Gary Pepin begins Season 34 at Nebraska this weekend. World-Herald Photo
By Randy York
It may be the eve of his 34th indoor track and field season as head coach at Nebraska, but don’t expect any bold statements from Hall-of-Famer Gary Pepin. He’s not ready to anoint any student-athlete until he sees what the Huskers bring to the table Friday and Saturday at the Holiday Day Inn Invitational on the Devaney Center Indoor Track.
The Huskers launch their season as the nation’s No. 8-ranked men’s team, and yes, they have enough talent to win the Big Ten Conference Indoor Championship in Geneva, Ohio, on Feb. 28th and March 1st. But let’s cut to the quick. Gary Pepin at age 70 is the same Gary Pepin who arrived at Nebraska in his mid-30s. He came to Lincoln from Lawrence, Kan., where he earned a master’s degree and also coached.
Primary Goal: Find 32 Contributors for Each Team
“Pep” is glad KU will join the Huskers as a major competitor this weekend, but the school he once coached isn’t exactly on his weekend radar. “I’m looking for the 32 male student-athletes and the 32 female student-athletes who have prepared the best to help us compete this season,” he said. “This weekend’s first competition is more like a football practice or a basketball practice, so we can determine who’s going to be on the team and who’s going to have to compete unattached down the line.”
Pepin minces no words. NCAA rules prohibited any supervised contact with student-athletes over the better of the last month while squad members returned home for the holidays. “We don’t really know how they handled themselves yet,” Pepin said. “They left here and spread like the wind blows. Some come back in better shape, some stay the same and others go the wrong way.” The bottom line? The Huskers need to show their head coach what they have this weekend. How they perform will give Pepin a good idea of how well they’ve trained over winter break. Gary Pepin is like Rooster Cogburn in a John Wayne movie. Every sentence is straightforward. Just facts; no embellishment. “We have a lot of talent on the men’s side, and we have a number of people who are capable of helping us win another team championship,” he said. “We should have won the Big Ten Indoor here last year, but we didn’t get it done.”
105 Conference Team Titles and Still Counting
The reason Nebraska has won a whopping 105 conference team championships in Pepin’s first 33 years at Nebraska is rather simple. His men’s and women’s teams are consistently loaded with depth. Pepin and his staff precisely analyze numbers like stockbrokers meticulously examine investments. In track and field, a first-place finish scores 10 points, but combined third- and fourth-place finishes score 11. The math works both ways, and Pepin does not get caught up in the details. All he cares about is having the most points at the end.
Pepin, Nebraska’s longest tenured active head coach, is also the all-time winningest track and field coach in Big Eight and Big 12 Conference history. He knows his men’s team has national quality depth and balance in the long jump, 200, 400, 600, mile relay, pole vault and shot put. “It’s fun to see these kids get better in practice every day,” he said. “It’s fun to see them grow as adults and how they change personally when they keep hitting their goals.”
Seven Captains Set the Tone, Lead the Charge
Pepin is a team-first leader, thinker and motivator. He leans heavily on his captains. The Husker men’s captains are seniors Patrick Raedler, Miles Ukaoma, Trevor Vidlak and Chad Wright. Nebraska’s women captains are seniors Ellie Grooters, Annie Jackson and Anne Martin. They set the tone for the team, lead the charge to unify and hold each other accountable.
The seniors’ collective leadership helps Pepin deal with a series of injuries that he can identify, define and explain in minute detail. That’s why he’s a great coach. He cares about every student-athlete who makes the sacrifice to compete at a high-level program with character and class and without significant financial rewards. “They learn a lot about life while they’re here,” Pepin said. “That’s what makes them so fun to coach.”
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