A great run for Dennis Poppe - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 9:57 am
College World Series
A great run for Dennis Poppe

Video: CWS introduces Dennis Poppe Plaza

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A measure of what the College World Series has come to mean to Dennis Poppe might be found on his Christmas cards.

There is one of the Poppe family at Rosenblatt Stadium. And another. Lately, the background has shifted to Omaha's new downtown stadium — the stadium in which Poppe played instrumental roles in both conception and construction.

It's been 26 years since the NCAA put Poppe in charge of running the CWS, the championship event that has called Omaha home since 1950. The 2013 CWS is the last one for which Poppe is director.

When he took over, the CWS was just starting to flex its muscle. It was still more Omaha's quaint little baseball tournament than an event embraced around the country.

Poppe has overseen the event's explosion of interest and growth. On his watch, Rosenblatt was transformed, through a series of multimillion-dollar renovations, from a sleepy minor league ballpark to a big-time stadium. Then, when it became apparent that further renovations might not be economically feasible, Omaha built the CWS a new home downtown that will host the CWS through 2035.

Poppe praised before first pitch

Dennis Poppe, one of the architects behind the College World Series' ascension into the national spotlight, was recognized before the first pitch Saturday.

Poppe and his family stood just in front of home plate as Jack Diesing Jr., president of CWS of Omaha Inc., thanked the NCAA's top baseball ambassador, who is retiring at the end of this year.

After a short video presentation, Diesing announced that a space just outside the southwest side of TD Ameritrade Park will be named Dennis Poppe Plaza. The plaza will be identified by a permanent monument standing more than 8 feet tall with a description of the contributions made by Poppe during his tenure.

The CWS fans gave Poppe a standing ovation.

And, in typical Poppe style, he was the first to start ushering his party off the field.

“Let's go,” Poppe said, motioning toward the dugout.

It was time to play ball.

Jon Nyatawa

The people he's worked with in Omaha have become friends for life. His four children grew up spending a part of their summers at Rosenblatt. Now they're bringing his grandchildren back to TD Ameritrade.

And getting their pictures shot for the annual Christmas card.

“I don't know if there is any better way a person can show what's close to his heart than by putting it on a Christmas card,'' said Kathryn Morrissey, executive director of College World Series of Omaha Inc. “You're showing people how you spent your year and giving them a taste of what you think is important in your life.''

Poppe, who lives in Indianapolis, where the NCAA is headquartered, announced over the winter that he plans to retire Jan. 1, 2014, after 40 years with the NCAA organization. Poppe, who turned 65 in May, is currently the NCAA's vice president for championships and alliances.

While this is the last CWS at which Poppe will be calling the shots, he makes it clear it won't be his last series.

“I have a new grandson that will be making his first appearance at the College World Series,'' Poppe said. “His mom assures me it won't be his last — and it probably won't be mine, either.''

There are many associated with the CWS who believe one reason the Poppe family will have a chance to make future trips to Omaha is because of the loyalty he has shown to the city and its premier sporting event. If it weren't for Poppe, they say, the NCAA might have chased the money and moved the CWS to another city.

Bruce Rasmussen, the athletic director at Creighton University, has worked with Poppe since joining the College World Series of Omaha Inc.'s board of directors in 1992. Rasmussen cites many reasons why the event has flourished.

“But if Denny Poppe isn't there,'' Rasmussen said, “I'm not sure we have the College World Series in spite of all those other things. He's certainly been a critical factor in why the College World Series has been here for all these years and will be here for the next 25.''

Rasmussen's opinion is shared by Morrissey.

“Not very many people have left as big a footprint on the College World Series as Dennis has,'' said Morrissey, who became involved with the event shortly after Poppe took over running it. “If it weren't for Dennis, the College World Series might not still be in Omaha, for all we know.”

Poppe credits the partnership the NCAA has established with the City of Omaha and College World Series of Omaha Inc., the local sponsoring group, for helping grow the event.

“The time I've spent in Omaha made me realize how important the event is to the city,'' Poppe said. “My time there allowed me the opportunity to work with a lot of people that stepped up and did the things necessary to keep the World Series in Omaha.”

Like any lengthy relationship, the NCAA's partnership with Omaha has encountered a bump or two. Contracts have had to be negotiated in which the wants and desires of both sides needed to be addressed.

