The Suffield Academy basketball team had never staged a dunk contest until coach Rick Dennison, brainy first-year math teacher and former brawny Denver Broncos linebacker, gathered his private Connecticut prep schoolers in that small gymnasium back in 1992.
“These kids couldn’t even touch the net,” laughed Dennison, now 61 and trying to help the Vikings rise higher offensively as their new line coach and run game coordinator.
“They looked at me like I was crazy. ‘Why are we having a dunk contest?’ I said, ‘You got to visualize. You got to try. I want to see you jump as high as you can. That’s how we’ll get better.’ They enjoyed it. That’s part of learning.”
Teaching is in Dennison’s blood. Literally.
His father, George, was a history professor and president at the University of Montana. His brother, Rob, is a retired math teacher. And Dennison, with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in fluid mechanics, still considers himself a teacher, a schematic gridiron problem-solver schooled long ago in Denver by Alex Gibbs, the legendary line coach and godfather of the modern zone blocking scheme the Vikings have bought into this season.
“In 2015, the year we won the Super Bowl in Denver, our offensive line went through hell, but Rico held it together and found a way to help me call games to fit the strength of our team,” said Gary Kubiak, Denver’s head coach that year and now Vikings assistant coach/offensive consultant.
Dennison, by the way, became “Rico” in the summer of 1982. He was an undrafted rookie out of Colorado State when Broncos linebackers coach Bob Zeman gave him the nickname. “It stuck,” says Rico.
Dennison was Kubiak’s offensive coordinator in 2015. On Day 1 of OTAs, Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady suffered a season-ending knee injury. In Week 3, Clady’s backup, Ty Sambrailo, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Former Cretin-Derham Hall standout Ryan Harris moved over from right tackle and made it work.
“Just watching Rico piece through that situation and for us to keep winning was very, very impressive,” Kubiak said.
Especially when you consider that four of the linemen who started in the 24-10 upset of Carolina in Super Bowl 50 never played again for the Broncos.
“And they won that Super Bowl with Peyton Manning throwing for 141 yards,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who hired Kubiak and Dennison because they’re 100% of like mind in their allegiance to running the football, unlike last year’s puzzling round-peg-square-hole hire of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Building wind tunnels
Dr. James Wedding was Dennison’s trusted academic adviser his senior year at Colorado State. He formed a group called FAME — Fluid and Mechanical Engineers — that worked out of Fort Collins designing wind tunnels for college credit.
“Air pollution control,” said Dennison. “Measuring the particulates in the air. That was my passion. Football wasn’t even a thought.”
Not until the Broncos came calling about the same time Wedding set Dennison up with a research grant based on his wind tunnel design work. Wedding worked it out so Dennison’s grant would start in September if the Broncos cut him or January if he made the team.
Dennison made the team that year and eight more, playing in 128 games and three Super Bowls. He started 52 games, played on special teams, totaled 514 tackles and won the team’s Ed Block Courage Award in 1989.
Dennison spent 1991, his first year out of football, in Boston working for Converse as a materials research engineer at a time when sneaker companies were ramping up their cushioning technology. Then, during a New Year’s Eve party that year, he struck up a conversation with a teacher who worked at Suffield Academy.
There were openings for a math teacher, assistant football coach and dorm master. Dennison’s wife, Debbie, was from the area. Bingo.
Dennison worked primarily with the offensive line but did a little bit of everything. Suffield went from 0-9 the year before to 9-0 in 1992.
“In our world, you get these rah-rah guys who think they have to yell and scream,” said Drew Gamere, a receiver on that ’92 team and now the head coach at Suffield. “Rick doesn’t need to do that stuff to be effective. He wasn’t that former NFL player who came in and acted like he knew it all. There was no ego involved.”
Charlie Cahn, now headmaster at Suffield Academy, came to the school the same year as Dennison. He remembers Dennison being “incredibly patient” as a teacher of college-level math classes.
“He could teach the kids that learning came easily to and the kids that learning didn’t come easily to,” Cahn said.
Unfortunately, Debbie became ill during Dennison’s three-year stint at the school. When she passed away, Dennison got a call from Kubiak, his old friend and former teammate, who had joined mutual friend Mike Shanahan’s new staff in Denver as offensive coordinator.
“When I got with Mike, and Debbie had passed, I said, ‘Mike, let’s get Rico back here and get him in NFL coaching,’ ” Kubiak said. “Rico had two young boys [Joe and Steve]. It was hard. He needed to come home.”
Today, Dennison is a grandfather who has coached in the NFL for a quarter-century. He and his second wife, Shannon, have a son, Trey, and twin daughters, Abrynn and Allie, together.
“This past spring, the twins needed help in geometry,” said Dennison, his face lighting up. “That’s my favorite subject. I loved teaching geometry.
“First, you present it the way you learned it. Then you figure out what’s not clicking. Then you go a different way because the light can come on a different way for people whether it’s learning geometry or football. It’s just a matter of attacking it from all angles.”
Rico becomes gofer
Dennison’s first coaching title in Denver was offensive quality control coach in 1995-96. He broke down film of opposing defenses. Drew up plays. Helped with special teams drills. And picked Gibbs’ brain whenever possible.
“Basically,” said Dennison, “what you do is everything nobody else wants to do. Go get coffee, make copies, whatever. And in the process, learn a lot of football.”
Dennison was promoted to special teams coordinator in 1997, when the Broncos won the first of back-to-back Super Bowls. He moved to offensive line coach in 2001 and offensive coordinator in 2006. He was reunited with Kubiak in Houston in 2010, followed him to Baltimore in 2014 and back to Denver in 2015.
When Kubiak retired as head coach after the 2016 season, Dennison spent 2017 as Bills offensive coordinator and last year as Jets offensive line coach and run game coordinator.
“I tried to work outside of football, but you just don’t get the same feeling you do on Sunday afternoon,” Dennison said. “It drove me back to the game.”
So how does a man with a mind for the precise rules of measuring air pollution particulates and solving mathematical equations adjust to the artful disorder and chaotic randomness that sometimes unfolds after a football is snapped?
“Most of what I do is I look at schemes as concepts,” Dennison said. “Just like anything else. Pythagorean theorem. Bernoulli equations. Those are concepts. What’s a zone do? What’s the essence of a zone? What are we trying to do? What are we trying to pick on? Then try to apply those concepts to what I see on tape and then make the necessary adjustments during the game.”
Later, Kubiak was walking off the practice field at TCO Performance Center when he was asked for his thoughts on Pythagorean theorems and Bernoulli equations. He laughed and shook his head.
“You’ve been talking to Rico, haven’t you?” he said. “Sometimes I think he’s too smart.”