From Plainsmen to Prairie Wolves, brown and yellow to black and gold, the one constant of Nebraska Wesleyan athletics is its tradition of academic and athletic excellence.
It’s the job of NWU’s coaches to promote, protect and advance that tradition. A stable coaching staff reflects a stable tradition. But a stable coaching staff is exceptionally hard to come by these days.
While most collegiate athletic departments have revolving doors that see coaches come and go, NWU boasts a core group of four especially rooted and successful coaches. Given the loyalty and success they share, it’s not surprising that the four of them share another attribute: they’re all proud alumni.
Brett Balak (’91), Ted Bulling (’80), Gina Chambers (’97) and Brian Keller (’83) have taken their teams to success at the conference and national levels. Their teams have a combined 71 conference titles, one team national title, 21 team postseason appearances and scores of All-Americans and Academic All-Americans.
Coach Bulling is the group’s senior member, entering his 29th season coaching track and field this spring. His experience as a student athlete in football and track and field at NWU informs the way he leads his teams today. Bulling coaches the men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field teams as well as the men’s and women’s cross country teams.
“My experiences as an athlete remind me how important the coach/athlete relationship is,” said Bulling, a six-time National Coach of the Year. “My old event coach (current Mount Union coach John Homan) showed me how true the old adage really is: ‘Athletes don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’”
Coach Keller has been the head football coach at NWU since 1996 and is the only one of the group who has coached at another university. That experience gives him perspective on how special NWU athletes are.
“It’s true what we believe about the uniqueness of NWU student-athletes; they’re highly motivated overachievers who want to excel at whatever they do,” observed Keller, who has more victories than any football coach in NWU history. “Having the opportunity to coach and mentor these young people motivates me every day. I want to give them the best chance to excel in the athletic arena.”
Chambers’ coaching career reflects the adaptability and diversity of a Nebraska Wesleyan education. She’s coached three different sports at NWU, serving as an assistant women’s basketball coach and head softball coach before moving to her current position as head volleyball coach. She was a standout in both basketball and volleyball in her playing days in the mid-90s.
As the youngest of the four, Chambers is the closest to her experience as a student-athlete. “I think it helps (student-athletes) to know that we have literally walked in our athletes’ shoes here at NWU,” Chambers said. The Prairie Wolves will compete for Chambers’ 100th volleyball coaching victory in its 2010 season opener.
Chambers has relationships with professors across campus that began when she was a student. That familiarity helps her support the academic success of her players.
None of the coaches can recall every score, game or competition from their time as student-athletes. But they all recall their relationships with teammates and coaches. They work to foster the same closeness on their teams.
“While certainly the national and conference championships my student-athletes have won are memorable, I learned a long time ago that competitive success couldn’t sustain my interest in coaching,” said Bulling. “For me it’s the day-to-day process of working with young people and helping them develop as students, athletes and people that make it my life’s work.”
Coach Keller put it best on what makes NWU such a special place to work. “I’m sure facilities, techniques and records will change. But what won’t change are the great student- athletes who carry on our storied tradition. They continually make me proud to be both a coach and alumnus of Nebraska Wesleyan.”