New coach Dennis Herren looks to continue Auburn wrestling tradition
By SHAWN SKAGER
Auburn Reporter Sports Reporter
December 14, 2011 · Updated 5:29 PM
Dennis Herren sits in the Auburn High School wrestling room, surrounded by tradition.
Banners on the walls bear testament to the past success of the Trojan wresting program.
Although all of them are special to Herren, 36, who graduated from Auburn in 1994, one is more meaningful.
It’s a team championship banner from the 1994 Mat Classic IX, a state crown that he helped win with his 178-pound title.
Now, as the new coach of the Trojans’ wrestling program, Herren is eager to guide his squad to more success and give it a chance to share in that tradition of excellence.
“In practice they get stories of the great tradition of Auburn wrestling,” Herren said. “And in the telling of that tradition, I make them part of that and I invite them to join that tradition.”
Herren grew up as a witness to Auburn wrestling tradition. His father, Kip Herren – now the Auburn School District superintendent – was the program’s coach from 1979 to 1992 and is a member of the Washington State Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“It was always a part of our life,” Dennis Herren said. “I just liked that I got to go out for breakfast with dad during tournaments.”
By the time he began elementary school, Herren was on the mat competing, but contends that he never felt any pressure from his
father to excel at the sport.
“I never knew it mattered if I won or lost,” he said. “He never really put any outcome pressure on me to perform, so it was always my own fire and ambition. And I think that’s what allowed me to continue wrestling in college after high school.”
In college at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Herren continued to shine on the mat.
He was a two-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American and in 1999, won the NAIA national championship at 174 pounds, the first American to win a national title for a Canadian university.
In addition to providing an outlet for his passion for wrestling, Herren said his time at Simon Fraser gave him in opportunity to explore his passion for the arts.
“I studied arts and culture,” he said. “It was a mix of dance, theater, film, visual art and poetry. At the time I fancied myself, and my friends as well, as warrior bards. That’s how we perceived ourselves.”
After graduation Herren returned to the Puget Sound, content to follow in the tradition of the writers he admired, including Ken Kesey and John Irving.
“I thought I would just write short stories,” he said. “But Randy Connelly, who had always been a legend in my eyes, asked me to help coach at Auburn Riverside.”
In 1999 Herren became an assistant coach at Auburn Riverside, where he helped establish a winning tradition for the Ravens.
“We had a good first year. We had Riverside’s first state wrestling champion in Franco Santiago (171 pounds),” he said. “And we made the top 10 in the state (in 2000), which was a big deal for Riverside.”
Around the same time, Herren realized he had a calling to help people away from the mat as well.
“I started to realize that my plan was to write poems and short stories, but God’s plan was for me to help people with disabilities,” he said.
Although he was working as a salesman, Herren decided to start his own company, American Ability, which helps disabled people find jobs.
“I took that sales skill set and mixed it with caring and believing in people with disabilities, and that’s how I formed American Ability,” he said. “It’s meaningful work. I’m just using the gifts I have and whatever I’m talented at to help people.”
Earlier this year, Herren found out about Auburn’s wrestling coach opening from one his best friend since the second grade, Tony Vacca, now an assistant with Auburn.
He jumped at the chance.
“I really thought it was an unlikely thing that I’d get this,” Herren said.
After getting the nod, Herren said the passion for wrestling took over.
“The fire and ambition to be a great team and to build a great team was instantly ignited,” he said.
Now, just a couple matches into his first season, it’s all about helping this generation of wrestlers get the same out of the sport that he did.
“I want to create a deeply meaningful experience for young women and men of all levels that they’ll carry with them their entire adult life,” he said.
Contact Auburn Reporter Sports Reporter Shawn Skager at firstname.lastname@example.org or (253) 833-0218, ext. 5054.