taken coaching from Dennis that helped him improve.
“She had a calm presence, a very motherly presence … but she’s truthful, and she’s knowledgeable,” Brown said.
After that he became a volunteer assistant for her, and for four years now he has been the assistant coach for hurdlers and sprinters.
“The movement is going the right direction under coach Dennis,” Brown said.
It’s the vision Dennis had in the late 1970s after she first was talked into coaching by her Michigan State coach, Nell Jackson. Then it was difficult getting her foot in the door with female athletes because she was a woman, Dennis said. But when she convinced top recruit Odessa Smalls to take a chance, “she came to Michigan State and won 13 Big Ten championships. And the rest is history.
“I took it personal. I didn’t like the feeling of being ostracized, or not being able to recruit women because I was a woman. That’s crap.”
Now she recruits women and men, and coaches them to championships. It’s all in the portfolio.