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Longtime championships staffer prepares for retirement

By Greg Johnson

When Dennie Poppe left his hometown of Anchor, Ill., to become a football student-athlete at Missouri in 1966, little did he know it was only the start of an adulthood that would always associate him with college athletics.

The last 39 of those years have been spent working at the NCAA national office, where he is currently a vice president of championships and alliances. Poppe, who has been the lead championships administrator for the Men’s College World Series and the Football Championship Subdivision since 1987-88, announced his full-time tenure with the Association will end Jan. 1, 2014.

Poppe will maintain a yet-to-be-determined working relationship with the NCAA after his retirement. Damani Leech, director of championships and alliances, will transition into the lead administrator for the MCWS, FCS championship, Division I men’s ice hockey, women’s volleyball, men’s tennis  and rifle championships July 1.

Dennie Poppe, NCAA vice president of championships and alliances, announced he will retire Jan. 1, 2014 after 40 years of service.

“I’ve had the good fortune and honor of being involved with the NCAA for almost 40 years,” said Poppe, who turns 65 in May. “It has been gratifying to see the College World Series and FCS championship grow through the years. It has been fun to be along for the ride.”

One of Poppe’s lasting memories is the journey it took to get TD Ameritrade Park Omaha – the new home of the College World Series since 2011 – constructed.

The project took nine years, but it was worth all the ups and downs in the negotiation process. Now, the 24,000-seat stadium is the home of the MCWS for at least the next couple of decades.

“We have a venue that is appropriate for the College World Series and for those young men who play in it,” said Poppe, who plans to live in the Indianapolis area with his wife, Donna. “It was not an easy road. There was some negative reaction when there was talk of moving the event out of Rosenblatt Stadium. I had emotional ties to that venue, too, but I knew we had to move to another site.”

Rosenblatt had been the home of the MCWS since 1950, but the new place is already generating support. Poppe says he likes to watch the reaction of the players and coaches when they enter the stadium and see all the amenities.

“When they are walking around, you can hear them saying, ‘Wow,’ ” Poppe said. “When you impress student-athletes, you’ve done something.”

Some long-time local attendees have also been impressed. Poppe recalls seeing a group of women, whom he has known for years from his time spent in Omaha. They were not fans of the event moving away from Rosenblatt Stadium, and they made sure Poppe knew it. One night after a MCWS session, Poppe bumped into the group while leaving TD Ameritrade Stadium Omaha.

Dennie Poppe takes time for a lighter moment at national office when it was located in Kansas.

“They told me they had come there wanting to hate the place, but then they said it was OK,” Poppe said. “That meant it was pretty good. That is satisfying.”

His four children, Jon, Carl, Lisa and Ryan, have all grown up knowing they will spend part of their summers in Omaha.

Now, another generation of his family is starting to attend the event. Poppe has four grandchildren, and his daughter is expecting her first child in May.

“That is symptomatic to what the College World Series is to a lot of folks,” Poppe said. “It is a family reunion and a community celebration. People come together for that event. My family and other families gather at that time, and it becomes part of what your family does.”

Poppe will also take with him the friendships he’s developed through the years, especially those with Dave Keilitz, the executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association; Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association; and Jack Diesing, the president of College World Series Omaha Inc.

Poppe worked closely with Teaff to develop important football-related legislation passed on several issues such as spring football, summer workouts and pre-season conditioning protocols.

With Keilitz, Poppe worked on a working group that designed ways to improve the Academic Progress Rate in the sport. 

 “It’s the people you meet along the way that makes a difference,” Poppe said.

Start of a lifetime of work

After being an all-state quarterback in Illinois, Poppe’s introduction into college athletics came at Missouri, where he played for Dan Devine. Freshman weren’t eligible for varsity play then, so Poppe quarterbacked the frosh squad.

Eventually, he was moved to safety, where his 6-4, 225-pound frame helped make him an all-Big Eight Conference performer his senior season in 1969.

After graduating with a degree in political science and a minor in international economics, Poppe was set to try out as a rookie free agent with the New York Jets. But his Vietnam draft lottery number was scheduled to be called, despite him being married and already supporting a young child.

Dennie Poppe (28) posses with then-Missouri coach Dan Devine (lower left), his position coach Clay Cooper and some of his defensive teammates during his days as a student-athlete.

Poppe decided to enroll in law school and take ROTC officer training instead. Eventually, Devine asked him to be an administrative assistant, which led to him becoming an assistant athletics director at Missouri for four years. A colleague noticed an opening in public relations at the NCAA and suggested that Poppe pursue it.

Poppe wasn’t selected for the job, but former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt hired him as an assistant director for events.

“I remember telling Tom that I’d probably be here three years max,” Poppe said. “Then I’d probably look to return to a campus job.”

His first task was to run the skiing, golf and tennis championships.

“I remember thinking, ‘What a great job. I’m spending all my time at resorts,’ ” Poppe said.

Eventually, he worked on wrestling, ice hockey, and track and field championships as well. Poppe said wrestling presented its share of management issues.

“There were some challenges being the NCAA guy and trying to institute new policies,” Poppe said. “I was dealing with coaches who were used to doing it their way for so many years. It was an educational experience working with people and learning to facilitate and coordinate and understand that you had a job to do. There is a way to get things done where everyone can feel good about it.”

In 1987, Poppe was promoted to run the MCWS and the then-Division I-AA Football Championship.

“I have been exposed to so many great events during my time at the NCAA,” Poppe said. “But in my mind, this is the right time to step away. I look forward to working with Damani Leech as we transition responsibilities.”