Freshmen Levi Gipson, Christian Sanderfer, Ricco Hall and Cody Rush run on NU's 4x400 relay.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Maxwell: Relay Team Reflects ‘Nebraska Way’

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Gary Pepin and Billy Maxwell are college track and field’s version of Abbott and Costello. Eat lunch with Pepin, in his 33rd season as Nebraska’s head coach, and Maxwell, in his 19th year as Pepin’s sidekick, and you’ll know what I mean. They talk about their passion every day, recruit every day and live, laugh and learn together on an almost daily basis. I should add that Pepin and Maxwell also argue every day, and when they do, it’s like listening to Abbott and Costello talk about who’s on first.

It’s even more fun when they mix it up and Pepin acts like he’s Dean Martin, playing it straight, forcing Maxwell, his longtime shadow, to do all the Jerry Lewis-like wisecracking. It’s choreographed comedy so both can laugh at the same time despite their different personalities. “We’ve eaten lunch together almost every day for 19 straight years,” Maxwell said before Wednesday’s Husker practice session. “We argue and fight about who to recruit and why and then we go to lunch. He’s my boss, but he’s also my best friend. We see a lot of things the very same way.”

The same way is, in effect, the Nebraska Way, an expression that head coaches from Oklahoma and Alabama use when they see Nebraska bring a small Army to every track meet, whether it’s small, medium or large. “It’s something I feel really good about whenever opposing coaches talk about the Nebraska Way,” Maxwell said. “We always have a lot of people. We always have a lot of bodies, and we do win consistently with sheer numbers. Gary will have five or six long jumpers who can all score, even in big meets, and I’ll have the same number of sprinters and hurdlers. That way, if two or three are down that day, we have others who will pick everything right back up.”

Nebraska Plays the Numbers Game Like No One Else

The Numbers Game has made Pepin the winningest head coach in any sport in the history of the Big Eight and Big 12 Conferences. Pepin would be the first to commend his entire staff, and especially Maxwell for his expertise in sprints/hurdles/and relays. When Maxwell was head coach at LSU for six years and an assistant at Texas for four years, he would go head-to-head with Pepin in one royal recruiting battle after another.

Pepin was so convincing selling Nebraska’s unique but highly successful culture that he finally recruited and hired a coach who thought he’d never leave the Sun Belt for anywhere else. It is no coincidence that Billy Maxwell has been either a head coach or an assistant coach for teams that have won 78 league championships in four different conferences – the Southwest, the Big Eight, the Big 12 and the Big Ten.

Maxwell appreciates Pepin’s meticulous record-keeping, detailed film study, above-and-beyond dedication and his legendary recruiting. Like his fellow Husker assistants, Maxwell views Pepin as one of those rare head coaches who can be an athletes’ coach a coaches’ coach at the same time.

Maxwell’s Math: Recruiting 90 Percent of the Solution

One thing is certain. Pepin has surrounded himself with an entire staff of equally focused, team-oriented professionals who know the art and science of recruiting, individually and together. “I’ve said it a million times – recruiting is the most important part of coaching,” Maxwell said. “Ninety percent of your success is recruiting, five percent is coaching and the other five percent is doing everything you can to make sure everyone on the team is happy.”

That brings us to the ultimate exclamation point that exemplifies and helps  Maxwell prove his case – Nebraska’s 4x400-meter relay team. Despite its relative inexperience, the Huskers won the Big Ten 4x400 relay outdoors and earned first-team All-America honors with a seventh-place NCAA Indoor finish. “It looks like we’ll have two true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen competing in the NCAA Championships next weekend in Eugene (Ore.),” Maxwell said, adding that three student-athletes on that 4x400 relay are Nebraska natives. The team, in likely running order, includes:

Levi Gipson, a true freshman from Lincoln Christian High School, where he won four Class C state titles – two in the 400, one in 800 and one in the long jump.

Christian Sanderfer, a redshirt freshman who won Class A state championships in the pole vault (15-8½) and the 110-meter high hurdles (14.69) at Lincoln Southwest.

