UNO wrestling emphasizes character

Nebraska-Omaha Coach Mike Denney celebrates with 157-pound national champion Patrick Allibone at the 2005 NCAA Division II Championships. The Mavericks have won the NCAA team title the past three seasons.

OMAHA - Tucked in the northeast corner on the second floor of Sapp Fieldhouse, the empty wrestling room seems like any other.

Thirty minutes before practice is scheduled to begin, all is still. Like most other practice facilities around the country, wrestling mats are shoved next to each other in a tight space, the warm air thick with the day-old scent of perspiration from the previous day's practice.

Glance around the room, though, and it's clear that Nebraska-Omaha's wrestling program was built on more than just hard work and sweat.

A large black banner along the east wall defines character for UNO's wrestlers.

It's a quality that UNO Coach Mike Denney takes seriously.

"Your ultimate success comes down to your character," Denney said. "It doesn't come down to how many matches you've won. It comes down to your character."

Denney has led the Mavericks to the past three NCAA Division II national championships, so some might say it's easy to preach character when you're winning.

But Denney said his coaching philosophy doesn't stress the end result. It emphasizes values that help young men become not only better wrestlers but also better people.

"We never really mention winning," Denney said. "Winning becomes something that if you're doing the right things, winning kind of takes care of itself."

It's a philosophy that has worked brilliantly for Denney.

In his 28th year as UNO's head coach, Denney has led the Mavericks to four national titles, seven North Central Conference championships and six national runner-up finishes.

* * *

Part of Denney's philosophy involves creating a family within the wrestling program.

He calls it team power. It means trainers, assistant coaches and athletes are all working together with the same goal in mind.

"When you're around a bunch of people who are really working hard, what a great feeling," Denney said. "Not every organization has that, so you really feel fortunate when you have a group that's working hard and dedicating themselves. It's a special thing."

Brad Hildebrandt, who wrestled for Denney in the mid-1980s, said team-building is one of Denney's strengths.

Though wrestling is an individual sport, Hildebrandt said Denney wants his teams to bond and feel like they are part of something larger.

"I think that a big reason why they're so successful is because they're like a family," Hildebrandt said. "Everybody looks out for each other."

Twice every year, once in the fall and once in the spring, Denney gives his wrestlers drug tests. The test, which requires taking a strand of hair from each team member, detects drugs in the system going back 90 days.

It all ties back to Denney's emphasis on building good character.

Though the testing is more stringent than those found at most programs around the country, UNO wrestlers said they know what Denney expects.

"All the commitment and discipline has already helped me in my classes," said senior J.D. Naig, a two-time individual national champion, "and I think it will help me after I get out of here."

Sophomore Cody Garcia, who won an individual national championship last season in the 125-pound weight class, said he chose to attend UNO over Division I Iowa State because he felt he could develop more as a person and a wrestler.

"(Denney's) just a great mentor and he has a way of bringing the best out of people," Garcia said. "After I graduate I'll take a lot from this program. It makes you a better person on and off the mat."

* * *

UNO's media guide touts the fact that 60 former UNO wrestlers are wrestling coaches at some level from California to New York.

Nebraska Coach Mark Manning and Nebraska-Kearney Coach Marc Bauer are both former Maverick wrestlers.

Former Maverick wrestler Steve Costanzo is in his first season at Division II St. Cloud State (Minn.) after leading Dana College to the 2006 NAIA national championship.

Hildebrandt has led Omaha Skutt Catholic High School to nine consecutive Class B state titles.

Naig said he might want to coach for a year before enrolling in chiropractic school, while Garcia said he intends to pursue a coaching career after graduation.

Denney's influence comes as no surprise to Hildebrandt.

"He inspires you to want to contribute some way in wrestling, and coaching is just a natural progression," Hildebrandt said. "He inspires you to do what he did - give back to the sport and try to help young men learn life lessons from wrestling."

* * *

The Mavericks have placed no lower than eighth at the national meet for 26 straight seasons.

Denney calls it the built-to-last factor.

"In order to fall into that category of built-to-last, you've got to be consistent year in year out, and that's the hardest thing to do," Denney said. "It's a lot easier to get to the top, but staying up there is the real test."

For the built-to-last factor to be work, Denney said there must be a constant focus on never being satisfied.

As a Maverick wrestler, Hildebrandt said he remembers Denney stressing the importance of consistently performing at a high level day in and day out.

"It's an amazing feat," Hildebrandt said of UNO's consistency. "That's just a testament to (Denney) bringing out the best in his wrestlers."

* * *

Unlike many Division I schools, UNO doesn't have a football or basketball program that generates revenue to support non-revenue sports.

The Maverick wrestling program has the same operating budget it did when Denney arrived in 1979.

That means the team must raise about $100,000 to keep the program where it needs to be, Denney said.

"I'm not complaining one bit," Denney said. "What I'm saying is you have two choices here: You can either find ways to survive and prosper, or you can sit around and complain about it."

Denney and the Mavericks have chosen the first option.

In the late 1980s, Denney considered moving to the Division I level when Wyoming offered him its head coaching job, but he and his family ultimately decided to stay in Omaha.

Before coming to UNO, Denney coached 10 years in the high school ranks at Omaha South and then Omaha Bryan.

Though coaching the Mavericks this long was not what Denney envisioned when he arrived on campus 28 years ago, he's not looking for opportunities elsewhere.

"This was a fit for me; this was my home," Denney said. "I kind of felt like I was called to be here, and this is what I'm supposed to be doing. As long as my key still keeps working in the door, I'll be here."

And as long as that key still fits, UNO wrestling appears to be in good shape.