When head coach Mikki Denney Wright announced her resignation from the Gophers women’s soccer program May 22, she stunned many of the people closest to her.
Denney Wright, 37, said she wanted to spend more time with her two sons, 3-year-old Forrest and 1-year-old Duke.
“If there were any clues or anything, no one caught on,” current player Nicole Baier said. “Even at our end of the year meeting … she was still talking as if she was going to be around for a long time to come.”
The news was unexpected to nearly everyone in the Minnesota soccer community — even Gophers players and coaches.
“I think I shocked a lot of people,” Denney Wright said.
Her husband Shane Wright said they received calls from people asking whether there was a deeper reason behind her resignation. Their reply was the same each time: It’s just family.
Denney Wright estimated that between road games and recruiting, she spent more than half her weekends away from home.
“I wasn’t spending enough time with my kids,” she said. “You only get to be a mom once.”
She said she discussed the resignation with her husband, Shane Wright, but no one else. Wright said he knew she didn’t take the decision lightly.
“When I first met Mikki, within probably our second or third date … she said, ‘Well, my dream would be to be the head women’s soccer coach at the University of Minnesota.’ Without hesitation,” Wright said.
‘A family atmosphere’
Denney Wright played for the Gophers in the mid-1990s, making the All-Big Ten team twice. She said one of her professional goals was to return to Minnesota as a coach.
She became the Gophers’ head coach in 2004 after holding assistant coaching jobs at Missouri and Nebraska-Omaha. After leading the program to a 34-35-6 record in her first four seasons, she engineered a dramatic turnaround in 2008, when the Gophers finished 22-4-0, won the Big Ten’s regular-season title and made the NCAA Sweet 16.
The program has continued its success since then, making the Sweet 16 again in 2010 and finishing in the top-six in the conference each of the last four seasons.
Denney Wright said she had hoped to win a national title at Minnesota. But the Gophers took a step back in 2011, finishing 9-10-2 and failing to make the NCAA tournament.
Before Denney Wright’s tenure, that kind of season was the norm.
“My goal was to leave it in a better place than I found it and put everything I have into it,” Denney Wright said, “and I certainly feel like I did that.” Katie Bethke, one of Minnesota’s top players during its two Sweet 16 runs, attributed her growth as a player and a person to Denney Wright.
“She is the most competitive coach I have ever had and I thought it brought tenacity to the soccer program,” Bethke said in an email. “No team ever wanted to play against us because we were relentless thanks to coach Mikki.”
Even through her intensity, Denney Wright emphasized the importance of family within the team.
“I think it’s something that you don’t see everywhere,” assistant coach Krystle Seidel said. “We talk about family in everything we do. … We just have a really big family atmosphere … and that’s 100 percent out of Mikki’s vision.”
Coach and mentor
Denney Wright has stayed involved in her players’ lives after their graduation. Former player Carlie Edwards is her nanny and once traveled with Denney Wright’s sons to two games in California during the season.
The coach also helped former players pursue soccer careers beyond college. The first Minnesota player to sign a professional contract, Kelsey Hood, played for Denney Wright from 2005-08. Bethke and Jennie Clark played in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league as well as in Europe.
Denney Wright’s influence on Bethke extended beyond the soccer field. Bethke said she plans to pursue coaching after her professional career ends.
“She has been my first mentor on my journey of becoming a [soccer] coach,” Bethke said in an email. “She has gotten my foot in the door with coaching quality clubs, teams, and players around the Twin Cities as well as guiding me through the coaching licenses. I still ask her for career advice.”
Another former player, Kylie Kallman, has tried out for WPS teams. She said Denney Wright inspired her players at Minnesota to continue to play after college.
“I thought I was going to be four years and out of soccer,” Kallman said. “But I loved playing so much after those four years that I didn’t want to hang the cleats up just quite yet.”
Regina Sullivan, Minnesota’s senior associate athletics director in charge of soccer, said hiring a new head soccer coach for next season won’t be hindered by the transition between athletics directors Joel Maturi and Norwood Teague.
“I don’t think we’ll miss a beat in that regard,” Sullivan said. “It’s a great opportunity for [Teague] to get to hire a new coach right off the bat.”
Denney Wright said she has no concrete plans after coaching besides spending time with her family.
“I didn’t really have a plan when I [quit],” Denney Wright said. “I obviously love to coach and I’m sure there are ways I can give back to the community. … I’m just going to take it as it comes.”
The only other big decision Denney Wright has made since leaving Minnesota was buying a minivan.
“I never thought I’d see that day,” Denney Wright said.
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