The Nebraska track team has been good in recent years.
Gary Pepin wants to be great. He’s one of the most successful coaches in the school's history. In his 42 seasons leading Nebraska's track and field program, the men's and women's indoor and outdoor teams have combined to win three national championships and 74 conference titles.
But Nebraska hasn’t been as successful in the past decade, especially at the NCAA championships. The women’s team hasn’t finished better than fifth at the Big Ten indoor meet in any of the past seven years.
The men’s team won the Big Ten indoor meet three times in a stretch of five years from 2015 to ’19, but was fourth the past two seasons.
Determined to improve the program, especially in recruiting, Pepin revamped his coaching staff after last season, with three assistant coaches being fired and one retiring.
Distance coach David Harris retired. Assistants Matt Martin, Scott Cappos and T.J. Pierce were let go. None from that group are believed to currently be in college coaching.
“I think we had people in there that were tired,” Pepin said. “I think they’d been at it a long time. Dave Harris told me he was just burned out with it. And you had other coaches in there where I think the same thing happened. I think they got tired and they weren’t having the success that they hoped to have. So I just felt like we needed to make some changes here to try and bring in some new blood and some enthusiasm and do a better job in recruiting than what we’ve done in the past.”
Pepin’s coaching staff once had the same continuity that Tom Osborne did as Husker football coach. This is the biggest change Pepin has had in the staff.
“It’s really difficult, certainly as (football coach Scott Frost) could tell you, as a head coach to move somebody down the line that you’re close to and has worked hard,” Pepin said. “But at the same time, if it’s not getting done for whatever the reasons are, you got to try and make a change if you want to get better.”
Pepin said the program has had some individual success stories in recent years, but not enough success competing for conference team titles and for top-10 team finishes at the NCAA meet.
“Certainly on the women’s side, we haven’t done very well, particularly on the track in the running events,” Pepin said. “And I want to have a team that has the ability talentwise that’s going to be at least on the top 15 in the NCAA meet. Now you could have things happen that prevent that. You could have somebody get hurt, or have the (COVID-19) virus. But the first thing you got to have is you’ve got to have the talent to be able to do that, and we haven’t had the talent in there in the last few years that has risen to the occasion. And that was a result simply of not recruiting people that were talented enough.”
Nebraska has had too many misses in recruiting, Pepin said. In track, men’s teams are limited to 12½ scholarships and women’s teams have 18 scholarships. Most scholarships are partial scholarships so they can be split among many athletes on the large rosters.
That means you may not even have even one full scholarship for each event, so you have to do a really good job in evaluation.
“When we give somebody a big scholarship, there are big expectations,” Pepin said. “So our expectations have to match up with what that person’s ability is, and that hadn’t been happening.”
Pepin hired three new coaches and promoted recruiting coordinator Matt Wackerly to distance coach.
Pepin was thrilled to hire Justin St. Clair as associate head coach and throws coach. He coached several All-Americans and Olympians at North Dakota State.
He also hired former Eastern Illinois head coach Brenton Emanuel to coach men’s and women’s sprinters and hurdlers. Nikki Larch-Miller also came from Eastern Illinois to coach the multi-event athletes.
Dusty Jonas stayed on staff to coach the high jump and assist with sprints and hurdles. Pepin coaches the long jump and triple jump.
Pepin is excited about the season, which begins Friday and Saturday when Nebraska hosts the Graduate Classic at the Devaney Sports Center.
“We really have some outstanding athletes, and I think that’s really going to boost the team,” Pepin said. “But also just the change in coaches has kind of brought a lot of enthusiasm to the team. They’re great personalities and have strong work ethics and I think that’s carried over to the kids.”