After Leading Both Ohio State Track and Field Teams to Big Ten Championships, Karen Dennis Felt It Was The Right Time to Retire

By Dan Hope on June 14, 2022 at 8:35 am
Karen Dennis
Ohio State Dept. of Athletics

Since Karen Dennis was promoted to director of track and field and cross country at Ohio State in 2014, one of her biggest goals had been for Ohio State’s men’s and women’s track and field teams to both win Big Ten championships at the same time.

That dream became reality last month when the Buckeye men and women both won the team titles for their respective genders at the 2022 Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Dennis considers that, the first time any Big Ten school swept both outdoor titles since Wisconsin in 1997, to be a highlight of her 45-year coaching career.

“My professional dream was to have both our men and our women win together so that they could celebrate together. And that's probably one of the most satisfying moments in my entire career when I sat there and watched those kids for two hours on the track just celebrate together with their families, take pictures and just enjoy the moment with each other,” Dennis said. “I went and got a chair and sat up under a tree. It was awesome.”

Accomplishing that goal made it easier for Dennis to make the decision she informed her team of just 29 days later, on Monday, when she announced her retirement from coaching. 

Following 20 years at Ohio State in which Dennis rose from being an assistant coach for the women’s team to leading the entire track and field program, she decided it was time to pass the baton and allow a younger coach to take the helm.

“I've been thinking about it for the past four or five years, but you bring in a new group of freshmen, and you figure you're gonna see them out. And after 20 years here, bringing in freshmen and seeing them out, I just decided that this was a good time,” Dennis said Monday afternoon. “I've been in the game 45 years. And part of my role as an educator is to help develop and nurture future leaders. And I think that's what I've done here at Ohio State in my role as a head coach. I feel really good about the young people that are in the program, I feel really good about the coaches that I've helped to mentor. So it's just time for me to step aside and let some new young leadership come through.

“I think it's just important to know when to stop, and I think this is the time when I feel like the program's healthy; I feel like our young coaches that are here now, they're capable.”

Ohio State is expected to announce Dennis’ successor this week, and she believes the program she is leaving behind is one that’s set up to continue to thrive under new leadership. (Update: Ohio State announced the hiring of Rosalind Joseph as its new director of track and field and cross country on Tuesday.)

“I feel good about the new coach that's gonna come in,” Dennis said. “I think that the cupboard’s not bare. There's somewhat of a legacy that they can build on. And I think that that's what each and every one of us as coaches here at The Ohio State University has done. You take the program and you elevate the program, and I don't expect that to change.”

“I think it's just important to know when to stop, and I think this is the time when I feel like the program's healthy; I feel like our young coaches that are here now, they're capable.”– Karen Dennis on retiring after 20 years at Ohio State

Dennis says she hasn’t given much thought to what her legacy at Ohio State will be, but there’s no question she’s leaving a big one behind. Her 12 Big Ten championships as a head coach are the most ever for a female Ohio State coach (and tied for the third-most of any Ohio State coach). By leading the men’s team to three Big Ten championships (two outdoor and one indoor), she became the first female coach to ever lead a men’s team to a Big Ten title in any sport.

Five of her Ohio State athletes combined to win eight individual national championships, and five of her Ohio State athletes went on to compete in the Olympics. Three-time shot put national champion Adelaide Aquilla and fellow Tokyo Olympian Anavia Battle are among the athletes she coached who say she was a big part of their success as Buckeyes.

Although Dennis has often been called a trailblazer, she says she doesn’t think of herself that way. She just tried to work as hard as she could to help Ohio State and its athletes succeed, not only in athletics but also in their lives outside of sports.

“People talk about trailblazing; I just grind. I just worked,” Dennis said. “I just think that when you get to any position in life, and this is what I think our young people really need to understand, it’s not about how much money you make, it is about being passionate about what you do. It's about being excellent at what you do. Money will come, but opportunities won't come if you don't make the most of them and work hard to be the best at it.”

Karen Dennis’ Coaching Career
Years School Title

She also says her assistant coaches and other staffers deserve just as much credit as she does for Ohio State’s success during her head coaching tenure.

“I've had an amazing group of coaches who have traveled this whole journey with me, who have struggled with me, who have fought with me, they've been in the trenches, in the foxholes with me and they've helped recruit and develop these young people,” Dennis said. “So for whatever people think I did, I never did it alone. I did it with the support of an amazing group of coaches and the support staff that supported us in terms of academics, athletics; in terms of the trainers, in compliance, making sure we didn't make any mistakes and screw up anything. It's just been a unified and a total effort on behalf of the entire athletic department here for me.”

That said, Dennis is grateful Gene Smith gave her the opportunity to coach both the men’s and women’s track and field programs at Ohio State, and she hopes her success leads to more opportunities in the future for female track and field coaches.

“Some of the coaches that have reached out to me today, particularly some of the women, I've asked them to, just reminded them, how important it is to have a sisterhood,” Dennis said. “There's still a lot of men who will not hire women. And there are fewer women, I think, in the pipeline for coaching men and women. And that's why I'm so appreciative to Gene for trusting me enough to be able to give me the directorship of this program. Because without that example, then there are other women who may not even think that that could happen. And as a result of that, there are more women now who are directors of combined programs, and I think that's important.”

Although she is a Michigan State alumna, Dennis hopes to be remembered “as someone who really loved The Ohio State University” as she calls it a career.

“What I've aspired to do for the past two decades while I've been here is to elevate the program and to enrich the lives of a lot of the student-athletes that have come through our program,” Dennis said. “And really, it's just been a real enjoyable task to spend time with these great young people, as well as the parents, because there's a big community here that has helped support me, as well as our entire team.and our staff.”

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