Karen Dennis is a trailblazer, but breaking glass ceilings has come as a byproduct of her laser-like focus on excellence.
Throughout her career, which has spanned four decades, three programs, and two conferences, she has had one common goal: Winning. And win she has.
Dennis began coaching in 1977 at Michigan State – her alma mater – after a successful athletic career with the same program that saw her win the 220-yard dash at the AIAW Championships two years earlier. She graduated with a degree in agricultural economics and decided to pursue a career in coaching only when USTFCCCA Hall of Fame coach Dr. Nell Jackson, then the female administrator of the all-women’s sports programs at Michigan State, pointed out the need for more women coaches in collegiate athletics and opened a spot on her staff for Dennis while she finished her master’s.
After four years as an assistant coach, Dennis took over as head coach of the women’s track & field team in 1981. Over the next 11 years, Dennis led the Spartans to the 1982 Big Ten outdoor title and mentored a number of Olympians, Big Ten event champions, and All-Americans, most notably Judi Brown, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 hurdles.
Dennis left Lansing, Michigan, for the bright lights of Las Vegas when she accepted the role as head women’s track & field coach at UNLV in 1992. She made an immediate impact as the 1993 Rebels captured the inaugural MPSF indoor title. Under Dennis’ direction, 12 women from UNLV combined to earn 27 All-America honors, while two – Ayanna Hutchinson and Alicia Tyson – competed at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
After 10 years in Las Vegas, Dennis returned to the friendly confines of the Big Ten – but this time at Ohio State. Dennis served an assistant coach for both the men’s and women’s track & field programs from 2003 to 2006, then was promoted to head women’s track & field coach in 2006.
The Buckeye women thrived with Dennis at the helm. Dennis-coached athletes earned 31 Big Ten individual titles, 19 First-Team All-America honors and two NCAA individual event titles. Ohio State, as a team, completed the Big Ten indoor-outdoor sweep in 2011 and repeated as outdoor champions the following year.
Then in 2014, Dennis took full control of both the men’s and women’s programs at Ohio State when she was named Director of Track & Field and Cross Country. In just the last four years, Dennis guided the Buckeyes to 37 Big Ten individual titles, 31 First-Team All-America honors, and yet another NCAA individual event title.
And for someone who wants to be known for winning, 2018 must have been the sweetest year yet for Dennis. Her men swept the indoor and outdoor conference crowns and she became the first woman to lead a men’s program to a conference title in Big Ten history.
Dennis is a seven-time USTFCCCA Regional Coach of the Year and served as head coach of the U.S. women’s track & field team at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.