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DIII football star comes home

By Jack Copeland

Mark Dienhart was elected Mr. Tommie at the end of his senior year by his fellow students, and arguably the St. Thomas graduate never fully surrendered the title to any of his 38 successors.

The honor, awarded annually since 1931 and now known as the Tommie Award, recognizes the senior who “best represents the ideals of St. Thomas Aquinas through scholarship, leadership and campus involvement.” Although Dienhart stepped down earlier this year as executive vice president and chief executive officer at his alma mater – and he also was away from campus during the 1990s when he served as men’s athletics director at Minnesota – it’s hard to imagine anyone whose has exhibited such an impressive mix of scholarship, leadership and involvement through the past four decades at St. Thomas.

He was the Tommies’ first Division III champion, winning the shot put at the 1975 outdoor track and field championships.

He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills after earning all-American honors -- as well as Academic All-America recognition -- as an offensive lineman on the St. Thomas football team.

But as his majors in philosophy and physical education (as well as his near-perfect grade-point average) indicate, he was immersed in campus life – and has remained so through most of his life, particularly since returning to the university as an administrator in 2001.

He also has been a presence throughout Division III’s history, not just as champion student-athlete but also as a championship-winning coach and most recently as leader of St. Thomas’ non-academic units (including serving as vice president or “direct report” overseeing athletics).

Dienhart was one of the first two Division III finalists following the 1973 restructuring for the Today’s Top V Award, the NCAA’s highest honor for student-athletes. (Only one student-athlete from  a school that aligned with Division III, Cornell College football player and spring 1973 graduate Rob Ash, was a finalist before restructuring.) Neither Johns Hopkins swimmer Bill Milne nor Dienhart were selected for recognition at the 1975 Convention – it would be another year before a Division III student-athlete received that honor -- but even Dienhart’s shot put championship a few months later wouldn’t mark the last time his name was heard around Division III.

As head football coach for six seasons at the school, he led the team to its first Division III Football Championship appearance in 1983. Then, he led St. Thomas to the team title at the very first Division III Men’s Indoor Track Championships, held at Bates College in 1985.

Since returning to an administrative role at the school, he has been honored with a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Athletic Development Directors, and at the 2013 NCAA Convention, he was one of six panelists representing Division III institutions who spoke on integrating athletics fund-raising into institutional advancement and development programs. He also has served as a member of the Division III Interpretations and Legislation Committee.

Among other achievements during his vice presidency, Dienhart led a capital campaign that raised $515 million for the school and increased its donor base from 6,400 to more than 15,000 individuals. The university also built seven major buildings during his tenure, including an athletics and recreation complex.

In July, Dienhart was selected as president and chief executive officer of the Schulze Family Foundation, with a mission to support advancements in such areas as K-12 education and medical research.

“Mark has had a meaningful impact at every turn at every turn of his career at St. Thomas,” said foundation creator Dick Schulze, founder of Best Buy Co. “His knowledge will provide insight and experience to our mission of creating transformational change for mankind.”