Sewanee assistant coach Shelby Denning a role model for women…

SEWANEE, Tenn. – From her perspective, Shelby Denning never thought of herself as – or even wanted to be – a pioneer. She was simply following a dream.

But in the past six months, Denning became just that, joining a small fraternity of women entering the male-dominated profession of college football coaching. The native Texan just finished her first season as the receivers coach at the University of the South, more commonly known as Sewanee, making her one of only a handful of women working as assistants on the field with a position group.

“When I got hired and first got here, I could tell the players weren’t that confident in me at first,” Denning said. “But being close to their age helped with communication and I just tried to work to earn their respect.

“Looking back on it, I’m just very grateful for the opportunity because I realize that I’m going to do something that seemed impossible just a few months ago. How cool is it to be on the field and training? That is right there, I’ve always wanted to be. I guess some of us are starting to break down those barriers.”

The Tigers, who compete as members of NCAA Division III and the Southern Athletic Association, completed their sixth year under head coach Travis Rundle in mid-November. But as the season nears its conclusion at higher levels of national championship games — the Football Championship Subdivision title game between North Dakota State and South Dakota State is Sunday, followed by Monday night’s College Football Playoff final between Georgia and TCU — the landscape in sports continues to to change.

From the CFP field expanding in the 2024 season to conference realignment to NIL deals for players, college football is slowly evolving. With women like Denning and Brown University offensive line coach Heather Marini — the only full-time female assistant in Division I — being hired on staff, the changes include breaking down gender walls.

Growing up in Fort Worth, where her family — like so many in Texas — loves watching football at all levels, Denning played football and captained the cheerleading squad. However, she found herself more attracted to the football pitch.

“If there’s a game on somewhere, I want it on TV somewhere in the house, so she grew up watching football,” said her father, Mike. “When she was a cheerleader, every time we looked on the sidelines, she would get closer to the field. And she would yell at the players when they messed up, like a coach.

“I honestly think the only reason she became a cheerleader was because it was the only way she could get closer to the field and be around the game.”

As a student at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, near her hometown, Denning worked as the football team’s media coordinator and helped with recruiting. She also worked with a nearby junior high’s offensive coordinator.

After graduating from SAGU, she applied to approximately 50 high schools across the country that had advertised a number of job openings on the spot.

“I never even heard back from most of the schools, but the ones I did, I could tell they weren’t interested in hiring me,” Denning said. “One school up north even asked why a woman would coach football.

“But then I got a call from Coach Rundle and he didn’t treat me any different because I’m a woman. He just talked to me about the job like I was any other interested coach.”

Rundle wanted to find a young assistant who would bring energy, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective to the staff.

“When we started talking to candidates for the position, Shelby just killed it in her interview,” Rundle said. “After her Zoom meeting with the rest of the staff, we discussed who to hire and it was unanimous that she was the best choice.

“Later, when I told my family we were going to hire a woman as an assistant, I saw my daughter’s face light up and it told me what an impact it could make. Shelby is so eager and hungry to learn and she works hard at it every day. That’s exactly what you want out of any young assistant coach.”

When Denning was first hired, she made the 12-hour move — farther than she had ever been from home and family — and got a crash course in Sewanee’s offensive playbook.

“I had about a week to learn the offense before preseason camp started, so it was tough,” Denning said. “Add to that how scary it was to be so far away from home for the first time, plus being nervous that I wouldn’t fit in, and it was very stressful.

“But when I first got here, Coach Rundle and the other coaches did a great job of making me feel like a part of the staff. Most of the players took the time to ask about me and get to know me , but some others didn’t really look my way during the season, which is fair because I learned along with the players as the season went on.

“I was honest with my position group and told them that if there was something we didn’t know, we would ask and learn about it together.”

Tigers tight end John Luke Lasseter, a sophomore from Ashford, Alabama, was one of the players in Denning’s position group. He admitted there was skepticism early on, but he also said Denning earned the team’s trust and respect.

“I think I was one of the first guys to reach out and try to get to know her early on,” Lasseter said. “We were all trying to learn about each other and the offense together, and I actually thought it was cool how we all grew together.

“Whether you’re a player or a coach, everyone at the college level has to prove themselves before they’re accepted, and we saw her pick things up really quickly and work hard at her job.”

When Sewanee coaches recently met with the school’s athletic director, John Shackleford, to begin discussing plans for next season, Denning was informed that she would be welcomed back on the staff. She said she plans to spend her first offseason studying the playbook and asking plenty of questions to continue expanding her knowledge of the game to become an even better coach on the field.

“She knew it was going to be an uphill battle because she’s a woman, but she was never afraid to try, and that’s inspiring,” said Shelby’s mother, Evelyn. “I don’t think she understands that she’s a role model now. I do, and that’s why I’m so proud — the impact she has and could have on other young girls.

“When kids grow up, they change all the time about what they want to be when they grow up. But Shelby never changed her answer when people asked what she wanted to do. She always said she wanted to be a soccer player . coach.”

Denning meeting that personal goal has been special for more than just the former cheerleader turned coach.

“The world we still live in is telling young girls what they can’t do,” Evelyn said. “She thought she’d settle for coaching another sport. But I’ll never forget the first game we went to see her coach at Sewanee.

“We were all walking out of the cafeteria after breakfast and one of the players (freshman offensive lineman Gavin Potter) said, ‘Hey, Coach Denning,’ as he walked by. I burst into tears when I heard one of the players address her as a coach because it meant so much to know that our daughter is living her dream.”

Contact Stephen Hargis at or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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