Hall-of-Famer Pepin Continues Pursuit of Excellence

By NU Athletic Communications
Photo by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport

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New Hall-of-Famer Pepin Bottom-Line in Every Way


Dusty Jonas, one of Nebraska’s six 2008 Olympians, calls Gary Pepin “one of my best friends.” One of his assistants calls Pepin a “coaches’ coach.” Another says Pepin prefers “consistency over occasional greatness” and still another says Pepin literally has a “one-track mind” and “doesn’t let anything deter him from seeking excellence.”


An NU assistant who has been a head coach in the Southeastern Conference calls Pepin “one of the nation’s best recruiters because he can sell Nebraska to the best student-athletes.” Still another assistant said the only thing that equals Pepin’s dedication to his student-athletes is his “dedication to the entire sport.”


If that’s not proof enough to explain Gary Pepin’s induction into the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Dec. 18 in Phoenix, consider this story about how Pepin deliberately failed to claim a Big Eight team championship because his heart was bigger than his ego.


It happened in the 1994 men’s outdoor track and field championships in Lawrence, Kan. Nebraska-Iowa State was the biggest rivalry in the conference at the time, and the championship came down to the day’s final event – the 4x400 relay.


“We were behind and in need of a break,” recalled Mark Colligan, Nebraska’s assistant coach for throwing events. “We noticed that the Iowa State team had stepped to the line in violation of the relay uniform code, a rule enforceable by disqualification. The gun fired and during the race, it was known that by protesting, we could ensure sole ownership of the conference title. Without protesting, Iowa State needed only to cross the finish line to capture the championship for themselves.”


Pepin immediately instructed his assistants not to file a protest. “I don’t want to win the championship that way,” Colligan remembers Pepin saying. “We did win the relay that day, but we lost the championship, 176 to 171.”


Cyclone Coach Praises Nebraska’s Heart and Class


Word got around to Iowa State Coach Steve Lynn, who was unaware of the violation, but deeply moved by Pepin’s decision not to file a protest that would have resulted in the Cyclones’ disqualification.


As the Nebraska bus was ready to leave Lawrence for Lincoln, Iowa State’s head coach found Pepin outside and expressed his appreciation for his sportsmanship. Then he asked if he could step on the bus and address the Husker team.


Colligan remembers Lynn saying something like this: “Gentlemen, I know that you’re all hurting right now, and I understand how it feels to come so close. I just want to tell you that there’s no program with more heart and class than yours and the great sportsmanship that you’ve all shown today will never be forgotten by our program, team and staff.”


That was 14 years ago – the halfway point of the 28-year career Pepin has spent as a head coach at Nebraska . . . a career that has produced 64 Big Eight and Big 12 Conference team championships. Since 2000, the Husker men and women have won 16 Big 12 indoor and outdoor track and field team titles, 116 Big 12 individual titles and 18 NCAA individual titles. They also have 11 top 10 NCAA team finishes in the last eight years.


“Coach Pepin has always been a bottom-line guy and a bottom-line coach. He does whatever it takes to get it done the right way,” said Steve Rainbolt, the Wichita State head track and field coach who introduced Pepin at the Hall of Fame awards banquet in Phoenix.


Observations from Ex-Jayhawk High Jumper, NU Assistant


The 1977 Big Eight high jump champion when Pepin coached him at Kansas, Rainbolt was the perfect choice for that honor. “I was fortunate enough to have been recruited by Coach Pepin in high school,” Rainbolt said. “He coached me for five years in college, and he hired me to be one of his assistant coaches (at Nebraska). He’s been my boss, and there are times when I still feel like he’s my boss, even though we’re colleagues who compete against each other.”


For 35 years, “Coach Pepin has been an important part of my life,” Rainbolt said. “He’s been like a father, a big brother, and other times like a little brother. He’s always a friend and, of course, a lifetime mentor. I’ve called him Coach forever and always will.”


Rainbolt offers four reasons why he thinks Pepin is a true Hall-of-Famer:


1)    Meticulous record-keeping. “Through all these years, he’s done all these testing efforts and training results. To this day, I still get mailings from him on all-time lists.”


2)    Detailed film study. “I still remember when he would take those bulky, 16-millimeter reels of film home to study and then bring them into our hotel rooms to point out how he could help us. Even when it was a huge hassle, he’d do it to help any athlete get better. I also remember when he spent his entire summer vacation and almost single-handedly   built us a solid weight room for the team to train in. He’d undertake any project and see it through until it was done.”


3)    Above-and-beyond dedication. “I remember meeting Coach Pepin at the Campenile Hill on the KU campus overlooking the football stadium. We’d get there at 6 a.m. on bitter, cold and dark mornings. Coach Pepin would stand at the top of the 200-meter hill bundled up in his parka, so he could start me with a flashlight on timed runs on my hill-training sessions. I can tell you there aren’t many coaches around who would do that sort of thing.”


