Right on time: After 25 years with ESPN, Dennis Deninger landed in Hamden

Lenny Neslin

On the set of Q30’s “Sports Paws” in the Ed McMahon Center at Quinnipiac University, students involved in the show will often hear their director complaining about not receiving a script with ample time to prepare for a shoot. Dennis Deninger, QU’s newest professor in the sports studies minor program, encountered a similar problem while working at ESPN, but it involved Chris Berman.

“Chris wouldn’t start working on his script until an hour before an hour-long show,” Deninger said. “You can’t start a show without a marked-up script.”

“Sports Paws” was created to emulate ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” but featuring specifically Quinnipiac athletics. Nick DePace, a senior media production major and sports studies minor, who interned at ESPN last fall, works as a director for “Sports Paws.”

“It’s just crazy when you don’t have the script,” DePace said. “It makes for a very stressful show.”

When Deninger guest lectured a sports studies course on the history and impact of ESPN last spring, Associate Professor of Media Studies Lisa Burns knew Deninger would be an excellent hire for the University.

“He has a lot of practical experience that he can share with students, yet he understands how the industry has evolved and can explain that to his classes,” said Burns, who co-directs the sports studies minor at Quinnipiac. “He is a great example of a practitioner-turned-teacher who can balance the two.”

“Connecting with people is crucial for those of us who are looking toward the communications industry, whether it’s film or television,” DePace said. “What gives us the edge over someone else will, more often than not, be who we know that works for the company — someone to give a personal reference to the recruiter or firm that is handling the hiring.”

Deninger collected three Emmy Awards in his 25 years with ESPN for innovation in sports television, production on digital platforms and educational television. After starting out teaching a one-credit workshop at Syracuse University, his alma mater, in 2000, he found a passion for imparting the wisdom he accrued at ESPN to college students.

“I really enjoy sharing what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced and giving advice [to students],” Deninger said.

Former Dean of School of Communications David Donnelly made the final decision to hire Deninger, and said expanding the sports media department and leveraging the school’s relationship with ESPN was a goal all along.

“Not every professional is necessarily a good teacher,” said Donnelly, who is now dean of Chatham University’s College for Graduate Studies. “I knew Dennis was driving up to Syracuse University to teach, and they have a great communications program. QU is lucky to have him in the classroom.”

Now Deninger is teaching the same course he guest lectured in, MSS 420: Sports, Media & Society, on Tuesday nights in the School of Communications’ high-definition screening room.

“He brings an interesting angle to teaching at QU, with his extensive hands-on experience in the field of sports television,” said Mike Young, a senior communications major enrolled in the course. “His background and connections with ESPN can be a great asset to Quinnipiac students looking to get into sports media, especially considering the close proximity of ESPN’s headquarters.”

Deninger is certainly a person communication students will want to be acquainted with, as he launched more than a dozen television series and events for the network based out of Bristol, Conn., including Wimbledon, Major League Soccer and the National Spelling Bee. He also created the most successful daily sports series in the history of the Internet, “SportsCenter Right Now,” and the first continuously-displayed, sponsored scorebox for live sports as a coordinating producer for the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

Brian Reilly, a sophomore communications major and the executive producer of “Sports Paws,” was very excited to hear the school added a professor with Deninger’s background.

“I think it’s a great thing that Quinnipiac is going out there and bringing quality faculty for our education,” Reilly said. “People with experience such as Professor Deninger give students like myself a great opportunity to learn from people that have actually worked in the field.”

Deninger first got into the media industry as a senior in high school when he worked for a radio station in his hometown, Hornell, N.Y. At Syracuse, he worked in the news section at The Daily Orange and went on to become a news director at the CBS radio station at Syracuse the summer after his junior year.

He replaced Bob Costas at Channel 3 in Syracuse in a fill-in role for news, sports, weather and any other job asked of him. There, he also met John Nicholson, currently a professor of practice in broadcast journalism at Syracuse, who is still a close friend of Deninger’s today.

“He is as loyal as it comes,” Nicholson said. “Dennis was there for me when I needed a friend. He stepped up and gave me a shot. You can’t possibly say thank you enough times for something like that. He’ll downplay it. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

When Deninger taught his night course at Syracuse, Nicholson and his wife Susan often hosted him for the night so he could drive back to his home in Cheshire the next day.

“He genuinely loves teaching,” Nicholson said. “When he’s talking to you, you don’t get the impression he’s looking around to see who else there is to talk to. He pays attention to you. And he’s not pretending to care, for that moment, he actually does. He’s not teaching for something to do — he loves to do it — he loves the interaction with the students.”

After producing the news at Syracuse and New Haven, Deninger wound up covering some less-peaceful news out of Miami. Deninger, who was married and had two sons at the time, found himself flipping to the sports section every morning.

“One of the wonderful things about sports is that it’s scheduled — news is not scheduled,” Deninger said. “In Miami, we’ve got terrible things that happen to people, all of which are a scramble.

“We were not sure we wanted to raise our kids in South Florida,” Deninger said. “When we had a chance to come back to Connecticut, it was great.”

Through a connection with George Grande, the first anchor of “SportsCenter,” at Channel 8 in New Haven, ESPN offered Deninger the job of coordinating producer in October 1982. After taking the job and working on the show for three and a half years, Deninger left “SportsCenter” to create “Scholastic Sports America,” a show that featured high school sports and aired on ESPN for 15 years.

“When you’re starting something from scratch — where you have to assemble the entire team, decide on the music, the theme, the visuals, what you’re going to invest in doing for talent for features and all of the specialty things that make a show special — those are all part of the decisions that a coordinating producer has to make,” he said.

Deninger hired a full crew – including anchor Chris Fowler – to do the traveling for the show, but later did specials on youth sports internationally in Russia, Germany, Japan and Australia.

Then Deninger moved over to remote production to produce major tennis, horse racing and several other live events nationally and internationally, some lasting up to a month due to the preparation required to produce.

“At the peak of my travel, I was out of the country for over 100 days,” Deninger said. “That doesn’t include in the country, but by that time my sons had gotten older and I didn’t need to be the stay-at-home dad as much.”

“When I did the French Open and Wimbledon together — they are only two weeks apart — my wife actually came over to Europe and we spent a week in between on vacation. I was out of the country from May 20 to July 7, but I loved doing it.”

Deninger, while still working at ESPN, found his passion for teaching when he was invited to guest lecture at Syracuse in 1999. He started teaching a one-credit workshop on live sports production in 2000 and couldn’t get enough.

“It was a great eye-opener,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”

After several years of teaching the workshop, he designed a course called “Sports on Television” with intentions to teach it at Syracuse. Once the school approved the course, Deninger taught it in the fall of 2008.

“A lot of my students have come to me with videos that they’re doing for their student projects,” Deninger said. “I’ll give them critiques. I also enjoy the feedback I get — the ideas, the interaction…I get a real kick out of it.”

Deninger is yet to be tardy for a class at QU, and, like a show with a marked script, his classes run smoothly.