Chip Scoggins: Soccer coach made career U-turn for all the right reasons

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2012 - 8:59 AM

Mikki Denney Wright's decision to step down as Gophers women's soccer coach caught many by surprise, but she simply decided her top priority had to be her children.

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Mikki Denney Wright held her two reasons for resigning as Gophers women’s soccer coach: her sons, from left, Forrest, 3, and Duke, 1.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Mikki Denney Wright cited her desire "to devote more time to her family" in announcing her resignation as Gophers women's soccer coach last week. That prompted several friends to call and ask if something else was happening, worried she might have a medical problem.

After all, what college coach walks away from a successful program in a major conference at age 37? This was her dream job, a position she worked tirelessly to achieve. She poured buckets of sweat equity into reviving the Gophers program and making it a winner again. The job consumed her, meant everything to her.

Denney Wright made so many sacrifices in her personal life that they simply became part of the routine, one of the necessary burdens of coaching at a high level. That's why her decision to step down caught many by surprise and left some wondering if there was more to the story.

"No," she said, smiling. "This is it."

This right here: 1-year-old Duke sitting on her lap holding a book and 3-year-old Forrest running around the living room making elephant sounds with his mouth. Suddenly, it all made perfect sense.

Denney Wright found something far more rewarding than her dream job. She became a mother to two little boys, and everything changed.

"Your first priority is you have to be a mom," she said. "I thought I'd be able to do [both]. But you don't realize how it pulls your heart and how nothing else matters."

She already has missed too much. She didn't see her boys take their first steps. She missed most holidays and other daily milestones. She spent every wedding anniversary alone in Florida at an annual event and at least 50 percent of her weekends on the road recruiting. Her husband, Shane, a former All-America pitcher at Texas Tech, was inducted into his school's athletic hall of fame last fall. His wife missed that, too.

Denney Wright is grateful now because she knows many moms don't get to choose whether they work or don't work. Her contract paid her a base salary of $77,500, but her husband's job in real estate development enables them to live on one income.

This wasn't an easy decision, though. She loves coaching and cares deeply about her program and players. She tried to juggle both and strike a balance but found it impossible to serve both well. She knows only one way to coach, but that leaves little time for anything else. That's no longer a sacrifice she's willing to make.

"I think my players will understand when they have kids what the pull is," she said. "I never knew what being a mom would be like. It changes your world."

A coach's world revolves his or her program. It's a lifestyle more than a 9-to-5 job, something Denney Wright witnessed firsthand growing up. Her father, Mike, coached wrestling at Nebraska-Omaha for 32 seasons, winning seven NCAA Division II championships.

Coaching, particularly at the college and pro level, is an around-the-clock commitment, and Mikki gave willingly after being hired by her alma mater in 2004. The former Gophers captain and All-Big Ten performer inherited a program in the dumps, and she threw herself into fixing it.

She worked ridiculously long hours, sometimes sleeping at the office. She recruited year-round and re-established relationships with high school and club coaches. She watched film religiously, often reviewing the same game five times.

"For five years I didn't see the light of day," she said. "It was my No. 1 priority. We lived and breathed it."

The payoff came in one Big Ten championship (2008) and two NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearances (2008 and 2010). The Gophers won 70 percent of their games the past four seasons. But it came with a cost.

She had a wonderful nanny who kept a daily journal, filmed videos of the boys and brought them to practices and games. Denney Wright even tried bringing them along on a road trip to California, but that was stressful as well.

The inner tug-of-war intensified last fall. She was constantly fatigued and emotionally conflicted. She felt sad as she and Shane looked at different preschools for Forrest.

"She's sitting there going, 'I'm going to miss all of this. I'm going to miss so much,'" Shane said. "That started weighing more and more."

The family took a recent trip Up North to a cabin -- something Mikki never had done because of her schedule -- to talk about things. She decided she wanted to focus strictly on being a mom and felt confident her program is on solid footing and can handle change.

"It's the right time," she said. "It's too important. You only get to be a mom once."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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  • Mikki Denney Wright guided the Gophers to a Big Ten title and two appearances in the NCAA round of 16, but the team's success came at a cost to her, as she was working around-the-clock.

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