Why Pepinís Teamwork Makes Huskersí Dream Work
Randy York N-Sider
Official Blog of the Huskers
Last Sunday evening, before Nebraska’s men won the 4x400-meter relay finale to claim the Big Ten Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championship, Gary Pepin sat in the front row of Lincoln’s Ed Weir Stadium, gazing like he was mesmerized. He wasn’t smiling, celebrating or the least bit fired up.
Nebraska’s legendary Hall of Fame head coach already knew that his team had run away with the Big Ten Championship and no one asked Pepin what it feels like to coach 72 career conference championship teams and reach his 30th outdoor league title team milestone. Pepin believes the journey to the championship is the most memorable part of the experience and wasn't the least bit surprised that his outdoor team was much stronger than the Big Ten's indoor champions.
“We had at least eight injured student-athletes that I felt could have scored in this meet if they were here,” Pepin said, admitting that made heading into the weekend a little scary. "Fortunately, we had a strong team effort where everybody did what they were supposed to do. I can’t remember when we’ve had a team as dominant as this one.”
Despite the Lopsided Outcome, Pepin Wonders What Could Have Been
“Imagine what we would have had with those other eight guys out there,” Pepin said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on having a full team. It would have been nice just to have four of those eight guys. A couple would have been right there battling for titles.”
It was a moot point, to be sure, especially since Nebraska, with 140.5 points, outscored runner-up Michigan (90.5) by a whopping 50 points. “The conference outdoor championship is our most important meet of the year,” said Pepin (above in grey pullover). “That’s No. 1 and everything kind of works towards this. After this meet, we hope to do well in the national meet.”
Pepin’s matter-of-fact dialogue surprised no one. In his mind, it wasn’t his championship. It was his hard-working team’s title. That’s why Husker competitors pulled Big Ten Championship t-shirts over their heads and placed new hats on top, so they could live their dream and celebrate an achievement that requires a year-round grind. As Nebraska's head coach, Pepin preaches and teaches teamwork because that's what makes Husker dreams work, year in and year out, and decade in and decade out.
Teamwork Isn't Just a Word; It's a Culture that Focuses on the Best Results
Because Gary Pepin embraces teamwork as a culture, we asked eight people very close to him to describe how Nebraska produces perennially powerful programs. Not surprisingly, their thoughts definitively reflect the required rigor it takes to win:
Billy Maxwell, Sprints/Hurdles Coach:
"The thing we do here every day and we argue about it all the time is how you bring kids in here and coach ‘em up. For example, that 4x4(00) relay team today. There’s not a lot of scholarship money invested in those kids, but they came here, trained hard and in the process, they’ve become good athletes. It takes a lot of time, but that’s why I like to coach. We do that pretty much with all the kids we have. It can be a tough sell, but if you can get kids here and they stick with it a few years, they get pretty darn good. And a day like today makes it all worthwhile.”
Matt Martin, Sprints/Hurdles/Relays Coach:
“What Coach Pepin really preaches is preparation. He’s a stickler in preparing student-athletes in the technique of their event and in preparing them for any and all scenarios they might encounter in a championship meet. An example would be the variety of meets we attend. The Drake Relays were really rough weather-wise this year but when we had the high winds this week in Lincoln, our athletes were plenty prepared to deal with the conditions. Gary’s tenure has also created this huge alumni base that all comes from the same staff, so the message of competing for the team, competing with heart, and being prepared has been passed down for many generations now. Our staff places great expectations on our student-athletes when they arrive and time and time again, their peers rise to the occasion.”
David Harris, Distance Coach:
“I just think Gary is a competitor. If he was a basketball coach or a football coach, he’d be the same way. But somehow, he picked track and field to be his life. That’s how he wanted to use his competitive juices. He just grinds and grinds and grinds every day, every week and every month to put the best team out there. Everybody who works for Gary knows that, and it pays off. He’s not out here jumping or throwing or running, but, in essence, he really is in his mind because he’s trying to get people to motivate themselves and do it the very best they can. He’s been doing that so long, there’s no stopping him. He just wants to continue putting the University of Nebraska out there. It’s not just conference championships. It’s every opportunity we have.”
T.J. Pierce, Pole Vault/Combined Events Coach
“Gary expects your very best every single day. Whether you’re a coach or an athlete, he wants your very best out of you and the very best for you. When that’s how you live your life every day, he tries to teach these young men and women that it’s just a track meet, but you have to try to be your best every day. If you give everything you have, that’s what a team is. Some days, other people are better than you are. Because everyone is trying to give their best every day, that’s better than everyone else’s. That’s a team. That’s a family. That’s how the world operates. To me, that’s Gary Pepin. He not only wants your best, he expects it.”
Scott Cappos, Throws Coach: “I’ve only been part of this program for two years and saw athletes coming back this weekend from 25-plus years ago. They came back to talk about how Coach Pepin and Coach Maxwell changed their lives because they took a chance on them. They’re forever grateful for the opportunities they had at Nebraska. That was spoken over and over and over again at the track and field alumni reunion Saturday night in the East Stadium. Coach Pepin is a good man and the face of our program. He continues to build a legacy here with all the lives he’s touched. Sometimes, Coach Pepin gave kids an opportunity that they didn’t have anywhere else. That’s why they gave him their best. Any time an athlete comes back to the office, Coach Pepin’s really happy and proud of their accomplishments. They touch him deeply. That’s the biggest reward in coaching and that’s why Coach Pepin doesn’t look at awards as his. He honors the student-athletes who worked hard and made it happen."
Da'Nelle Earl, Director of Operations:
“I think Coach Pepin has done this for so long that he has figured out what it takes to combine the mental toughness with the physical toughness and the training and the team aspect all into one. He knows it’s different for every kid, so the approach is different for each kid. That means he has an environment here where he has kids working for one another. Every meet is different, and the conference championship is what they look forward to the most. It’s definitely a team effort, not an individual.”
Bob Burton, Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Senior Administrator:
“Gary cares about kids and knows how to develop a group that comes together at the right time of the year. They care about Gary, they care about the program and they love Nebraska. We have kids from all over the United States and beyond and when it comes to competing, they’re all set on winning the Big Ten Championship. They know that a point or two here or a point there can make a world of difference. Gary’s the best at getting kids with different elements – whether it’s the long jump, the pole vault or the hammer throw – maximizing their talents and culminating with team championships. He’s a great coach. With so many kids who were injured and unable to compete, the final score of this conference meet is a testament to the depth that Gary builds. He’s a tremendous recruiter, a tremendous teacher and he’s assembled a great staff that knows how to get the best out of every kid on the team.”
Robert Harris, On Campus Recruiting Coordinator:
“Winning a conference championship is rewarding, but winning at home made it that much more special. The way the final 4x4 relay event (pictured above) ended was a fitting finale for what was a very dominant performance for the entire championships!”
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Voices from Husker Nation
Coach Gary Pepin is the best-ever Husker head coach in multiple conferences – the Big 8, the Big 12 and now the Big Ten. Had his team conference domination been in football or basketball, he would be the nationally renowned successor to Devaney and Osborne. Since becoming head coach, he has kept a great energy level over the years, maintained a stable and talented staff, recruited wherever the talent is, graduated his student-athletes, and because of his overall success, the adminstration has provided world-class facilities. His tenure record is amazing and shows no sign of lessening. As a former track assistant myself prior to Coach Pepin's arrival, I greatly admire what he has done and am very pleased to have him a welcoming friend whenever I'm on campus. John Korky, Ph.D., Long Valley, New Jersey