Bill Dennehy

Bill Dennehy with former player and current MLB outfielder Sam Fuld.

"I've had some teams that won championships, but I wouldn't put those teams above teams that struggled."

PEA Coaching Legend Says Goodbye

Bill Dennehy and his future  came to an understanding sometime between a hockey season and a baseball season long ago: He wasn’t leaving Exeter.

Dennehy had arrived in 1971 fresh out of the U.S. Army Reserve and a year after graduating from Springfield College. He had come to town looking for a job as a coach and athletic trainer. A buddy at Springfield had told him about an opening at Phillips Exeter Academy, a place Dennehy had not seen and knew little about.

He figured it would be a short stop on the way to a college coaching career.

Then, a few years into his stay, came an epiphany: I’m way too happy to go anywhere else.

“I realized, ‘You know, I really want to coach in college, but a lot of the kids I’m coaching here are going on to play in college anyway,’ ” he recalls thinking. “ ‘This is a pretty good spot.’ ”

So, the seasons passed, soccer to hockey, hockey to baseball, again and again. Dennehy stayed put, coaching all three sports and teaching physical education. And the better part of a half-century went by.

Now, 46 years later and four years since officially downshifting from full-time teaching and coaching to a more limited role, Dennehy finally is preparing to move on. He and his wife, Cyndee, are putting their house in Exeter on the market and settling at the family home on Martha’s Vineyard.

He has seven grandchildren, and two of them — grandsons Collin Shapiro ’17 and Greg Shapiro ’17 — will graduate from Exeter this spring after concluding their athletic careers here, so the timing is at least tolerable for Dennehy (a granddaughter, Maddie Shapiro ’18, is an upper). But he’s still not convinced he’s ready to go.

“I’m betwixt and between about it,” he admits. “But my wife has said enough with this two-houses thing.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” his son Patrick Dennehy ’92, who played three sports for his father at the Academy and now coaches hockey and is associate athletic director at Choate Rosemary Hall, says with a laugh. “He loves Exeter. I imagine he’ll be back up, watching games, every chance he gets.”

He’s been watching them at Exeter in one role or another since that fall of ’71, when he moved into an office at the end of the hall in a new athletic facility that would eventually be dedicated as Love Gym. He was a baseball guy — a one-time slugger at Springfield — and a trainer when he arrived, but he “nestled his way in” to the Physical Education Department. He also coached the boys soccer team and took over boys hockey duties when mentor George Crowe moved on to Dartmouth College in 1975.

Dennehy coached the three sports, served as a dorm adviser (“my fourth team”) and taught phys ed to preps (“my fifth team”) for most of three decades. He eventually left the boys soccer program to help with the girls teams, and yielded head hockey coaching duties to serve as Dana Barbin’s assistant beginning in the late ’90s, but Dennehy remained omnipresent in Big Red until coaching his final baseball game in 2013.

Even in retirement, he has stayed at Barbin’s side on the boys hockey bench, helping guide the team to a 23-win season this winter. His grandsons played leading roles for the Big Red.

“They’re really the reason I stayed around,” Dennehy says of coaching Collin and Greg. He would meet the boys at The Grill in the mornings during their prep year and enjoy the teenagers’ give-and-take with their friends. “It’s been pretty special to me, being able to watch them grow up.”

Dennehy credits changing sports with the seasons for his longevity. The turning of the page made for fresh starts and fended off burnout, he says. And his players were a constant elixir.

“I remember when I was just a kid, all his players were always in our apartment,” Patrick Dennehy says. “They would always be around, playing with me, throwing a Wiffle ball, whatever. Just a constant flow of kids.”

Dennehy’s demeanor on the sidelines, particularly as a younger man, could be hard-bitten — “pretty intense,” his son described it — a notion belied by his warm, amiable personality.

“He’s mellowed, but he made sure his teams worked hard,” Patrick Dennehy says. “Playing soccer for him, we rarely touched a ball. We weren’t the greatest skilled team, but come the second half and the other team was \ wearing down, we were still running.”

Dennehy’s Big Red teams won plenty, too, and scores of his players would go on to play in college. A few hockey players cracked pro rosters, and baseball’s Sam Fuld ’00 spent parts of eight seasons in the major leagues.

The coach remembers details of every team, of every season, but he avoids singling out one team or player over another.

“I’ve always steered away from that,” he says. “There have been so many great kids, kids who have gone on to great things, but if I started naming them, I’d miss some of my favorites. “I’ve had some great teams, some teams that won championships, but I wouldn’t put those teams above teams that struggled. Those kids never gave up or gave any quarter. That’s just as special to me.”

Most special, Dennehy says of his long tenure at Exeter, was watching daughter Tracy Dennehy Shapiro ’90 and then son Patrick graduate from the school. Father and son recounted a conversation the two had on the latter’s graduation day in 1992.

“He said to me, ‘Dad, I really respect what you’re doing. But I don’t ever want to do what you do,’ ” the elder Dennehy recalled.

Five years later, after Patrick finished a college hockey career at St. Lawrence University and was coaching and teaching at Holderness School, he would call his father to pick his brain for pointers. His father reminded him of that conversation.

“He called me out!” Patrick says, laughing. “I was hoping he’d forgotten.”

Now two decades into his own high school coaching career, Patrick Dennehy is regularly reminded of the legacy his father will leave at Exeter.

“People still ask me, ‘Are you Bill Dennehy’s son?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, yes I am.’

“He’s left a mark.”

– Patrick Garrity