Randy York's N-Sider
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Editor's note: Nebraska's Gary Pepin was named the Big 12 Conference 2011 Women's Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year after his Huskers upset four-time defending conference champion Texas A&M last month in Lincoln. Pepin also was named the MIdwest Region's Coach of the Year for a record ninth time. In a pre-Big 12 meet interview with The N-Sider, Pepin shared his thoughts about his record-breaking career, which now includes 67 conference titles as both an NU men's and women's coach. Pepin has guided the Huskers to 44 Big Eight championships and an all-time Big 12-best 23 team trophies.
Hall-of-Fame Coach Gary Pepin, who turned down an opportunity to be head track and field coach at Texas, never has looked for a spotlight to point in his direction, so expect none now, even though the nation's best indoor track and field meet - the last Big 12 Conference Indoor Championships - takes center stage at Lincoln's Bob Devaney Sports Center Friday and Saturday.
Pepin's No. 11 nationally ranked women's team has three Big 12 schools - Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma - ranked ahead of it, and his No. 13 nationally ranked men's team has the same three schools ahead of it.
What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is the Huskers entering a conference championship on their own track and in their own building as a decided underdog in both divisions - just the kind of challenge that Pepin loves, even though he would be the first to wave a yellow caution flag for Big Red fans with great expectations.
Still, it seems only appropriate to point out the trophy case that his teams have filled over the years. Under Pepin, the Huskers have won 22 Big 12 Conference Championships - 9 men's indoor meets, 6 men's outdoor, 5 women's indoor, 2 women's outdoor and not single partridge in a pear tree.
You would think that Pepin would be the all-time championship coach in the history of a Big 12 Conference that will lose two league members on July 1 as Nebraska joins the Big Ten and Colorado joins the Pac 10.
But you would be wrong. In an amazing twist, the only coach in any sport that has more Big 12 championships than Gary Pepin is Colorado's Mark Wetmore, whose CU Buffaloes have won 11 Big 12 Conference championships in women's cross country, 12 in men's cross country and one in men's outdoor track.
CU Coach Has 24 Conference Titles; Pepin Has 22
Colorado/Wetmore 24, Nebraska/Pepin 22 sounds like a football game without Alex Henery, but unless Pepin's teams can pull some rabbits out of a hat indoors this weekend or outdoors in Norman, Okla., May 13-15, he will leave the Big 12 as the No. 2 all-time championship coach in all sports.
Given his prominence in the Big 12 history book, we thought it was the perfect time for Pepin to answer 10 Huskers.com questions.
After all, we the people of Nebraska and Husker Nation, in order to join a more perfect union, establish records, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common argument, promote the general welfare of two conferences simultaneously, secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain the past and establish the future for University of Nebraska Athletics.
My apologies to everyone, but what can you say a week after ESPN officially moves Nebraska into its Big Ten Conference blogs and transitions Colorado into its Pac Ten Conference blogs? When a major sports network insists that spring football is the official driver of change, you can't shoot the messenger.
Given all of that, let's ask Pepin 10 questions and get his take on a conference that his track and field teams have dominated since Nebraska became a Big 12 member:
Q1: With your track and field teams winning 22 Big 12 Conference championships, how do you view the league's last indoor track and field championships that Nebraska ever will be a part of?
A: From a personal standpoint, it's a little disappointing. I coached nine years at Kansas and the last 31 years at Nebraska, so I'll be leaving a lot of history behind. I have more ties with the former Southwest Conference schools that merged into the Big Eight to form the Big 12 than I have with the Big Ten. This year, the Big 12 is the premier track and field conference in the nation. I was comfortable with the history of this meet and the way we've been able to compete in it. It's always very exciting, and I've always gotten a lot more uptight for this meet than any other. At Nebraska, we view track and field like the world views the Olympic Games - schools going against each other for a conference championship like countries going against each other in a medal race. In fact, one of my all-time track and field highlights was taking our men's and women's teams to Eugene (Ore.) for a dual and beating Oregon twice in the same day. That was a rarity for anyone.
Q2: Somehow, I'm having a hard time figuring out how a coach in a northern state wins track titles over coaches in southern states where it's warmer to run, jump, throw and vault. Would you please let us in on your little secret?
A: We put a higher priority on the conference championship than the national championship because it's track in its purest form. Every individual performance counts, from your best to your worst. The southern schools have so many advantages over northern schools, not just in terms of weather, but in terms of population. They can drive five miles and find more talent than we can find in five states. We work hard at recruiting. We analyze what we need every year and compare our strengths and weaknesses with the teams we have to beat. Then we go out and try to recruit accordingly. It's a difficult process and requires a lot of energy and effort, but it's worked for us. We've built a championship program.
Q3: Speaking of southern schools, tell us about the time you turned down the Texas head coaching job to remain at Nebraska.
A: I have all the respect in the world for Texas, and I almost left when (athletic director) DeLoss Dodds offered me the head coaching position. Texas is such a great school and has so many built-in advantages. The opportunities to win conference championships there are almost unlimited. That was a hard decision to make, but I made it based on family and health. 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.
Q4: Let's be honest. Nebraska track and field recruiting always seems to have a definitive international flavor. In all your years coaching in the Big 12, what has been the biggest individual catches outside of our borders and why?
A: That's easy. We've had a lot of international student-athletes who have been conference and NCAA champions, but the one who stands above them all is Merlene Ottey. She not only holds all of our sprint records, but she's been in more Olympic Games (seven) than any athlete in history (representing both Jamaica and Slovenia).They call her the "Queen of Track" not just here, but everywhere. She's won 14 world championships and was still competing in the Olympics at age 50. The world will probably never see another one like her in our lifetime. She was probably the greatest track athlete who ever competed here. Nicholas Gordon was another great one that we recruited out of Jamaica. He won the NCAA long jump and is a great representative of the University as well as a world-class athlete.
