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Nebraska track and field coach Gary Pepin retires after 42 seasons, 73 league titles

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LINCOLN — After 42 years, Nebraska's longest-tenured coach is retiring.

Track and field coach Gary Pepin, who oversaw the men's and women's teams for four decades, will step down immediately, before the 2022-2023 season.

Gary Pepin

Gary Pepin

Pepin made $282,623 last year. Based on a two-year extension he signed 12 days before former Athletic Director Bill Moos' university-exhorted retirement last summer, Pepin had one year remaining on his contract, which expired June 30, 2023. Previous to the two-year deal Pepin had generally received one-year extensions. 

He leaves NU having coached 73 indoor and outdoor conference title teams.

"I want to express my gratitude to the Athletic Department Administration for the support of our program over the last 42 years," Pepin said in a press release. "The success it has achieved would not have been possible otherwise. I'm also grateful for the hard work and many hours put in by the Husker Track & Field Officials Organization, and of course the hundreds of student-athletes that are part of the Husker family.

"It has been an absolute honor to coach here at Nebraska. I have worked with numerous amazing coaches and world-class student-athletes. I will continue to follow and support the program and look forward to spending more time with my family in retirement. The future is bright here at Nebraska and I am confident that the program will continue to develop and find success. Go Big Red!”

NU Athletic Director Trev Alberts called Pepin "a true legend." 

"His accomplishments in more than four decades as the head coach of our track and field program speak volumes - from team and individual national champions, dozens of conference championships, and coaching Olympic standouts," Alberts said. "Gary Pepin is Nebraska Track and Field. We wish him nothing but the best in retirement and look forward to seeing him at Husker events in the years to come."

Nebraska did not mention in the release who it might hire, though throws coach Justin St. Clair — hired a year ago by Pepin as associate head coach — will be a likely candidate. 

Whoever takes over for Pepin will have a high bar to clear. 

The successor to Frank Sevigne, who coached 28 years at NU, Pepin coached Nebraska's track and field teams for 42 years and had 73 conference-title-winning indoor and outdoor teams, including six in the Big Ten. His teams had 59 individual national champions — 42 women, 17 men — 597 conference champions and 639 All-Americans.

He won three women's indoor national titles in 1982-1984 and had 23 NCAA top-five finishes. The national title teams were led by nine-time Olympic medalist Merlene Ottey, widely considered the best athlete in school history and the first legendary sprinter from Jamaica, one of the dominant nations in the sport. 

Pepin was inducted in the USA Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in 2008 after decades of dominating the Big 12. The Big Ten has proven a little tougher — Pepin has overhauled his coaching staff a few times, including most recently in 2021 — but he still won six indoor or outdoor league coach of the year honors there, as well. The Husker women finished 14th in the NCAA outdoor championships while the men finished 26th in the indoor championships.

Pepin most directly coached NU's jumpers; his best high jumper, Dusty Jones, was 2008 Olympian and currently coaches on the team. Two of his best female jumpers, Angee Henry and Nicola Martial, won five total national titles in the mid-1990s. 

NU generally hasn't enjoyed as much success in the Big Ten as it did in the Big 12 and, in recent years, change around the program has been constant. In order to help NU Athletics comply with Title IX requirements, he had to cut men's walk-ons and add women's walk-ons. 

“It absolutely made me sick,” Pepin told The World-Herald in 2019 of cutting male walk-ons. 

In 2018, Moos' made direct comments about the struggles of the women's track team that privately rankled the NU track staff but hit the mark. 

"This is where talented athletes ought to want to come and where they should train and develop," Moos said at the time. "And when I don’t see that’s happening, yeah, that’s a concern.”

By 2019, Nebraska had announced its massive football facility project would eventually sit where the historic Ed Weir Track had been for decades. COVID-19 cut short the 2020 indoor season, canceled the 2020 outdoor season and threw the 2021 seasons into turmoil. NU has completed much of the work on the new outdoor track — which sits across the street from the Husker indoor track, but a multiteam meet has yet unfold there. 

After 2021, Pepin fired three assistants and had another retire. 

In multiple interviews with several news outlets he criticized his own staff's inability to recruit the best athletes — especially on the women's side — and in the last year began to shift his focus away from building a team to win a conference title — which requires a more balanced team sharing smaller fractions of scholarships — to recruiting more top, higher-scholarship-dollar athletes who could score well at the national meets. 

"I think they got tired and they weren’t having the success that they hoped to have," Pepin told the Lincoln Journal Star in January. "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.”

His biggest new hire was St. Clair, the throws coach, who immediately improved NU's performance last season, in part because of some his best athletes and recruits followed him to Nebraska.

One of the best, Swedish freshman shot putter Axelina Johansson, finished third at the NCAA outdoor championships and 12th at the world championships this summer. St. Clair recruited Johansson to North Dakota State; she followed him to NU.

Other candidates could include current assistants Brenton Emanuel — coach at Eastern Illinois for three season — or Jonas, one of Pepin's best athletes, who coaches jumps and sprints. 

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