Regrets about retiring?
Doug Denson has none.
Stepping away from the Millard South wrestling team, which has won the past three Class A state titles, comes ideally for the World-Herald Nebraska boys coach of the year.
“I always had in my mind I wanted to be sure the program was back on top and in place before I left,” Denson said. “To have it play out like this, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Millard South has been dominant in Class A for the past 16 years. The Patriots strung together titles from 2005 to 2008 before their current streak. Seven titles in 13 years is the best era in the state’s largest class in 50 years — since Omaha South won nine of 12 titles ending in 1967.
Since 2002, they’ve been out of the top four at state only once. They’ve won the past three Class A dual team titles. Denson coached 31 individual state champions before he turns over the program next season to assistant Nate Olson.
Ross Halford of Blair, who runs the HuskerMat website, said Denson is held in high regard statewide. Denson has maintained wrestling’s record book for the past 30 years and published a monthly in-season newsletter, “The Headlock,” before the Internet came along.
“Everybody knows coach Denson and they respect his contributions to the promotion of wrestling in Nebraska,” Halford said.
Additionally, Halford said, Denson has transformed coaching methods while moving through the ranks from Palmer to Omaha St. Joseph, Boys Town and Millard South.
“He’s revolutionized the CEO concept when it comes to wrestling in the state,” he said. “Millard South is such a big program and has so many kids. He’s not so much now a hands-on coach. He lets the assistants run the program for him and he manages all the high-level stuff.”
Longtime Millard South assistant Jay Meneely said Denson holds high expectations for his coaches and wrestlers.
“My job has been teaching, the technique side,” Meneely said. “Nate’s real good with TrackWrestling (the state’s meet-reporting system) and has been the junior varsity coach. Doug brought in people to do jobs and holds them accountable.
“He’s a very driven, organized person.”
Denson, 57, came to Millard South as an assistant in 1993-94 and became head coach the next season. The Patriots were state runners-up in his first season and then again in 2002, when the program got its legs. The next season, they had their first two state champions in a decade, and only once since then have been shut out from the gold-medal platform.
How the championship teams of 2005 to 2008 were built differs from the current run of three.
“The first time around, I’m the wizard,” Denson said. “It was built through all the hard work with our youth club. Every Sunday, every moment in the summer. I brought up a group that kind of coincided with my own kids there.
“That was a grassroots effort. I’ll tell you, that’s not a real sustainable model. There’s only so much time and energy you have.”
Aaron Denson was a three-time champion and younger brother Morgan a two-time winner for their dad. In Morgan’s senior year, 2009, the Patriots were runners-up to Grand Island as the Islanders began a five-year run atop Class A.
Millard South was third the next year and fourth the next, but tumbled to 12th in 2012. A rash of injuries from football was a big factor, but Meneely said there was a letdown and a drop in intensity within the program after the four titles.
The low point, Meneely said, re-energized his friend.
“If we do this, I want to be the best we can be, I remember him saying,” Meneely said. “His goals and missions always have been the same.”
Millard South was back to fourth in 2013 and the next year lost the title by a half-point to Omaha North.
Contrary to the first run, the past three Millard South titles weren’t as rooted in its youth club program. It was getting wrestlers who hadn’t been in the school district — some who were at-risk students.
“Kids want to be a part of what’s going on,” Denson said. “This has been a more eclectic group, a more diverse group, than before.
“There are differences in how you coach because you didn’t bring them up through the (club) program. They haven’t had that same discipline. We try to create an environment to reach their goals. You can’t wipe out their history and redo what they have done.”
To facilitate their success, Denson matched up wrestlers and coaches based on needs and compatibility. He said it also took getting “my administrators at Millard South coming on board.”
“I said it was better for (the wrestlers) to be involved,” he said, “than them being on the street and not be successful in or out of the classroom.”
Denson practiced what he preached. After he coached at Boys Town, he and wife Jill became foster parents for 17 children. The last, Hannah, they adopted, and she will be a sophomore at Millard South this fall.
“Boys Town had so impacted my entire life, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “After being there, we considered taking on all levels of kids and what they bring to the table.”
He said Hannah was born to a mother who was addicted to meth. The Densons became her foster parents when she was very young.
“We fought for her, Jill going to every court battle,” Denson said. “We got her when she was 6. We adopted her and she’s done really well in running, qualifying for state in cross country and track.”
The couple’s other children are Katie, 34; Aaron, 30; Morgan, 26; and Hayley, 20.
Dad’s introduction to wrestling was through a 331⁄3 rpm record. Yes, an instructional album.
Denson graduated in 1978 from David City Aquinas, which didn’t have wrestling until his freshman year.
“Our first coach was recruited. He never had wrestled. We had to learn off a record. It told you the moves. That’s how we learned,” he said.
Denson has the record, too. Someone saw it at a sale, bought it and gave it to him.
He was wrestling for Midland when the college dropped its wrestling program. Over at Class C Fremont Bergan, wrestling coach Joe Vojtech was looking for an assistant, especially to work with Mark Evert. The heavyweight went 27-0 and was a state champion that season.
“Coach let me do whatever I wanted to do,” Denson said. “I was super-jazzed to have the opportunity to coach. I didn’t know if I wanted to teach, but I wanted to do that.”
He did both. At Palmer, he was the Class D coach of the year in 1987. A year later, he went to Class B Omaha St. Joseph. When the school closed in 1990, Boys Town hired him and he was there three years before his final stop at Millard South.
“He’s one of the few coaches who’s touched every single level of wrestling, Class D, C, B and A, with where he’s coached,” Halford said.
Meneely said Denson is a marvel at strategy.
“He’s as good as anybody in picking apart weaknesses and attacking those,” Meneely said. “And moving kids into the right weights to give us the advantage. I can name a handful of times in dual wins when we were not the better team. He was adamant about going for pins and bonus points. He never let the kids settle.”
Denson is leaving education for private business. He’s managing the Bike Masters Cycling store in northwest Omaha after working part-time there for the past 10 years. He got in on the Lance Armstrong craze in 2000 “and fell in love” with cycling.
Between cycling and all that mat time, he had knee replacement after the wrestling season and is just getting back to cycling again.
Walking away cold turkey from wrestling isn’t in store, either. He’ll help Ron Higdon, the NSAA’s assistant director in charge of the sport, and stay involved with the Millard South youth program.
Denson is the third from wrestling to receive The World-Herald’s coaching honor. Curlee Alexander of Omaha North was honored in 1994 and Brad Hildebrandt of Omaha Skutt in 2005.
He also joins Larry Ribble (1988) and Rich Olson (1996) as coaches honored from Millard South.
“Every year, and I’m an avid paper reader, I’d look at the people who have been honored,” Denson said, “and I would never have put myself in the same breath with them.”