* * *
A measure of what the College World Series has come to mean to Dennis Poppe might be found on his Christmas cards.
There is one of the Poppe family at Rosenblatt Stadium. And another. Lately, the background has shifted to Omaha's new downtown stadium — the stadium in which Poppe played instrumental roles in both conception and construction.
It's been 26 years since the NCAA put Poppe in charge of running the CWS, the championship event that has called Omaha home since 1950. The 2013 CWS is the last one for which Poppe is director.
When he took over, the CWS was just starting to flex its muscle. It was still more Omaha's quaint little baseball tournament than an event embraced around the country.
Poppe has overseen the event's explosion of interest and growth. On his watch, Rosenblatt was transformed, through a series of multimillion-dollar renovations, from a sleepy minor league ballpark to a big-time stadium. Then, when it became apparent that further renovations might not be economically feasible, Omaha built the CWS a new home downtown that will host the CWS through 2035.
The people he's worked with in Omaha have become friends for life. His four children grew up spending a part of their summers at Rosenblatt. Now they're bringing his grandchildren back to TD Ameritrade.
And getting their pictures shot for the annual Christmas card.
“I don't know if there is any better way a person can show what's close to his heart than by putting it on a Christmas card,'' said Kathryn Morrissey, executive director of College World Series of Omaha Inc. “You're showing people how you spent your year and giving them a taste of what you think is important in your life.''
Poppe, who lives in Indianapolis, where the NCAA is headquartered, announced over the winter that he plans to retire Jan. 1, 2014, after 40 years with the NCAA organization. Poppe, who turned 65 in May, is currently the NCAA's vice president for championships and alliances.
While this is the last CWS at which Poppe will be calling the shots, he makes it clear it won't be his last series.
“I have a new grandson that will be making his first appearance at the College World Series,'' Poppe said. “His mom assures me it won't be his last — and it probably won't be mine, either.''
There are many associated with the CWS who believe one reason the Poppe family will have a chance to make future trips to Omaha is because of the loyalty he has shown to the city and its premier sporting event. If it weren't for Poppe, they say, the NCAA might have chased the money and moved the CWS to another city.
Bruce Rasmussen, the athletic director at Creighton University, has worked with Poppe since joining the College World Series of Omaha Inc.'s board of directors in 1992. Rasmussen cites many reasons why the event has flourished.
“But if Denny Poppe isn't there,'' Rasmussen said, “I'm not sure we have the College World Series in spite of all those other things. He's certainly been a critical factor in why the College World Series has been here for all these years and will be here for the next 25.''
Rasmussen's opinion is shared by Morrissey.
“Not very many people have left as big a footprint on the College World Series as Dennis has,'' said Morrissey, who became involved with the event shortly after Poppe took over running it. “If it weren't for Dennis, the College World Series might not still be in Omaha, for all we know.”
Poppe credits the partnership the NCAA has established with the City of Omaha and College World Series of Omaha Inc., the local sponsoring group, for helping grow the event.
“The time I've spent in Omaha made me realize how important the event is to the city,'' Poppe said. “My time there allowed me the opportunity to work with a lot of people that stepped up and did the things necessary to keep the World Series in Omaha.”
Like any lengthy relationship, the NCAA's partnership with Omaha has encountered a bump or two. Contracts have had to be negotiated in which the wants and desires of both sides needed to be addressed.
Through it all, Jack Diesing Jr. said, Poppe never lost a sense for what was important to the event's success.
“He realizes that having an event like this in a place that thoroughly embraces it is a win-win for everybody,'' said Diesing, president of CWS of Omaha Inc. “I've always felt that he was always about what is best for the kids that play here and the fans that attend the event.”