“I think there’s a purity that exists in collegiate sport that does not exist at the professional level.”


Cochran-Fikes with his Penn Relays medal

Compliance Coordinator, Athletics Department
Length of service:
16 years
Other stuff:
Inducted into Penn’s Athletic Hall of Fame in November; voted 1983 New England Coach of the Year while coaching at Harvard; was director of DuBois College House in the late ’70s.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

The West Philadelphia home Denis Elton Cochran-Fikes (C’74,WG’79) shares with his wife, Doris, is known as the “Dor-Den,” a quirky conglomeration of glass-doored display cases showing off the couple’s collections — including teapots, pressed-glass dishes, Penn memorabilia and black Santas.

Denis Elton estimates that his black Santa collection clocks in at over 750 items. He’s got porcelain Santas and brushed-pottery Santas, Santas that wiggle their hips and Santas with saxophones. There’s a whole baseball team of black Santas, and there’s even a big Santa on a pedestal whose roly-poly stomach quakes up and down as he leans back and emits a prolonged, robust belly-laugh.

The Dor-Denizens are an all-Penn family. Doris (C’72) is director of secondary school communications in Undergraduate Admissions.

Two years ago, Denis Elton switched jobs from associate director of athletics to the less-demanding position of compliance coordinator “to have more time for Doris and I” — and, perhaps, for collecting — while remaining true to his other two passions: collegiate athletics and Penn.

Q. You were recently inducted into Penn’s Athletic Hall of Fame for your stellar undergraduate running career here, including setting Penn’s mile record of 3:55. When did you set that record?
The current Penn mile record, I established in April of ’74. I broke my first Penn mile record as a freshman, and just kept breaking it and breaking it and breaking it. All in all, by the time I graduated, I had set or broken about 25 middle-distance records.

Q. When did you start running?
In my freshman year of high school. Each student at my school was required to participate in some kind of physical activity. At that point in my life I was very unathletic; I was your typical bookworm. But my sister’s ex-boyfriend was the new freshman track coach at my high school, so I decided that I would join the track team, and I could just sort of follow Eddie around, and I wouldn’t have to do anything.
Unfortunately, a week or so into school, there was a freshman field day. I ran a half-mile. I finished second in the race, and the person who finished ahead of me elected to join the basketball team. So at that point I appeared to be the best freshman half-miler. Eddie decided that since I was signed up for the track team, that I actually had to train and compete.
My transition from a non-athlete to an athlete happened very quickly. That first year I lost about 25 pounds. By the end of my freshman year I had established two or three New York state freshman records, and in the rest of my high school career I continued to set state records. It was a real storybook career as a high schooler, very heavily recruited by all of the top colleges.
At that point, the recruiting rules that I now find myself monitoring [for my job] were very different. There was one trip — the school will remain nameless — but I went on a trip with a friend of mine, we flew to the school, and they had this Cadillac convertible waiting for us with the coach. As we entered campus, all of a sudden this band started playing. And the banner as we went onto the main campus said, “Welcome Denis and Joe.” Those kinds of recruiting things don’t happen any more. At least I hope they don’t.
Now we have rules that limit phone calls you can make to a recruit, the number of visits you can make to a recruit’s home, the number of visits a recruit can make to your campus, all kinds of things. And I do think that these rules are good. It makes it much more relaxed for the prospect, so that he or she can actually be a high school student.

Q. Your first athletics job was in the Harvard athletic department. Why did you leave Harvard for Penn?
Penn is my alma mater. I have a strong history here at Penn. I love Penn. Boston was not a city I felt that I wanted to grow old in, and Philly is that kind of town. The people in the Philadelphia area are more tolerant, they’re more welcoming of people with differences. University City just felt like home.

Q. What’s your job about?
My role as the compliance coordinator is to assist the University in developing processes, procedures for causing us to be in compliance with NCAA, Ivy League, the ECAC, other sport governing bodies’ rules, so that our athletes and our institution can participate in intercollegiate athletics.

Q. Why did you choose to work in collegiate athletics?
I think there’s a purity that exists in collegiate sport, or in amateur sport generally, that does not exist at the professional level. In professional athletics, when you go into competition, the competition is against the best. In collegiate athletics, the competition is not necessarily against the best athletes. So other things come into the mix. Coaching plays a much larger role. At the college level, there’s still an opportunity to have a substantial impact on those individuals as persons, and to observe them in their growth as athletes. To have them mature physically and mentally is a very powerful thing to observe.
And I also have a very strong commitment to academics. I couldn’t think of anything I would rather be doing than working a job in an academic atmosphere involving athletics.


Originally published on January 18, 2001