MOUNT VERNON — Embracing new opportunities and responsibilities is nothing new to Eric Denning.
Now in his 27th year in the Mount Vernon School District, Denning has previously been an English teacher, dean of students and served on a pair of South Dakota High School Activities Association committees on top of being a husband and father, though his kids are now grown.
Denning’s current titles include athletic director, boys basketball coach and principal for grades 6-12, but he’s recently added another line to an already lengthy resume.
Following a run-off election win, Denning was installed on the SDHSAA’s Board of Directors on July 26, where he will serve a term that lasts until June 30, 2026 on the state's board of top decision-makers for high school activities. His seat represents the state's athletic directors for Division IV high schools, which are the state's smallest with an average daily membership of less than 122 students in grades 9-11.
In some ways, it’s business as usual for Denning, since working with the activities association, local schools, administrators, athletic directors and coaches has been part of his routine in some way for two and a half decades.
“I think I see things from a pretty broad perspective,” Denning said. “I’ve been around a long time, I still coach, I’m a school administrator and I’ve served on different boards through the activities association. Because of those things, I think I have a vision that allows me to see things through a lot of lenses, which I think is helpful in a position like that.”
The scope of Denning’s new role is quite broad as well, dealing with matters from the current shortage of officials to the usage of new technologies to the appeals process. With the board’s wide purview, there are always going to be problems to solve, but welcoming those as part of the learning and development process is second nature for the lifelong educator and coach.
“If you’re a person who doesn’t always accept the status quo, who’s always looking for new and better things and better ways to do things, I think there are always challenges,” Denning said. “The activities association is no different. There are always ways to improve and that’s why you want to be in a leadership position.”
The Board of Directors has six regularly scheduled meetings on a cycle that runs from July to the following June, with additional dates for special meetings and strategic planning sprinkled in when necessary. So while the new position holds special significance to Denning, it won’t be his most time-consuming — that distinction goes to his duties as athletic director. That meant running for a seat on the board was more a matter of personal satisfaction and gratification than it was of time management and commitment.
“I still really enjoy being around the kids and coaching and I also really enjoy the athletic director side of things. That’s why it’s always hard for me to give anything up,” Denning said. “Sometimes I worry that I get spread a little too thin and don’t get to do a very good job or be as attentive to things that I want to. I’m not a lot different than a lot of other small school coaches and athletic directors. We drive buses, tape ankles and just about everything in between.”
Denning’s journey started during his college years. He was already pursuing a career path in education, and, at the advice of others who thought the experience would make him more hireable, he started coaching baseball during the summer.
“I got hooked and it's never really left me,” said Denning, who’s now in his 25th year coaching basketball in Mount Vernon.
But whether it's his years coaching basketball, 20 years teaching English, 16 years as an athletic director or seven years as a school administrator, Denning’s motivations have not wavered.
“I like to do things I feel are important and things I feel will make an impact,” Denning said. “I’m pretty fortunate to be in the positions I’m in so that I can have new challenges every day. Sometimes that gets to be exhausting, but at the same time it’s very rewarding.”