Q5: What non-international Husker athletes - men, women or both - rank at the top of your Big 12 performances ... the best of the best, so to speak?
A: We've had so many great ones I hate to name names. We seem to attract great high jumpers. Shane Lavy was a five or six-time All-American and Dusty Jonas, who's helping us now as a volunteer coach while he trains to make another Olympic team, were world-class high jumpers. So is Epley Bullock, who was a captain for us last year and now that she's finished her college career has one of the best high jumps in the world for women. Two weeks ago, she cleared 6-3¼, and she's only 5-foot, 6½ inches tall.
Q6: Over the years, you've built a strong coaching staff. Give us a sentence or two about your assistants and how they help you keep this machine cranking out championships.
A: Jay Dirksen has been here 28 years and is one of the most knowledgeable middle distance and distance runner coaches in the country. He has a wonderful rapport with athletes of both genders. He's coached three NCAA champions in cross country. It's very difficult to find a coach with his level of experience and knowledge. Billy Maxwell does a great job with our sprinters and hurdlers. He was a head coach at LSU and has been one of our better recruiters in addition to being a very hard worker. Mark Colligan has coached dozens of conference champions and five national champions in our throwing events. He has a keen interest in finding and then coaching Nebraska kids to national prominence. Kris Grimes also has great experience. He was the interim head women's coach at Michigan State and has coached our combined events performers and our pole vaulters to numerous conference titles and even NCAA championships. Matt Martin is our recruiting coordinator and coaches sprinters, hurdlers and our relay teams. He just got back from Europe and is always busy finding and recruiting great athletes. His dad, Doug Martin, is still a volunteer coach for us and helps us with our distance runners. T.J. Pierce is our director of operations and is the kind of guy who would give you his left arm to help Nebraska. It's extremely difficult to find a guy like him who's willing to do whatever we need without getting the opportunity to coach. He has proven himself to be one of the better meet directors in the country. Da'Nelle Earl helps T.J. in operations and helps Matt with recruiting. She's kind of the glue that holds this whole staff together. She does a tremendous job. We have three more volunteer coaches besides Dusty Jonas and Doug Martin - Grant Watley (distance), Casie Witte (combined events/pole vault) and Keith Lloyd (throws). We have a great staff, and I'd hate to lose anybody.
Q7: Every indoor team title is important. What were the most memorable?
A: We won nine indoor championships with the men and five with the women, and they're almost indistinguishable because they were all important and all exciting. Any time you can compete in a conference like this and win a league title, you've accomplished something. We will miss the Big 12, but we will move on and compete as well as we can in the Big Ten. Just this week, we learned that the Big Ten will no longer host the men and women indoor meets in separate venues on the same day. We're glad that changed, so we don't have to split up our coaching staff. That would have been very difficult.
Q8: Nebraska track and field fans are among the nation's most loyal, if not the most loyal. What part do they play in the championship equation?
A: They're important, especially indoors when we have so many meets because we have one of the best facilities. We have a booster club that's been very supportive, and our fans show up for the important meets, and the Big 12, of course, would certainly be one of them. There are so many big events outdoors that we don't get to host much for the fans during the outdoor season. Fans who want to watch world-class athletes would be wise to come to the Devaney Center and watch the Big 12 this weekend. The level of competition is just out of sight. I think it will be a dynamite meet.
Q9: It seems fitting that the last Big 12 indoor meet as we know it is in Lincoln. What teams are favored and what can Nebraska fans expect from the Huskers individually?
A: The Big 12 is loaded with great teams and great individual athletes. Texas is ranked No. 3 nationally in the women and considered the favorite, along with Texas A&M. A&M is ranked No. 4 nationally in the men and considered the favorite, along with Texas and Oklahoma. I looked at all 16 events in both the men and the women, and every event has all kinds of nationally ranked athletes, including a lot who rank as the very best in the country. If you're a track and field fan, I can't imagine going to a meet better than this one. We have some great athletes ourselves - Natalie Willer (pole vault) and Chantae McMillan (hepthathlon). Mara Griva is a strong long jumper and Mara Weekes has speed in the sprints. On the men's side, we have three outstanding long jump-triple jumpers - Nicholas Gordon, of course, plus Chris Phipps and Bobby Carter. Paul Hamilton is an outstanding high jumper, and David Adams is a contender in the 5,000 meters. We have Luke Pinkelman in the shot put and several others that can contend.
Q10: We have to ask. What are the odds that Nebraska can win a team title or two this weekend, and with no intent to apply any more pressure than you already feel, how sweet would that be?
A: It's hard to compare performances and times, and you don't know until everyone competes. I mock scored the men's meet, and we were third or fourth, about 30 points behind Texas, the team I have winning the meet. On the women's side, we were third, which surprised me. But that doesn't mean we can't go down a place or two or up a place or two. Could we win? Yes. Could we finish fifth? Yes. I'm a pessimist and a realist. I never like to get my hopes up too high and be disappointed. I just hope we've prepared everyone we have to compete and perform the best they can. Like I said before, I get more uptight for the conference championships than I do any other meet all year, so I never think about how I might feel if we win.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Ms. Ottey was an outstanding sprinter and a source of pride to a former Husker whenever I saw her perform on television. I did not realize she was still a world-class performer at age 50. The man that I believe helped recruit her, the Jamaican Jet - Keith Gardner, was also a great hurdler and sprinter from the late 50's. I was thrilled to see the women win the Big 12 indoor. I will try to attend the Big 12 Outdoor in Norman this spring. Thanks for the update. Randolph Clark, Edmond, Oklahoma