Ricco Hall, a redshirt freshman from Kentwood, Mich., who won four individual prep titles – in the 100 (10.55), the 200 (21.50), the 400 (47.00) and the high jump (6-4).

Cody Rush, a true freshman sprinter from Grand Island Northwest, who won three Class B individual state titles before becoming a first-team NCAA Indoor All-American.

From Prep Champions to First-Team All-Americans

“A year ago, Levi and Cody were competing in the Class B and Class C state high school track meet, and they’ve really taken it up a notch in their first year,” Maxwell said. “Christian came here as a pole vaulter and still is, but he’s shown his versatility after a redshirt year. Ricco also redshirted last year (outdoor season), but they’re all four freshmen eligibility-wise, so we see nothing but good things ahead.”

Janis Leitis, a senior from Riga, Latvia, is an alternate for NU's  4x400 relay team, but the national contender in the long jump faces a schedule conflict in the preliminary round, so he may compete in the later rounds. Miles Ukaoma, a junior from Maize, Kan., is another alternate who ran Nebraska’s third leg to join Gipson, Sanderfer and Rush as Big Ten Champions in the 4x400 at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in Columbus.

Nebraska’s depth wins conference titles, but the NCAA Championship Track and Field Meet is another story line. “If it was a dual meet, we’re as good as anybody in the United States of America,” Maxwell said. “But this isn’t a dual.”

It’s a meet where smaller teams load up scholarships on world-class athletes and win. The schools and their athletes earn and deserve the nation’s highest accolades, but those teams are rarely built to experience what Nebraska’s men’s and women’s teams experience – a life-changing understanding of teamwork and involvement that paves the way for all to compete in life.

Pepin a True National Track and Field Coaching Icon

“I’m friends with coaches who compete for the National Championship,” Maxwell said, “and some tell me they prefer the Nebraska Way because it’s what college athletics should be all about ... recruiting outstanding athletes and helping them become the best students and athletes they can be. I’ve seen it and done it differently, and I prefer the way Gary Pepin does it here at the University of Nebraska. He’s a national track and field coaching icon and a Hall-of-Fame coach in every way possible.”

Whenever a Pepin-coached team wins a conference championship or one of his student-athletes wins an NCAA title, Nebraska’s legendary head coach is both happy and excited in his own way. But like Dusty Jonas, a Nebraska Olympic high jumper, says: “Coach Pepin prefers consistency over occasional greatness. He has a one-track mind and doesn’t let anything deter him from seeking excellence.”

Pepin and Maxwell aren’t on top of their game if they don’t find something to argue about every morning. But they’re always together at the Training Table, well ahead of the rest of the Nebraska track and field staffers who see enough of the “Who’s On First?” routine at the office. It’s all in good fun and a way of life for two veteran coaches who absolutely agree on just about every aspect of the Nebraska Way.

1994 Championship Loss Says It All About Pepin

Turn the calendar back to the 1994 Men’s Big Eight Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Lawrence, Kan., a meet that came down to the final event – the 4x400 relay. Iowa State's team stepped to the line in violation of the relay uniform code, a rule enforceable by disqualification. Once the gun fired, Nebraska could have protested against Iowa State and assured itself of sole ownership of the conference title. Without protesting, Iowa State needed only to cross the finish line and win the meet.

Pepin instructed his assistants not to file a protest because he doesn’t think that's the right way for Nebraska to win a championship. His logic, of course, is the ethical equivalent of Tom Osborne refusing to kick a 1983 extra point to tie Miami and win a national championship.

Nebraska won that 4x400 relay that day in 1994, but the Huskers lost the championship to the Cyclones, 176-171. Iowa State Coach Steve Lynn expressed his appreciation to Pepin for his sportsmanship and asked if he could step on the bus and address the Husker team. Lynn told the Huskers they had to be hurting after coming so close to another title. Then he told them there was no program in America with more heart, class and sportsmanship than Nebraska. Two decades later, that fact still rings true, and that’s one subject that Gary Pepin and Billy Maxwell will never, ever, ever argue about because they agree there is absolutely no place like Nebraska.

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