4)    Legendary recruiting. “I was recruited by Coach Pepin before the NCAA started the one-call-per-week rule. There were two great beneficiaries of that rule – the athletic department budget at the University of Nebraska and Coach Pepin’s wife, Jean Ann. She was even more excited when the number of his calls was dramatically reduced. Most of us coaches head home to make some recruiting calls with a notebook or briefcase. For years, I watched Coach Pepin head home night after night with a large cardboard box over his shoulder, full of recruiting files. He was a tireless recruiter, and the results were dramatic.”


Nebraska’s Ottey One of World’s All-Time Olympians


Among Pepin’s recruits are eight-time Olympian Merlene Ottey, a world champion and world record-holding sprinter, and Rhonda Blanford, a four-time NCAA champion hurdler/sprint relay team member. He recruited NCAA high jump champion Petar Malasev from Serbia and two-time NCAA long jump champion Arturs Abolins from Latvia.


Pepin has won the women’s conference Coach of the Year award 15 times in the 21 years it’s been given. “He’s a fabulous coach and an even more fabulous man,” Rainbolt said.


Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne has watched Pepin succeed for years. “We’re very proud of Gary and everything his program has achieved,” Osborne said. “Each year, his student-athletes not only excel in athletics, but in the classroom. With six former athletes (including Canadian bronze medalist hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep) competing in the Olympics this year, it’s easy to see why he’s deserving of the Hall of Fame.”


Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s senior associate athletic director of Academics, began his athletic department career as an intern for Pepin in 1983. He stayed three years on the track and field staff before moving into academics.


“Pep is a real grinder and expects everyone around him to work as hard as he does,” Leblanc said. “One time, he handed me a sheet of paper with the name of a female athlete from Singapore. There was no phone number and no other information. He expects you to be as resourceful as he is. Pep likes good athletes and bright students – young people who are willing to work their way to success. Check out all the athletes he recruited at KU when he was an assistant there. Then check out the student-athletes he’s recruited here. This program has really taken off under his leadership.”


The assistants mentioned earlier help explain Pepin’s unique position among American track and field and cross country coaches:


Kris Grimes: “Coach Pepin is not only an athletes’ coach, but a coaches’ coach. It’s clear to me that he cares deeply about educating and motivating coaches. Coach Pepin takes the performance of all his coaches personally and regularly challenges our ideas and tactics. Be aware of doing what you ‘think’ Coach Pepin wants you to do when he challenges you with the question ‘Why?’ ‘Because I thought you wanted it that way’ doesn’t cut it. He requires his staff to be as mentally tough as our athletes on the field.  Attention to detail, vision of the ultimate goal and hard work are placed front-and-center daily. If you love learning and coming to work every day, track and field at Nebraska is like being a kid in a candy store!  The old saying about New York also holds true here. If you can make it at Nebraska you can make it anywhere.”


Matt Martin: “One of the best lessons I’ve learned from Coach Pepin is that consistency over a career is a much more impressive feat than occasional greatness. We’ve won many championships in the time I’ve worked for Gary, but those never impress him as much as the subsequent effort of his staff and athletes to win the next one. His ability to keep everyone striving for improvement even when things have gone well makes him a Hall-of-Famer.”


Jay Dirksen: “Gary Pepin has a unique ability to stay completely focused on making track and field at the University of Nebraska the very best. I’ve seen him win many conference championships, but it’s not five minutes before he’s already looking ahead to figure out how we can do better in the next championship. He literally has a ‘one track mind’. He doesn’t let anything deter him from seeking excellence.”


Billy Maxwell: “Gary and I go way back in our coaching and recruiting lives. Before I had the privilege of working for him at the University of Nebraska, we had some real recruiting battles for some of the best track and field athletes in the country. (Maxwell was head men’s and women’s track and field coach at LSU for six years and an assistant at Texas for four years). In recruiting against Gary, there was never any negative statements about the school I was selling at the time. He’s one of the nation’s best recruiters because he can sell Nebraska to the best student-athletes. That’s why he’s been so successful for so long.”


 T.J. Pierce: “What’s made Coach Pepin so successful is his dedication not only to his athletes, but to the entire sport. In 2007, at the Iowa State Classic, there was no one raking the long jump pit during the competition. He hopped out of the stands and raked for the older gentleman who was running the event. Nothing is below Coach Pepin. He will do everything to ensure that athletes and fans have the best possible experience.”


Colligan calls Pepin and his program first-class. “Dot the i’s and cross the t’s when you work for Gary,” he said. “Do your best always, and then double-check to make sure you’ve done it right. That’s Gary Pepin.”


A Hall-of-Famer in almost every way you can imagine.




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