If Seton Hall basketball players need spiritual guidance during their NCAA tournament game in Wichita Saturday, all they’ll have to do is look to the end of their own bench.
That’s where you’ll find Father John Dennehy, the university and team chaplain for the Catholic school in South Orange, New Jersey.
He’s there every game, home or away.
Clad in black with a clerical collar, Dennehy stood out Thursday during Seton’s Hall’s 94-83 first-round win over N.C. State.
“They have a priest on their bench. It’s not fair!” Miles Osborne of Wichita commented during one Seton Hall scoring run.
Dennehy is passionate about college basketball and the young people he guides – student athletes both male and female.
But you won’t see that passion on the court. He keeps to his seat even when others are leaping out of theirs with excitement
“I try not to show too much emotion out there because if I do it will be in somebody’s Instagram or something,” Dennehy said, smiling. “So I just try to be nice and calm.”
He stands close to – but not in – the team huddle during time-outs, a calming presence when the game is on the line and emotions can run high in March Madness.
“Thank God nothing’s ever gone horribly wrong,” he said. “But every once in a while I just try to calm some people down or just make sure people stay focused on what’s really important.”
Seton Hall might need that calming influence a little more than usual Saturday.
The third-place finisher in the Big East and a No. 8 seed, they’re facing a Goliath of college basketball, No. 1 seeded Kansas, in what will be a virtual home game for the Jayhawks.
But Dennehy’s kind of coaching happens almost always off the court.
“I don’t try to be the center of anything,” Dennehy said. “I just try to help them become more aware of God’s gift that they have and that they use it properly, and that they are truly blessed to be able to play this game.
“I just try to help out wherever I can, try to give good witness and let people know we’re a Catholic school and we believe in athletics to help develop the whole person.”
The players come from a variety of faith backgrounds. They said none of them are members of the Roman Catholic church. But they still love Father John and have no qualms about going to him for guidance.
“Father John’s always there, a person you can talk to whenever you have problems,” said senior forward Ismael Sanogo. “He always has a smile on his face and you know, he’s just so supportive. He keeps us level-headed.”
Sanogo is Muslim, but said he has a deep respect for Dennehy as a man of God.
“He fills the room with his spiritual presence,” Sanogo said. “Nothing’s possible without God and he does a great job of bringing God into the (locker) room.”
Aaron Gordon, a Baptist, shares that respect for Dennehy, who prays with the players before each game.
“He communicates with everyone,” said Gordon, a sophomore point guard. “He does everything that a priest should do at a smaller college. He’s very available to everyone. You can definitely find him if you want to find him, wherever he’s at.
"We actually look to him, you know, when we’re not having a good time, because he always has a word to say.”
Having a chaplain on the bench is a bit of a foreign concept to Kansas fans, because the state’s basketball powers, KU, Wichita State and Kansas State, are all public universities.
But it’s fairly common for teams to bring a priest with them in parts of the country where Catholic universities are more of a force in college athletics.
Dennehy said Villanova, St. John’s and Marquette travel with their priests, along with several other schools. He said the priests always greet each other with at least a handshake at the games, though tight travel schedules usually preclude them from getting together for dinner.
While he only travels regularly with the men’s basketball team, he sits on the bench with the women's team at home stands and tries to be a presence at every sport.
And Dennehy preaches that while sports are important, what really matters is what happens when the game is over.
“You know, we’re here for the kids; we’re here for the young men and for the young women with the other sports,” he said. “We’re just trying to let them know that God loves them, the church loves them, Seton Hall loves them, and hopefully they all become better men and women after they leave our school.”