The day former Nebraska head cross country coach Dave Harris retired, an era of Husker distance running had ended.
Now, a new era begins for Nebraska cross country under the guidance of head coach Matt Wackerly, the program’s second coach in the last decade.
“It’s an honor,” Wackerly said. “Coaching cross country is a passion of mine so to be able to coach it at the highest level is amazing. To also work with coaches like Gary Pepin is just as amazing too.”
Hailing from Lexington, Ohio, Wackerly’s life has revolved around cross country. He was a three-time national qualifier in cross country and a three-time conference champion in track at Ashland University in his native state before graduating in 1998.
After earning a master’s degree in sports management from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003, Wackerly turned to coaching. He first was an assistant coach at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts for three years. There he won a pair of conference championships, coached five NCAA Division II All-Americans and three NCAA qualifiers in cross country.
Wackerly was then named the head cross country coach of Ohio Wesleyan University. There he coached eight All-Americans and two NCAA Division III all-time top-10 runners. Now the head coach of Nebraska, Wackerly wants to build off his previous successes.
“I want to improve,” Wackerly said. “Most of the programs I’ve been in were having their best years and I want to continue that here at Nebraska. I want to improve as a coach. I want to see the athletes improve, be engaged and excited about things.”
Following his run at Ohio Wesleyan, Wackerly came to Nebraska in 2016 as the on-campus recruiting coordinator for cross country. Through his time as a recruiter for the Huskers, Wackerly saw the growth the team had both in performance and chemistry under Harris.
Now that Wackerly is the head coach, he wants to honor Harris’s legacy.
“Harris was great,” Wackerly said. “He was a great coach and he tried to make this transition as easy as possible. I just want to continue where he left off, honor that legacy and make something that he can be proud of.”
Wackerly isn’t the only one making his inaugural season as a Division I coach for Nebraska. Alongside Wackerly, volunteer coach Courtney Bishop also makes his debut as a coach on the collegiate level.
Prior to the Huskers, Bishop was the head track and field coach at Pike High School in Indiana. Now at Nebraska, Bishop is excited for the upcoming season as a coach for both the cross country and track and field teams. Despite a change in the level of competition, Bishop knows that the same values are needed to succeed.
“Running is running,” Bishop said. “To me, if you’re coaching a sixth-grader or a collegiate athlete there are going to be some differences, but similarities as well. Most of the differences will be off the track and most of the similarities will be on it.”
With one meet in the books, the new season has been off to a solid start under Wackerly and Bishop. At the Augustana Twilight meet, the women finished second while the men finished sixth. Three Huskers on the women’s team also finished in the top 15 in the 5k.
Training has been back to normal for Nebraska now that COVID-19 regulations have been loosened. This has allowed Wackerly to transition into the role of head coach and continue where Harris left off rather nicely.
However, both he and Bishop know that in terms of Harris’s coaching style compared to theirs, they’re not reinventing the wheel.
“Coach Harris was a phenomenal coach,” Bishop said. “So we’re really trying to keep those standards. The bar has been set pretty high for us and we just want to live up to it. Live up to it, in Wackerly’s way, which is something I’ve really loved so far.”
Harris leaves behind a very decorated Nebraska career. Under Harris’s run as head coach and distance coach of track and field, runners broke multiple school records, won conference titles and even got some runners tickets to Nationals.
However, there are still challenges for Wackerly.
The biggest challenge heading into the season is losing former Big Ten Champion George Kusche, who transferred to Northern Arizona to finish off his collegiate career.
“This’ll be a challenge,” Wackerly said. “Kusche is one of the top runners in the country, so running without him will be a challenge. For the men, if they get back to where they were last year that would be amazing. For the women, they’re bringing back most of its team so they just need to continue where they left off.”
Other than Kusche’s departure, the off-season went smoothly for the Huskers. According to Bishop, things went extremely well in terms of installing a new system, which is never an easy task.
“In the off-season, Wackerly’s approach was great,” Bishop said. “I truly think this season is going to be something special.”
Of course, it’s more than just improving on the course that Wackerly is focusing on. To Wackerly, chemistry is just as important as performance.
“It’s important for the teams to bond,” Wackerly said. “Cross country and distance running is hard. Running for a long time is hard so it’s good to have that chemistry there for them. We want to create that environment.”
Only three meets remain until the Big Ten Championship, which means much needs to be done if the Huskers want to replicate their performance from last season.
Wackerly and Bishop both know that for the team to maintain success from the Harris era, it will take a whole team effort.
“Everyone is going to have to do their part,” Bishop said. “That’s the beauty of cross country teams. It’s never about one person. It’s about the synergy between the teams at large.”