Husker Track & Field Focus Is on Winning Big While Going Small
Story by Steve Beideck • Photos by NU Sports Information
Seven coaching changes and a shift in postseason focus will bring a different look to the 2022 Nebraska track and field season.
Gary Pepin is still the leader of both the men’s and women’s programs. The dean of Big Ten track and field coaches is in his 39th season at the helm of the men’s program and 42nd as leader of the women’s program after taking over for Carol Frost following the 1980 season.
Pepin is one of the most successful college coaches in the history of the sport. His Husker teams won three women’s national championships in the 1980s and have a combined 74 conference championships between the Big Eight, Big 12 and Big Ten conferences.
But there hasn’t been much winning lately for the Huskers, and that doesn’t sit well with the man inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008.
Three assistants were fired and another retired. Pepin said it’s never easy, but sometimes necessary, to make those changes.
“All of them were really good people,” Pepin said. “Most of them were here a long time. Sometimes things get just a little bit stale, and there were some areas where we needed to do a little bit better.
“It’s a tough situation because you like those people and they’re working at what they do. If things aren’t improving, sometimes as a head coach you have to make a change.”
Changes in the coaching staff and his approach to recruiting have reenergized Pepin, who continues to coach the long and triple jumps, since the indoor season began earlier this month.
New throws coach Justin St. Clair coached Olympians at North Dakota State. Two coaches from Eastern Illinois – Brenton Emanuel (sprints, hurdles) and Nikki Larch-Miller (multi-events) – are now on staff.
Former recruiting coordinator Matt Wackerly took over the cross country program and distance running duties following the retirement of Dave Harris. Dusty Jonas is still coaching the high jump and helping with sprints and hurdles.
“You can feel and see the difference in practice with all the groups,” Pepin said. “I can’t tell you quite why, but it’s so obvious that everybody has just stepped it up quite a bit and they’re having fun at the same time. A lot of the new personalities have blended well. Not only the athletes and the coaches, but also the staff.
“Everybody is working hard and having a lot of fun together. Maybe some of it is a younger staff. Everything here is new and exciting. There’s a lot of potential in some of these new people we’ve brought in who we believe will achieve at a higher level.”
With the international approach to recruiting still in place and some of the new coaches never having been at a Power Five conference school, selling athletes on Nebraska is exciting again.
Pepin said this and future Husker rosters, both for the men and women, will be smaller because the focus is turning to getting more elite athletes into the program who can score points at the national championship meets.
“Our philosophy has changed,” Pepin said. “Maybe until a couple of years ago we tried to have a complete team. We were very competitive in dual meets, and we’ve always had one of the best teams in the national dual meet rankings. There’s an enormous difference trying to win a conference meet as opposed to scoring high at nationals.
“If you’re winning that meet, you’ll have a chance to score some points. But there have been programs like Texas-El Paso that have won national championships, but they couldn’t win their conference.”
Pursuit of conference championships in the Big Ten era is different than the Big Eight and Big 12 days. Especially with indoor meets, there’s rarely a chance for the Huskers to see their conference rivals before the Big Ten meet at the end of February.
There were plenty of chances for the Huskers to size up their Big Eight and Big 12 foes because they would come to meets in Lincoln because the Devaney Center has one of the nation’s best hydraulic-banked tracks.
The Big Ten also has become much more competitive than when the Huskers first joined for the 2012 indoor and outdoor seasons. Yet there’s still plenty of competition in the Midwest where Pepin said the Huskers don’t have to travel to Michigan or Penn State.
“It wasn’t as tough as it is right now,” Pepin said. “The conference is so much better. There are new coaches, schools have new facilities, so they don’t have to travel as much to find good competition.”
Pepin said the ideal roster sizes at this point are roughly 50 men and 60 women. Smaller numbers mean more time for coaches to spend with athletes individually.
“We want people out there by the end of their freshman year who can make it to the conference meet,” Pepin said. “It will give all our coaches more time with the higher-level athletes. We’re putting more emphasis now on nationals. It takes time to get them up there.
“When we’re looking for kids at that level, they have to be good enough to get into the meet. Getting people in who are immediately at the top of the conference means having more people scoring at the national meet.”
The build up of national-level talent already is underway with Nebraska’s throwers and jumpers.
“In the field events, we’re pretty doggone good,” Pepin said. “On the men’s side in the field events we don’t have many holes. The women’s side it’s pretty much the same except for maybe the pole vault. We’re working to get more high-level people on the track.”
Alex Talley and Maxwell Otterdahl already have cracked the Huskers’ all-time charts in the weight throw and shot put since transferring from North Dakota State. Kansas State transfer Taylor Latimer set a school record in the weight throw in her first meet as a Husker Jan. 15 at the Graduate Classic.