For senior Anthony Sernus, the transition to college life was slightly jarring. “When you play high school sports, you have school, practice, and then you go home and eat with your parents,” says Sernus, a Big Red linebacker. Then, all of a sudden, your trusted counsel is no longer at the dinner table. “In college, you don’t see your parents. So it's huge that our coaches can serve as positive mentors.”
One of those mentors, Sernus says, is head football coach Jack Hatem. “Mentorship is critical,” says Hatem. “We're dealing with young people in many different capacities—not just students, but assistant coaches, too. And, hopefully, you can use your wisdom from your life’s journey to help them on theirs.”
It’s not a one-way street, though. “I have the benefit of working with these young, talented, creative people who I really learn from,” says Hatem.
These relationships have long been a focus of Director of Athletics & Recreation Nan Carney-DeBord, now in her sixth year at Denison. “What we've attempted to develop here is a model that emphasizes a mentor-first identity in our coaches,” says Carney-DeBord. It’s something the whole department values, she notes, and it has a positive impact on every aspect of the student-athlete experience.
“That mentorship goes on in the athletic training rooms, it goes on with the staff at the aquatic center, it goes on in the equipment managers area. It’s everywhere.” These experiences, says Carney-DeBord, translate beyond the athletic field. “Many students come to us unsure of who they are and where they're going,” she says. “What we do here helps them find their place in the world.”
Kerry Hager, a senior right fielder on the softball team, admits that her head coach, Tiffany Ozbun, initially intimidated her. “When I was a freshmen, I couldn’t see all sides of her,” says Hager. Every shouted instruction, she said, felt like a criticism. But last year, there was a breakthrough. Hager’s grandfather passed away, and she had to tell Ozbun she wasn’t going to be able to play the next game. “It was the way she handled it,” says Hager. “It wasn’t overly emotional—it was just that support she gave me, being there and knowing it was a tough time for me.” Since then, Hager has felt comfortable bringing other personal and academic issues to Ozbun, looking for guidance.
“What we do here helps them find their place in the world.”
Sernus does this, too. At first, he may start talking to Coach Hatem or defensive coordinator Bert Bathiany about the Bulls or the Browns, but eventually, talk will switch to picking classes or career paths. “They want to get as many wins as possible and minimize losses, but they really do care about forming solid relationships with the guys on the team,” says Sernus. Those have staying power. “When we talk to alumni who played here, they might not remember the result of a season, but they take the relationships with them for the rest of their life.”