Mike and I

Anyone who’s really known me over the past three years has probably heard me praise Mike Denardis as one of the greatest ultimate coaches of all time.

I don’t it’s an exaggeration when you come to truly appreciate the impact he’s had on the teams he’s coached. During his first season coaching UNC full time they didn’t even qualify for regionals. A few seasons later they were national champions.

That’s just with UNC. Since Mike started to coach Raleigh Ring of Fire in 2014 they’ve had two semifinal  appearances including one in 2016 where Ring of Fire was the 13th seed at nationals.

Over the past three years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Mike on and off the field. He was tremendous facilitator for my work in ultimate media and has made a great impact on the lives and ultimate careers of countless players. It’s hard to quantify the impact of a coach who’s been at it for so long but I know that without Mike’s insights and willingness to open up about his experiences coaching in North Carolina, my lens on elite ultimate would look very different.

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My first encounter with Mike Denardis was in April 2015. I had just torn my ACL and was trying to hit reset on just about every aspect of my life. On a lim I drove down to Raleigh from Asheville at 4 AM to shoot what would become my first video for the Raleigh Flyers. The Flyers had been asking for volunteers to shoot video and I immediately jumped at the opportunity to get out of Asheville for a day.

It would be the first of many trips between the Asheville and Raleigh that year. It was cold and overcast when I pulled up to Cardinal Gibbons High School. Mike was there jawing with players on the sideline of the Gibbons turf. When he saw me he immediately delivered the classic Mike Denardis greeting

“What’s happening big guy!”

It was a strange surreal space to work in. I barely knew this coach but he was treating me as an equal as if I was one of his players. He gave me access to their sideline and their drills. More important, he gave me access to himself. I’d never been exposed to that level of coaching in the four years I’d been playing ultimate and it had a profound effect on me.

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It wasn’t just how he coached. It was the absolute loyalty of his players that stunned me. They played for him as much as for each other. They demonstrated absolute trust in his systems and for very good reasons. Mike’s brain for the game, particularly his attention to the smallest details of the angle of a force, the release point of a throw, and the spacing between a defender and their matchup, was dizziying. One of his trademark zone looks he later ran with UNC was devised during a summer league game. This coach wanted to beat Brett Matzuka so bad in a SUMMER LEAGUE GAME he concocted a defensive look to stop him.

I came away from that Flyers practice wanting to know more. Who was this coach, and why did his players display such unwavering loyalty? I carefully watched UNC for the rest of that season as they fought their way to a first ever national title. That summer I made it a priority to see Mike in his element in a big game. My opportunity finally came at the end of July.

It was the AUDL Southern Division Championship and Raleigh was taking on the Jacksonville Cannons in a classic North Carolina vs Florida matchup. It would be the first professional game I filmed, and as fate would have it, it was not be the last comeback I’d witness from a team coached by Mike Denardis. Raleigh was down against Jacksonville until the final minutes of regulation and an improbable sequence of events kept the Flyers alive as they entered into a double overtime sudden death game. It was the first ultimate game I witnessed under the light and it was unlike game I’d seen.

I was right up on the sideline with the Flyers as Mike shouted adjustments, butted heads with players and refs, and helped will his team into an improbable victory. Mike owned that night. He took the game personally and relished every minute of it. He was in his element in moments of adversity and his collected, joking demeanor between points kept his players in the game and out of their own heads.

That fall I took a documentary filmmaking class to continue improving my skills behind a camera. As my final year of school approached I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to get Mike in front of a camera. I wanted to get his players in front of a camera. I wanted to find out what made them fight so hard for this coach. I wanted to know, for my own purposes, what elite ultimate looked like from the inside out. Mike immediately latched onto the idea and for an entire semester I spent almost every weekend on the road, interviewing players and learning about what drove Mike as a coach. In October, we finally sat down for a two hour interview at as home in Morrisville.

One line in particular stuck out to me and would serve as the basis for what would be my first major film project, SQUA).

