Randy York’s N-Sider
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When the sun went down on a 17th-place NCAA finish for one of his youngest ever men’s Big 12 Conference championship track and field teams nine days ago, the most decorated coach in league history was on the road again. Gary Pepin was in his van, but his mind was traveling across the country and around the world. He was focused squarely on his most important priority . . . recruiting.
The man who grew up selling shoes at Montgomery Wards in Pittsburg, Kansas, was thinking about how he was going to sell state, regional, national and international recruits on coming to Nebraska for the greatest competitive times of their lives.
In his 29th season at Nebraska and his 26th as the head coach of the Husker men’s team, Pepin is feeling as spry as ever. He never has been and never will be motivated by the 23 conference Coach of the Year honors he’s received in men’s and women’s track and field and cross country.
“Working with student-athletes and building a team are always more enjoyable than the actual day of competition,” he said. “Being a track coach is a little like trying to be a composer or an artist or writing a book. It’s about the daily process – the enjoyment of recruiting, of competing, of getting better.”
Pepin will turn 66 on June 30, and he shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. “I feel like I’m a much better coach than I was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, even 15 years ago,” he said. “I’m more knowledgeable about the events I coach. I have more experiences to rely on, and I probably have more patience with kids than I did when I first got into this business. You could say I’m also more confident because I know exactly what I’m looking for.”
Don’t put Pepin into the category of a coach looking for a small number of full-scholarship athletes who often focus on how the NCAA will enhance their pro careers, so they can get on and off campus quicker than a 100-meter dash with little intention of maximizing their academic talents.
Looking for Academically Driven Athletes
No sir. Gary Pepin and his highly dedicated assistant coaches are looking for something completely different than that. They’re looking for student-athletes who want to compete academically as much as they want to compete athletically. They’re looking for student-athletes who want to be coached and who want to get better. They’re looking for young men and women who enjoy the experience and the chemistry of being part of a team and appreciate a program that prepares them for life every bit as much it as it gears them up for the NCAA Championships.
It’s a formula that works for Pepin and his staff, who work relentlessly to recruit the talent necessary to achieve their goals – 1) win a conference championship; and 2) finish in the top 10 nationally.
Nebraska’s men won the 2009 Big 12 outdoor championship, and the Husker women finished third. In the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Nebraska's men tied for 17th, and the Husker women fell all the way to 62nd.
“We have to recruit and compete better,” Pepin said. “Winning is really important to our staff and our student-athletes. We don’t go into any conference meet thinking about second, and we don’t go into any national meet thinking about finishing outside the top 10, although that was a big stretch for a young and injured women’s team this year.”
According to Pepin, it takes a strong commitment from the athletic department, the coaching staff and the student-athletes to aim consistently for those goals and to accomplish them.
Academic Support Nebraska’s No. 1 Product
“We work hard at Nebraska, and that’s a big selling point for recruits who want to come here,” Pepin said. “We recruit student-athletes who have a strong work ethic. I love to recruit here because Nebraska has so much to offer. Our No. 1 product is the academic support we have. No one does a more thorough job in that area than we do. Kids are smart. They know how important that is for their lives after track and field.”
Lincoln is an easy sell, too. “When recruits visit here,” Pepin said, “they can see instantly what a nice community we live and work in. The people are friendly. This is a track savvy town. That’s why we host so many meets. We draw crowds because of our tradition, our interest and our fan support. People in this state are nice to work with. The Midwest really appeals to every segment of student-athletes we target.”
Recruiting track and field, as well as cross country (headed by Jay Dirksen), isn’t easy. “We have 21 events in men’s track and field and only 12 ½ full scholarships to distribute,” Pepin said. “We have 18 scholarships in women’s track and field. Cross country is the only NCAA sport that has a championship and no scholarships. Very few people know that all of the top cross country runners in the country are on track scholarships.”
Some coaches get so frustrated they don’t take the time or invest the energy to excel in both sports or even across the board in track. Not Pepin, nor any of his assistants. They want to excel in all aspects of track and field, and they want to be competitive in cross country.
No wonder Pepin and his staff have made math such an important part of their overall recruiting solution. “You have to have a certain philosophy of what to put first – the conference meet or the national meet,” he said. “You can build two different teams, and sometimes they fall together. But if you’re just out to win nationals, that can disrupt your opportunities to win the conference.”
To be consistent with Nebraska’s philosophy, Pepin has opted to achieve the optimum overall team experience and to put the conference first. That means supplementing his national and international recruiting targets with dedicated walk-ons who come to Nebraska with good minds and strong hearts.
Walk-ons Have Helped Build a Solid Foundation
Like Nebraska’s historically successful football program, “we recruit walk-ons as hard as we recruit our scholarship student-athletes,” Pepin said. “We’re very up front with them before they get here and after they arrive. They know what they’re facing in terms of hard work and development.”
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.
And that’s what keeps him going as hard as ever on the recruiting trail, even though he keeps getting asked the same question: How long can this keep going on?
Feeling as fit and as good as ever, Pepin keeps answering the same question the same way: “As long as I’m healthy and having fun and the athletic department wants me in the program,” he said.
With an athletic director exemplifying a similar work ethic and basing performance on a certain vision and set of values, Pepin is confident he’s meeting the standards.
“I know what really drives me,” Pepin said. “You remember your most talented athletes, but you also remember the ones who weren’t stars, but were great students. I remain in awe of the exceptional people we’ve had come through this program over the years – the doctors, the lawyers, the businessmen and women, the dedicated teachers who are now dedicated parents. The most rewarding part of coaching is seeing these young men and women when they come back to visit.”
The dean of all Nebraska men or women head coaches since the recent retirement of Francis Allen, Gary Pepin thought for a couple seconds before making one more insightful observation.
“You know," he said, "when you put together a battle plan for a track meet, it always keeps you motivated. But when you see the ones who executed those battle plans come back and visit, it keeps you young.”
Voices from Husker Nation
"Fantastic article on Gary Pepin. As a former high jumper, I think it clearly captures the past-present-and future vision of the program. I'm proud to have been part of the program."