Mike Dennis came along before high school football recruits were judged by stars. But had stars applied back in 1961, Dennis might have had six.
Dennis, who will be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Saturday night, was a speedy, bruising running back at Murrah High under Hall of Fame coach Jack Carlisle. He was a sprint champion at 200 pounds. He possessed the power to run between the tackles and the speed to run around end. He ran so hard he earned a nickname: Iron Mike.
“I never coached a back who had all the attributes Mike Dennis had,” Carlisle has said.
That’s coming from a man who coached more than 60 years on the high school and college levels.
“Mike had such size and strength, mixed with such speed,” Carlisle added. “He would play hurt. He loved to compete. My goodness, how he loved to compete. And he was a great teammate.”
Recruiting junkies today would scarcely believe what went on in the recruitment of Dennis. This was back when football recruiting was like the Wild, Wild West. There were no scholarship limits. There was no limit to visits. And practically every school in the nation wanted Dennis, who was also an model student and citizen.
Says Carlisle of Dennis’s recruitment: “It was a circus.”
Dennis grew up an Ole Miss fan.
“I was Eagle Day and Eddie Crawford in my backyard,” he says.
And Ole Miss was a national power in those days. Mississippi State recruited him hard, as well. So did LSU. And so did Alabama, where Bear Bryant was deity and a relentless recruiter.
The Bear wanted Dennis and he didn’t cut corners to try and get him. Just for starters, he sent his son, Paul Bryant, Jr., over to Jackson for a couple of weeks the summer before Dennis’s senior season to spend time with Dennis.
Paul, Jr. would return to watch Dennis’s last five high school games in person. When Dennis visited Alabama, he didn’t stay in a dorm or at a hotel. No, he stayed in Bear Bryant’s house.
In fact, Dennis visited Alabama at the same time as a recruit from Biloxi, a future Crimson Tide standout named Jackie Sherrill.
“Jackie and I drove around Tuscaloosa in Bear Bryant’s Cadillac,” Dennis said. “I really thought I might go there.”
It didn’t hurt that Bryant offered scholarships to two of Dennis’s teammates and good friends who weren’t heavily recruited.
But Ole Miss recruited Dennis every bit as hard. Assistant coach and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame charter member Bruiser Kinard spent so much time in Jackson he could have taken up residence. John Vaught also recruited Dennis personally.
In the end, Dennis chose Ole Miss. Says he, “You can’t imagine how hard it was to tell Bear Bryant no.”
But that didn’t stop schools from recruiting Dennis right up to signing day. There was no dead period at the end of recruitment back then. Several schools sent representatives to Murrah the day before signing day hoping to get Dennis’s signature. Bruiser Kinard was there and didn’t like what he saw.
“I guess it’s OK to tell this story now,” Carlisle said. “Bruiser looked around and said, ‘We gotta get him outta here.’”
So, Bruiser Kinard got Dennis out of school, took him to the King Edward Hotel where they rented a room on the top floor. And there they stayed until midnight that evening. At 12:01 a.m., National Signing Day, Mike Dennis signed with Ole Miss.
Iron Mike Dennis was the Rebels’ last two-time All-SEC running back until Deuce McAllister came along. He was the eighth pick of the AFL draft, the 31st of the NFL draft. He signed with the Rams, only to suffer a bad knee injury that ended his career prematurely, but not before he was the Rams’ Rookie of the Year.
Again, Dennis was smart. He put his signing bonus money in the bank and began dental school in the off-season when it became apparent his knee was never going to be the same.
Dennis retired from football after the 1967 season, finished his dental training and set up practice in Jackson. He retired in 2013 and now lives in Oxford where he attends the sporting events of both his grandchildren and the Rebels – and where he has some stories to tell.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.