Ken Den­linger was a long­time Post colum­nist and the au­thor of books about col­lege sports.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LEONARD SHAPIRO new­so­bits@wash­post.com

Ken Den­linger, a long­time Washington Post sports colum­nist who also wrote books on col­lege ath­let­ics, in­clud­ing one of the first to ex­am­ine un­scrupu­lous re­cruit­ing of young bas­ket­ball play­ers by some of the na­tion’s top col­lege pro­grams, died Oct. 3 at his home in Fred­er­ick, Md. He was 73.

The cause was esophageal can­cer, said his wife, Nancy Whit­comb Den­linger.

Mr. Den­linger worked for The Post from 1965 to 2003, ini­tially as a sports­writer and later as a colum­nist. Over the years, he cov­ered many of the big­gest events in sports — Sum­mer and Win­ter Olympic Games, Su­per Bowls, Fi­nal Fours, NBA Fi­nals, ti­tle fights, col­lege bowl games, the ma­jor cham­pi­onships of golf, Triple Crown horse rac­ing and the World Se­ries.

As a re­porter and, start­ing in 1976, as a colum­nist, Mr. Den­linger had a lively, breezy style, but he also de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for not be­ing in­tim­i­dated by pow­er­ful coach­ing per­son­al­i­ties and in­sti­tu­tions.

On an early as­sign­ment cov­er­ing the Washington Red­skins, he was present when Coach Vince Lom­bardi crit­i­cized sev­eral of his football play­ers to a group of re­porters. Mr. Den­linger quoted him in a story that ap­peared in the news­pa­per the next day.

Mar­tie Zad, the sports editor who hired Mr. Den­linger, re­called that Lom­bardi con­fronted Mr. Den­linger, say­ing, “You didn’t think of those peo­ple who had fam­i­lies, wives and chil­dren, and friends.”

Mr. Den­linger shot back, “You didn’t think about those peo­ple, ei­ther, when you said those things.”

“A few days later,” Zad said, “I went to prac­tice and Lom­bardi said to me, ‘ You’ve got your­self a good man in that young fel­low.’ Den­linger had stood up to Lom­bardi, and Lom­bardi sensed it and ap­pre­ci­ated it.”

Mr. Den­linger also cov­ered Ge­orge Allen’s early years coach­ing the Red­skins and wrote a book chron­i­cling the 1972 team, which lost to the Mi­ami Dol­phins in Su­per Bowl VII.

In a ca­reer wit­ness­ing many ath­letic highs, Mr. Den­linger also saw many lows. In the Washington Cap­i­tals’ dread­ful first sea­son, in 1974-1975, when the ex­pan­sion hockey team com­piled an 8-67-5 record, Mr. Den­linger wrote: “The Washington Cap­i­tals won a road hockey game tonight. Hon­est.” It was their only vic­tory in 40 road games that sea­son.

Mr. Den­linger and fel­low colum­nist Dave Kin­dred so got un­der the skin of Cap­i­tals owner Abe Pollin that, in 1982, the some­times can­tan­ker­ous sports mogul took out a full-page ad in The Post to lam­baste the writ­ers for what he con­sid­ered overly crit­i­cal cov­er­age.

In 1975, Mr. Den­linger cowrote “Ath­letes for Sale,” a book based on a se­ries of in­ves­tiga­tive ar­ti­cles for The Post on the of­ten un­sa­vory ways that top col­lege sports pro­grams re­cruited high school bas­ket­ball play­ers.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­cluded UCLA and its Hall of Fame coach John Wooden. Among other rev­e­la­tions, Mr. Den­linger de­tailed how Los An­ge­les devel­oper and school booster Sam Gil­bert of­fered cash in­cen­tives to UCLA play­ers for their per­for­mance on the court, as well as other un­der­the-ta­ble pay­ments.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Den­linger em­barked on another book pro­ject, again fo­cus­ing on col­lege sports. A 1964 grad­u­ate of Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity, he got per­mis­sion from the coach of the school’s football team, Joe Paterno, to fol­low one re­cruit­ing class of 28 play­ers through their en­tire ca­reers, a five-year re­port­ing com­mit­ment that re­sulted in “For the Glory,” pub­lished in 1994.

The jour­nal Kirkus Re­views called it “a thought­ful and com­pelling book” that “is nei­ther a bronz­ing of Paterno nor a white­wash of col­lege sports. Given the tra­jec­to­ries of the young men he cov­ered, that would be im­pos­si­ble.”

“Ken Den­linger is a beloved name to those who fol­lowed D.C. sports in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” said Don­ald E. Graham, the for­mer pub­lisher and chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Post, who served as the news­pa­per’s sports editor in 1973. “He cov­ered all the area teams and stood up to the many coaches and oth­ers who wanted to tell him what to write.

“His loy­al­ties were to the read­ers, and they will re­mem­ber his very early re­port­ing on the trou­bles as­so­ci­ated with high school re­cruit­ing and on col­leges’ cal­lous­ness when their play­ers never grad­u­ated. He was the def­i­ni­tion of fair­ness and tough­ness in sports re­port­ing.”

Young sports staffers fre­quently sought out Mr. Den­linger for ad­vice, in­clud­ing Chris­tine Bren­nan, the first woman to cover the Red­skins for The Post when she was as­signed to fol­low the team in 1985.

“His kind, steady man­ner as one of The Post’s top sports colum­nists was so help­ful to me,” said Bren­nan, now a sports colum­nist at USA To­day. “I was a young re­porter on a very im­por­tant beat, and Ken was right there by my side, al­ways ready to an­swer a ques­tion or of­fer a sug­ges­tion. I was so for­tu­nate to have him as a men­tor and friend.”

John Ken­neth Den­linger was born on a dairy farm in Dru­more, Pa., on March 25, 1942. At Penn State, he ma­jored in eco­nom­ics and wrote for the school’s daily news­pa­per. He was a re­porter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Press be­fore join­ing The Post.

His first mar­riage, to Carol Reilly, ended in di­vorce.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 20 years, Nancy Whit­comb Den­linger of Fred­er­ick, Md.; two chil­dren from his first mar­riage, Lauri Den­linger Kirby of Mid­dle­town, Md., and John Scott Den­linger of Columbia, Md.; two stepchil­dren, Amy Rice of Boons­boro, Md., and Bron­wyn Lamb of Ol­ney, Md.; a sis­ter; 10 grand­chil­dren; and one great-grand­son.

Mr. Den­linger was not im­mune to be­ing pleas­antly sur­prised when he saw true great­ness in an ath­lete, as op­posed to hype. But his im­pulse was to stay skep­ti­cal.

Ge­orge Solomon, The Post’s for­mer as­sis­tant man­ag­ing editor for sports, re­called the time he and Mr. Den­linger were at­tend­ing a Univer­sity of Mary­land bas­ket­ball game in the early 1980s against the Univer­sity of North Carolina, a team that fea­tured Michael Jor­dan.

At the arena on the Mary­land cam­pus, they saw Jor­dan dunk a ball in the spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion that would later be­come his hall­mark with the Chicago Bulls.

“I turned to him,” Solomon said, “and asked, ‘Did you see what I just saw?’ And he re­sponded, ‘I think I did. But let’s see if he can do that again.’ ” Shapiro, a Washington Post staff writer from 1969 to 2010, co-wrote “Ath­letes for Sale.”

MARIE MARZI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Writer Ken Den­linger in 2000.

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