Zach Podraza courtesy photo

Walking into the Devaney Center, hundreds of banners hang on the walls. 

But there is only one track and field banner from the last five years.

For sixth-year senior student-athlete Zach Podraza, the thought of Nebraska’s former glory looms large. 

“Getting back to where we used to be as a team is definitely a big motivation,” he said.

After taking over as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s head coach in 1984 for Frank Sevigne, Gary Pepin became the all-time winningest track and field coach in the history of the Big 12 conference and the former Big Eight Conference, yet has not had much success as of late.

Pepin started in the Big Eight conference with the Husker’s before its eventual expansion into the Big 12 conference. Now, the Huskers are in the Big Ten conference with more teams and more competition than ever before. 

“Schools are so much better, that the level of ability that someone has has to be really good if they have hopes to ever score in a Big Ten conference meet,” Pepin said.

Despite that, Husker track and field student-athletes look forward to regaining the success they once had under coach Pepin. Since 1984, Pepin has coached 59 national champions, 42 women and 17 men, one of many statistics that keep any doubt from creeping into the minds of his student-athletes.

“Pepin has been the same person since I’ve been here and he obviously had the key to winning, so why fix what ain’t broke?“ Podraza said.

Podraza, a senior decathlon and heptathlon athlete for the Huskers, said that while Pepin is head coach, he is also the head jumping coach and he still finds time to critique and give all of his athletes congratulations when they have earned it and bolster the self-esteem of many under Pepin’s helm. 

“He really takes an interest,” Podraza said. “A couple years ago when I had a good deck, he wasn’t at that meet, and he called me a couple hours after and told me he was proud of me. It was really cool.”

Junior Darby Thomas, a jumper on the women’s track team, said that while Pepin can be a caring mentor and coach, he also expects the best from his athletes.

“He can be a big critiquer,” she said. “If you aren’t doing something right, even like the first time, he will let you know. If you repeat the mistake, he will let you know. He knows it takes time to fix things but he is a person that wants to see it and wants to know that you understand what he is telling you to do.”

Because of that extra adversity, Thomas said she has become a better athlete and a better human under Pepin, thanks to all that he has done for her, starting from the day he recruited her.

“The whole reason I came to Nebraska was because of Coach Pepin, and I knew the history he had as a coach,” she said. “The athletes he has produced, it’s incredible. He made Nebraska a comfortable place to be, he made it feel like home,” Thomas said.

Having coached numerous All-American athletes and conference champions, Pepin has a proven recipe for success.

“Pepin has produced so many Olympians, Big Ten and Big Eight individual conference champions, national championship runners, so he definitely has high expectations for all of us athletes, which I think is incredible,” Thomas said.

Coming into this season, the Huskers added multiple assistant coaches, including assistant head coach and throwing coach, Justin St. Clair, and cross country head coach, Matt Wackerly. 

St. Clair joined Nebraska this summer as one of the top throwing coaches in the nation, winning the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Midwest Region Assistant Coach of the Year award eight times since 2016.

“The throwers coach this year (he) came with a plan and he is sticking with that plan,” said Thomas. “He has such high expectations for the throwers in the weight room, throwing in general and being better all around athletes, including more running, more biometrics.”

Pepin makes sure to continue updating his competitive advantage, according to Thomas, whether it be at practice with their hydraulic-powered track or new workout routines.

Triple majoring in journalism, broadcasting and psychology, sixth-year senior and captain of the pole vaulting team, Andrianna “Andy” Jacobs, said the COVID-19 pandemic strongly affected the team and cancelled their indoor season. A lot of the program’s direction, she said, comes down the athletes. 

“We have to put in the work,” Jacobs said. “We have to listen to what our coaches say and perform when it comes time to perform. I think if we trust the process and do what he has laid out for us, we can be successful.”

In the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic, Pepin said his team is more talented and much improved from the year prior, yet the grind never stops.

“I would say we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “Are we where we want to be? No, but we’re driving down the highway here and the direction looks really good.”