From Tears to Triumph
March 13, 2007
When one thinks about the history of Big Ten women's track and field, one name that floats to the top of the list is Karen Dennis.
A former national sprint champion at Michigan State during the 1970s and current head women's track and field coach at Ohio State, Dennis is still making an impact on the sport of track and field and the Big Ten.
In July of 2006, Dennis was hired as the Ohio State first head women's track and field coach since Mamie Rallins in 1993. Up until last summer both the men and women track and field programs were joined together. Prior to being named head coach at OSU, she spent four seasons as sprints and hurdles assistant for both the men and women programs.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity I now have at Ohio State," Dennis said. "Separating the two programs was not only beneficial to our program but to coach (Robert) Gary and the men's program as well. It's great that Gene (Smith) and Miechelle (Willis) decided to make this move."
Dennis says she is planning to recapture the state of Ohio as the program's primary recruiting area. With the academic reputation and athletic tradition that Ohio State currently has, obtaining her goal should not be a problem for her Buckeye program.
"We plan to make significant strides in our recruiting efforts to move this Ohio State program in a winning direction," Dennis said.
Prior to the official inception of Big Ten women's championships in 1982 Dennis was a standout track and field athlete at Michigan State. But Dennis endured some growing pains before she began to excel in the sport she grew to have so much passion for.
A skinny girl from Detroit, Mich., Dennis found her love for the sport after a disappointing afternoon at a youth track meet in Bell Isle Park. She finished first in the race, but was disqualified for running out of her lane. Sitting in her father's car in tears, she met a man that would impact her life forever in Jim Bibbs.
Bibbs saw glimpses of greatness in Dennis' performance and ask her father if he could teach her how to run correctly. Dennis began to train with Bibbs' athletes at Ecorse High, though she soon attended to Detroit Chadsey.
By high school, she had discovered her niche.
"I finally found something I was good at," Dennis said. "I was afraid of the softball. I got hit in the head with a tennis racket. I had track in my genes. My father was a high jumper. But it was Mr. Bibbs that influenced me to run track. Not only did Mr. Bibbs teach me how to run straight, but he taught me how to keep my life straight as well. He has been a tremendous influence in terms of helping develop me into an athlete, coach and a person."
After high school, Dennis headed south to Tennessee State University to run track. After a brief stint in Nashville, it was then she and Bibbs decided that it would be best for her to transfer to Michigan State.
This would be a move that would ultimately mold her into being a responsible woman.
"I had my daughter (Ebony) by this time and knew I wanted to give her as much as my parents gave me," she said. I knew Ebony at least deserved to have a stable environment to grow up in. I had to get back in school and finish my education."
Upon arriving in East Lansing, a major concern for Dennis was child care. But once again, Bibbs and his family were willing to do whatever it took to see her succeed.
"The Bibbs took care of Ebony on the weekends while I ran track," Dennis said. "I remember she would often go to classes with me during the week and my professors would give her little fun activities to do."
Being a full-time student-athlete and parent brought many challenges for Dennis and her young daughter. The family did not have a lot of money, but managed to make it with the help of loving people like the Bibbs.
"Although I did not have a lot of income I managed our resources very effectively where we were able to live comfortable," Dennis said. "Shortly after this time, Nell Jackson was hired as the women's track coach and the program got some funding. I got about $300 for the year which helped out a great deal."
Track and field would later gain official status as a varsity sport, which would give the MSU program a signature. In 1975, Dennis won the 220-yard dash at the AIAW National Championship. She was also an essential part of the 4x160-yard relay team that set a world record.
At Jackson's urging, Dennis stayed in East Lansing and earned a master's degree in sports administration. There she served as a graduate assistant and an assistant coach for three years. When Jackson left in 1981, MSU athletics director Doug Weaver named Dennis head coach.
Michigan State reached new peaks under the direction of Dennis. She coached standout athletes such as Judi Brown, who won the silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and Cheryl Gilliam, a 12-time Big Ten champion. Odessa Smalls was a three-time All-American under Dennis' watch, and Mary Shea also garnered All-American honors as well as a Big Ten 10,000 meters championship. After 11 years at Michigan State, Dennis then made a move to the West Coast.
In 1992, Dennis became the second women's track and field coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. She wasted no time achieving success when her indoor squad, led by All-American Crystal Irving, won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference Championship. At the conclusion of the 1993 season, Dennis received Conference Coach of the Year honors.
Perhaps the most impressive experience on Dennis' resume stems from the international track and field scenes. She served as the head coach of the women's track and field team in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. She has also made stops in Duisburg, Germany (1989 World University Championships), Havana, Cuba (1991 Pan American Games) and Gotteberg, Sweden (1995 World Championships), serving as an assistant coach at each of these sites.
"Coaching the Olympic team was a very positive experience for me as a coach," Dennis said. "I got to coach some of the best athletes in the world while representing my country."
Despite all of her coaching success, Dennis originally planned on moving into administration until she was hooked by her role as a mentor.