World-Herald's front-page story on Gary Pepin
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By Randy York
Half of today's front page in the Omaha World-Herald sports section is a story about Gary Pepin, who this weekend launches his 32nd season as Nebraska's head track and field coach. The headline says "WILLING TO GO THE DISTANCE", and we recommend you read this story because it captures the essence of Pepin's passion to recruit and teach. Amazingly, through the years, Pepin has led his Husker teams to 67 conference championships indoors and outdoors. He has coached 56 individual national champions and 476 All-Americans. We've featured a number of Pepin profiles on Huskers.com, yet found Sam McKewon's World-Herald story as commendably reflective of Pepin's greatness.
Over today's lunch hour, with a copy of that eye-catching story sitting in front of Pepin at NU's Training Table, ex-Husker and Olympic gold medalist Charlie Green was fishing to get a comment. But this veteran head coach wasn't biting. Interestingly, Pepin did allow McKeown to interview him while he was coaching. Yes, Nebraska's classic multi-tasking Hall-of-Famer was his usual candid self, but he wasn't about to validate prominence in the state's largest newspaper. Pepin, in fact, already had moved on and was sharing stories with assistant coach Billy Maxwell, who once competed against Pepin for recruits when Maxwell was head coach at LSU. Later, he decided to join his close friend at Nebraska, and the relationship has been mutually reinforcing since. Maxwell admitted he hadn't read the cover story and assumed that Pepin at least gave it a glance. That would be par for the course. Without fanfare, Gary Pepin just keeps rolling along, so please check out the World-Herald feature and Kent Sievers' photo that goes with it. Pepin wore blue jeans for the photo. Somehow, he must have convinced himself to wear a cream-colored sweater. Perhaps he was trying to show he isn't blue-collar all day all the time.
When Pepin was inducted in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame three years ago, Olympic high jumper Dusty Jonas called him "one of my best friends". Maxwell called his head coach "one of the nation's best recruiters because he can sell Nebraska to the best student-athletes" anywhere in the world. Kris Grimes said Pepin "is not only an athletes' coach but a coaches' coach." Matt Martin said the greatest lesson he's learned from his boss is that "consistency over a career is a much more impressive feat than occasional greatness". Every assistant who has ever worked for Pepin insists he celebrates a conference championship for about five minutes before his intense focus switches to the one that must come next.
That became clear two years ago when I caught up with Pepin one summer day, asking him to explain why he's always willing to hit the recruiting trail as hard as ever, even when he's reached the age that most working men want to collect social security, winter in Arizona and maybe even take an occasional nap. That's not Gary Pepin. He's always looking for academically driven athletes wherever they might be. He believes that academic support is Nebraska's No. 1 product. "Kids are smart," he said. "They know how important that is for their lives." Even a Hall-of-Fame track coach can steal a page from a Hall-of-Fame football coach who just happens to be his boss now as athletic director. "We recruit walk-ons as hard as we recruit our scholarship student-athletes," Pepin said.
The highest winning track and field coach in the history of the Big 12 and the former Big Eight Conference, Pepin has been right much more often than he's been wrong. He wears his blue-collar work ethic on his sleeve, and that, more than anything, explains why he turned down the opportunity to become head track and field coach at Texas. Make no mistake. He strongly considered coaching in much warmer year-round temperatures, not to mention much more lucrative pay. Pepin, though, is a pragmatist who prefers daily goal-setting and systematic improvement. When he added up all the pluses and minuses of leaving Lincoln for Austin, he went with his heart and his head. "That was a hard decision to make, but I made it based on family and health," he said before adding: "It was the right decision then and reflecting back, I think it still is now. I've enjoyed my years at Nebraska. This is a good place to coach and a good place to recruit. We've been successful."
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