Nebraska Head Coach Gary Pepin used Facebook to his advantage.
By Randy York
Gary Pepin is the most decorated coach in the history of the Big Eight Conference in all sports. He has won more conference championships in the history of the Big 12 in any sport, and now that he has won his second Big Ten Conference title in the Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Columbus, Ohio, last May, Pepin is:
1) Ready to frame the difficulty of recruiting in Nebraska and acknowledge an unsuccessful attempt to convince Bob Devaney that he deserved a higher salary;
2) Willing to credit football for being the goose that laid the golden financial egg for all Husker sports; and
3) Able to describe how one of his rare experiences in social media helped him land his first Russian recruit in a storied track and field journey that has produced an unprecedented 69 conference team championships under his leadership.
One of three guest speakers last Thursday at the season’s first 2013-14 Husker Athletic Fund Luncheon, Pepin gave a blunt analysis of what it takes to recruit to Nebraska and how the culture favors the value of giving over receiving. He also explained why he would never question the resources that Nebraska designates to succeed in football, And he shared a riveting account of how he jumped out of his comfort zone and into a successful opportunity to land Tatyana Akmukhamedova, his first Russian track and field recruit in 33 years as Nebraska’s head coach.
Pepin Remembers What Devaney Thought
Despite his men’s and women’s teams combining for 69 conference titles, Pepin humorously recalled one of his first experiences with Devaney, the legendary Nebraska football coach who became the Huskers’ athletic director.
“In one of my first years coaching at Nebraska, I remember going to some type of fund-raiser, and at the end of the meeting, Bob got up and did his little song about how it is better to give than it is to receive,” Pepin told Husker donors. “A couple of years later, we were fortunate enough to win a national championship in track and field, so I thought I would take some time to talk to Bob about maybe getting a little bit of a salary increase.”
Pepin thought the timing was appropriate, but he wasn’t straightforward enough to tell Nebraska’s legendary former head football coach why he wanted to see him. Finally, Devaney asked what he wanted to talk about. Pepin told him he wanted to talk about the future of his program. He admitted being shy and finally fessed up to wanting to discuss the possibility of “getting a little salary increase.”
Pepin told the donor group that his salary “wasn’t up there very high,” but the minute he mentioned salary, “Bob started right in on the same song about how much better it is to give than to receive,” he said. The luncheon crowd’s laughter trumped his punch line. “So much for getting salaries into that conversation,” Pepin confessed before launching into his own diatribe about the overall value of recruiting.
Recruiting the Absolute Lifeblood of Coaching
“Recruiting is the absolute lifeblood of coaching,” Pepin said. “I would far rather have a coach who’s a great recruiter than have a great coach who doesn’t recruit well,” Pepin said. “If you’re not able to bring into your program athletes with the ability to compete on the same level of your opponents, you’re going to be out of luck. You’re never going to have a consistent opportunity to win a championship.”
According to Pepin, Nebraska has some built-in disadvantages in recruiting, but he’s always successfully sold the advantages. “I preach how great this institution is in its ability to find the support to succeed both academically and athletically. No one gives greater effort in those two areas than we do, even if you compare Nebraska to Harvard, Princeton and Yale,” Pepin said. “Any sport that is successful here at Nebraska, you’ll find the coaches are working their tails off to try and get the job done.”
Track and Field, he added, only makes 12½ scholarships available, and very few are what student-athletes would consider full rides. “One or two get full scholarships,” Pepin said. “The vast majority are partials.”
Nevertheless, Pepin would be the last to complain about his sport being on the bottom rung of the NCAA scholarship ladder. “Football,” he said, “is almost like the goose that laid the golden financial aid for all the other sports. If that financial egg gets smashed before it gets brought into the kitchen to fry, boy, all the other sports are hurting for sure. That’s one reason why you will never hear Gary Pepin, the track coach, say: ‘The football guys are getting too much of this or too much of that.’ I say: ‘Give ‘em all the money they need!’”
Pepin: Without Football, We All ‘Close Up Shop’
A luncheon audience laughs when they hear Pepin make that statement. But the veteran Hall-of-Fame coach is dead serious. “If football doesn’t get what it needs to be successful,” he said, “we’ll all have to close up shop here.”
Earlier in his speech, Pepin explained how a sport with few scholarships can succeed, especially when recruiting, say, a high jumper who has never cleared more than 7-feet. “If someone has not jumped at least 7-3 in high school,” Pepin said, “the odds of that person becoming a scorer in an NCAA meet are not very good. The only choice you have is to broaden where you’re looking and go all over the world to find someone else.”
Acknowledging his preference to recruit Lincoln and the surrounding area, Pepin mentions a female high jumper and triple jumper he recruited from Siberia – the first-ever Russian recruit to sign a national letter of intent in Pepin’s era at Nebraska.
Pepin does not mention the student-athlete by name, but after he’s thanked donors and told them how much he appreciates their help and support for Nebraska Athletics, the first question in his post-speech Q&A asks Pepin how he successfully recruited Tatyana Akmukhamedova, his first Russian recruit from Blagaveshchensk, Russia, which borders Heine, China.
Somehow, Pepin Saw Legit Value in Facebook
Pepin frames his answer with a confession – he is not “computer guy.” He has, however, taken a liking to Facebook and has found it be a surprisingly powerful communication weapon for recruiting. “I just got into it,” he said, “and it’s been kind of interesting.”
Once, while looking at an analysis of the world’s top young jumpers, Pepin found Tatyana’s name, so he reached out to her on Facebook. To his immediate and utter surprise, she responded right back to Pepin, who described himself as a somewhat uncomfortable 70-year-old guy requesting to be friends with a 19-year-old young woman he didn’t even know.
The bottom line was simple. Tatyana thought her sister had recommended that Pepin contact her, so she approved him immediately as a “Friend”. The entire contact “came out of the blue,” Pepin said, adding that the sanctioned but unlikely connection eventually evolved into a three-way telephone conversation among him in Lincoln, Tatyana in Blagaveshchensk Russia, and Tatyana’s older sister, a freelance interpreter who was living in Bejing, China.
Even though Tatyana thought her older sister contacted Nebraska, she didn’t. She just helped facilitate the communication when Pepin used his only social media platform to reach out to her sister. “She’s a good athlete, and she’s a good student,” Pepin said. “She’s long jumped almost 21 feet and triple jumped almost 44 feet. We were pretty lucky to connect with her.”
Glad He Learned How to Connect on Facebook
By the same token, Tatyana is pretty lucky to connect with Nebraska as well. “She’s going to be a good one,” Pepin predicted. “I’m glad I learned how to get on Facebook.”
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