“It’s really cool to see young people get molded into adults. And a lot of that is caught on the frisbee field… the ultimate field. So… I think a lot of people refer to me as a player’s coach. I don’t know if I was always a player’s coach but that was one of the reasons I coached.”

Mike fascinated me with his dedication to a winning culture. When Mike said winning culture, he was referring to the process of getting UNC into big games deep into tournaments. Only through playing in big games over and over and over again did UNC finally understand what it really took to win a championship. To Mike it’s an extremely necessary method to building a championship caliber team. That sort of winning culture worked well in 2014 when UNC had a massive senior class, but when the dust settled from that season, UNC walked away with with it’s best defender injured for six months and still without a title.

The winning culture Mike built into the team couldn’t hold up in 2015. UNC needed to develop itself into the team it wanted to be, and that meant sacrificing wins at tournaments for to the longer goal of winning when it mattered; at nationals. I heard Mike once refer to this as “A chess match against yourself.”

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Mike confers with his assistant coaches before UNC’s quarterfinal game against Auburn at the 2016 College Championships.

It was easy to make the team believe in itself when it was winning big tournaments like the Stanford Invite in 2014. It was much harder to get the team to trust itself and trust Mike’s systems when they were consistently losing in the quarter and semifinals in every single tournament. Mike’s patience and the patience of that title winning UNC squad were tested as Mike refused to show his playbook of zone looks until the end of the season. Needless to say, it wasn’t the first or the last time Mike would play chess against himself. He’s very good at playing it.

Mike’s patience and UNC’s trust in him paid off with national title and an MVP award for his star thrower Jonathan Nethercutt. It took five seasons for Denardis to get UNC from a fifth place finish in the North Carolina conference to a national championship. It took him only four to get UNC to the finals (2014 marked their first appearance). Mike unquestionably solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the men’s division.

Between January and May 2016 I didn’t see Mike very much. He was busy trying to navigate UNC through a massive roster turnover and I was focussed entirely on getting my own team to nationals and graduating from college. It wasn’t until the D-I college championships rolled around in May that I finally was back on the sideline with Mike, shooting UNC as they somehow clawed their way to a third straight semi final appearance against Harvard. This with only four seniors and an army of players who were under six foot.

Mike wasn’t alone. An army of alumni from the 2015 national title team came back to help coach and cheer on the team as they battled hard against the deadly combo of John Stubbs and Mark Vandenberg. Loyalty went a very long way for Mike’s players and they came out in force to support the team. In the end UNC wasn’t be able to stop Harvard.   For the first time I got to see Mike when he’d lost.

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UNC at halftime in the 2016 semi finals against Harvard.

Central Florida head coach Andrew Roca once said that a coach is responsible for the outcome of team’s season. You can point a finger at a drop here, a throwaway there, but at the end of the day, a coach is responsible for the destiny of a team. It’s a tricky dynamic, but at the end of the day, a team’s preparation for the games that matter is the responsibility of a coach. Setting expectations, setting boundaries, and reinforcing good fundamentals and fluid systems are all the responsibility of a small handful of individuals who make tremendous sacrifices to coach a sport that offers little to no compensation.

Every time I’ve seen Mike lose, it’s something he takes on personally. He’s there for his players in those emotional moments immediately after the game. He addresses the media with the respect you’d expect from a coach who’s trying to represent his players as best he can. Then, he wracks his brain over what happened. What adjustment could have worked? Who should he have played more? Should he have trusted his high percentage players more or relied on his depth?

It’s a mental gymnastics that I imagine keeps him fresh and hungry for the next one. That relentless quest to win may have its origins elsewhere but I think it comes from a genuine place of Mike trying to deliver the best possible outcome to his players.

He doesn’t always succeed; UNC has lost in two straight semis since winning a title; Ring of Fire has yet to win a championship; and the Raleigh Flyers have yet to secure an title in the American Ultimate Disc League. Every single time he loses, Mike quietly passes judgement on his own decisions.