Through it all, Jack Diesing Jr. said, Poppe never lost a sense for what was important to the event's success.

“He realizes that having an event like this in a place that thoroughly embraces it is a win-win for everybody,'' said Diesing, president of CWS of Omaha Inc. “I've always felt that he was always about what is best for the kids that play here and the fans that attend the event.”

If it has to do with the College World Series, we're on it. Check out our CWS historical database, historical photos and our complete event coverage.

Poppe's impact on college baseball stretches far beyond the confines of TD Ameritrade Park. He's been instrumental in expanding the NCAA tournament field to 64 and introducing a second round of games, called super regionals, into the playoff format. He has worked to expand television coverage, and it's fitting that in his last year as director, every pitch of the tournament will be televised.

Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, said Poppe also has helped get legislation through the NCAA that has helped grow the game at all levels.

“I'm confident in saying that no one in the past 20 years has been more influential in the advancement of college baseball,'' Keilitz said. “His work behind the scenes has been instrumental in making college baseball better than it has ever been.''

One of Poppe's strengths as an administrator, Rasmussen said, is his ability to “see the whole animal.''

“He understands what makes this work from the coaches' standpoint, from the players' standpoint, from the fans' standpoint, from the city's standpoint and from the NCAA's standpoint,'' Rasmussen said. “It's important to see the whole animal and involve everyone in the process.”

That became especially important as NCAA and Omaha officials pondered relocating the CWS from Rosenblatt, which had served as the home to the event since 1950. At the NCAA's urging, the city spent millions of dollars in renovating the stadium on the hill in the 1990s and early 2000s.

City officials began exploring options around 2007 when it was decided that putting more money into Rosenblatt wasn't financially sound. Poppe knew abandoning Rosenblatt would meet with resistance in the community, but he helped marshal the support that led to the construction of the new stadium.

He did so with mixed emotions, partly because of the personal ties that had developed over the years.

“A lot of my family's identity was tied to that stadium,'' Poppe said. “My son got engaged in left field in 2010. I understood the significance it had with a lot of people in the community. I knew the significance it had with my own family.”

Poppe believes he is leaving the event in good hands as his assistant for the past decade, Damani Leech, will take over supervision of the event. Poppe laughed when asked if he had given Leech any advice that might aid in the transition.

“All I said is 'Don't screw it up,''' Poppe said. “In all seriousness, he'll do a great job because he is very aware that none of us can ever become complacent. We can never assume that the great support we've had over the years is always going to be there.”

Upon announcing his retirement, Poppe said he planned to stay with the NCAA as either a consultant or a part-time employee. He'll spend more time with his children and grandchildren. He and wife Donna plan to do some traveling.

“I have some bucket-list items that I want to take care of, ” he said.

Poppe said he's leaving his life's work with no regrets. A great run, he calls it.

One that made Omaha, and the event it loves, the better for having Poppe around.

“He's never lost his appreciation for the core value of this event,'' Diesing said. “He's believed in what Omaha has done over the years for this event, he believes that our goals are the same as his.

“He realized that this is 'The Greatest Show on Dirt,' and the place it should be is in Omaha.''

Contact the writer:

402-679-2298, steve.pivovar@owh.com, twitter.com/PivOWH

Contact the writer: Steven Pivovar

stevepivovar@hotmail.com    |   402-679-2298    |  

Steven Pivovar is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and primarily covers Creighton athletics and the College World Series.

Friday, June 14
Opening Celebration

Saturday, June 15
Game 1: Mississippi State 5, Oregon State 4
Game 2: Indiana 2, Louisville 0

Sunday, June 16
Game 3: N.C. State 8, North Carolina 1
Game 4: UCLA 2, Louisiana State 1

Monday, June 17
Game 5: Oregon State 11, Louisville 4
Game 6: Mississippi State 5, Indiana 4

Tuesday, June 18
Game 7: North Carolina 4, LSU 2
Game 8: UCLA 2, N.C. State 1

Wednesday, June 19
Game 9: Oregon State 1, Indiana 0

Thursday, June 20
Game 10: North Carolina 7, N.C. State 0

Friday, June 21
Game 11: Mississippi State 4, Oregon State 1
Game 12: UCLA 4, North Carolina 1

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Monday, June 24
Finals Game 1: UCLA 3, Mississippi State 1

Tuesday, June 25
Finals Game 2: UCLA 8, Mississippi State 0
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