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 co-wrote “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 under-the-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.”