It wasn’t always that way. As he tried to create buy in and introduce a winning structure during the early years at UNC, Mike often took on the role of an alpha coach. It was not uncommon for Mike to harp on every detail of the way his players performed.             Mike could be extremely negative towards his players and nit pick everything from their throwing form to their commitment to the team. The boundaries that currently exist in UNC’s program took a long time to build.

“To be honest with you, I just knew I had to change that style because it wasn’t getting the desired results,” said Denardis.

Mike’s adaptability and willingness to listen to his players more created the culture that now dominates elite ultimate in the triangle. The loose, fun culture we’ve come to know from UNC and Ring of Fire over the past couple of seasons didn’t really exist before 2014. They were created out of necessity. Every great season Mike has coached up to this point has been a rodeo. The demands of creating a successful team didn’t leave room for the up tight aggressive attitude that used to characterize Mike’s coaching. Adaptability is a characteristic every great ultimate coach comes to embody. Sometimes, adaptability demanded Mike to mold himself to the team rather than molding the team into his vision.

Almost a year after we sat down for our interview about UNC, Mike helped fly me out to the Club Championships to shoot Raleigh Ring of Fire in Rockford Illinois. I had no expectations. Ring of Fire was the 13th seed at the tournament coming off an abysmal regular season and a shaky performance early in the series. Sure, Ring of Fire is a team you just can’t count out (largely due to their defence) but they were the 13th seed out of 16 teams! There was no way, no possible avenue that Ring could take to escape the inevitability of their demise. For a time it looked that way. They dropped their first two games in the pool and were down at halftime to Kansas City. One more half, and Ring of Fire would be consigned to the purgatory that is consolation games at Club Nationals.

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Ring of Fire pregame huddle at the 2016 Club Championships.

But that’s the thing about Mike Denardis and any team he coaches. When you think they’re out of the fight, they’re just getting ready to paint their masterpiece. Ring beats Kansas City. They boo themselves, scream “We suck!” at each other, and get ready for pre-quarters. Mike scouts Chicago Machine the following round and spends the evening meticulously breaking down film and every conceivable matchup. He debates vehemently with the captains about who to put on Brett Matzuka. The rodeo is on.

Ring comes out Friday morning and is untouchable. They advance to quarterfinals against Truck Stop, a team that boasts one of the best offenses in the country. The wind and Ring’s defense turn a game that should go Truck Stop’s way into a rout. The score is 6-2 when I finally decide that I’m watching some of the most memorable ultimate I’ll ever see.

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The dance ended for Ring of Fire against the reigning national champions San Francisco Revolver in the semi finals. Fittingly, Ring made a memorable second half comeback to tie the game on double game point. They just couldn’t quite buy another block on defense. A loss like that, when you’re so tantalizingly close to the finals, is devastating.

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Mike address Ring of Fire following their semis loss to Revolver.

“It sucks” said Mike as we got back in the car to leave the field. “But c’est la vie.” Who knows what was going through his head at the time but I guarantee you that he hasn’t forgotten that loss. He does not forget those losses.

“Next season I think we can finally get into those big games again,” he remarked to me on the drive back into Rockford. The game was barely twenty minutes old and Mike was already thinking about 2017.

During that trip to Chicago I had a lot of time to pick Mike’s brain about just about everything related to ultimate, coaching and life. There were no cameras, no microphones, and no hot takes to write home to Ultiworld about. It was just us talking about what to look for in players, how to build winning cultures and how to find balance in the crazy life of being a full time ultimate coach for three teams, while working a job as a trader, while fathering two kids.

One of the things that I find inspiring about ultimate is that the greatest players and role models in the sport would probably be exceptionally ordinary people without it. Many of them are regardless of their role in the sport. That’s perhaps one of the most beautiful and empowering things about chasing plastic. You take ego and pride out of the otherwise fairly simple equations of sports and you’ll find some of the most inspiring and moving narratives on the planet; ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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H.

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