It takes two rooms for former Crofton coach Gail Peterson to display all of his coaching awards, plaques and certificates. Peterson will have to make room for his biggest award yet, as the former coach will be inducted into the National High School Athletic Coach Association Hall of Fame.
“It feels pretty good,” Peterson stated. “It is quite an honor. There are so darn many to thank that I don’t want to forget anyone. My family, the people in town and the parents. There are so many in all of those years. There were some years tougher than others, but they were good church-going people and hard working.”
The 80-year-old has been a staple of Crofton athletics since 1963. The longtime Crofton coach started his teaching and coaching career in Cortland, where he grew up, but moved to Crofton going into the ’63 school year.
Since then, Peterson has held several different coaching positions. In his first few years at Crofton, he was the assistant football coach. For eight seasons he served as the head basketball coach and also ran the powerlifting squad.
“When I first came here, I was the line coach in football and the cross country coach,” Peterson noted. “Sometimes we had some cross county meets during halftime of the football games. So they would just take their pads off, go run a cross country meet and then continue to play football. Their halftime break was to go run.”
However, Peterson is most remembered for his time as the cross country and track and field coach. For 38 years, Peterson helped guide Crofton on the course and the track. Peterson helped build a dynasty in Knox County that began shortly after he took over. Peterson credits his diverse coaching background to his successful career.
“It made a difference,” Peterson remarked. “We did a lot of plyometrics in all of the sports I coached. Every sport was different lifting. Some have them do all the same (lifts), but I didn’t. Everything was different, but there were a few similarities.”
Peterson, who is already in the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame, started the girls cross country team in 1980. After finishing sixth at state in their inaugural season, the Lady Warriors captured eight straight state championships.
“I taught powerlifting when the girls (cross country) started, and some of the girls were in my powerlifting class,” Peterson recalled. “The first year we didn’t do to good, but then we went on to win eight in a row. We had some very good people.”
Peterson’s rugged training methods helped build the foundation for the Crofton dynasty.
“I had them do ridiculous things and they did it,” Peterson added. “We had a big high school, that’s tore down now, and it had three floors. We would usually do a lot of running on the steps. I made them go up and down the three flights. Every step for speed, every other for power and jump one legged. I had them do a lot of that stuff. We had a lot of hilly ground to run on, so we went out and ran on the roads. I’d take them out about a half mile and unload them at the city dam. It was three to four miles away from the course, so we would run to the course and then run quarters and halves up the hill. Kube farm let us use their pasture, so we went out there a lot. I’d take them to the county line and they had to run five to six miles, then had them jump on an airdyne bike for another two or three miles. We also did a lot of box jumping for plyometrics and a lot of harness running. After meets, I’d dropped them off a mile and half outside the school and had them run back. They worked hard.”
Peterson’s Warriors captured 15 state titles and eight state runners-up in cross country. The boys squad qualified for state in 36 of Peterson’s 38 years of coaching. The longtime coach is the first person to give the credit to the athletes and believes it is the Crofton mindset that continues to feed the Warriors’ success today.
“The parents raise their kids to have good work ethic as they come up,” Peterson commented. “They are not scared to work. They listen and they believe in you. They worked hard and they had good parents. That really helped out. The kids are used to hard work. They’re feeding cattle and pigs early in the morning. The farmers worked the kids pretty hard. We had some Tramp kids that were good runners and they milked cows early in the morning and the ones that went out for track or cross country I told them to run all the way home and it was four or five miles. So that was there workout on some nights.”
The biggest surprise is that prior to the 1963 season. Peterson had no connection to cross country or distance running.
“I had no experience,” Peterson admitted. “There were only two head coaches in those days, me and the football coach. I got every magazine and everything I could on cross country. I read up on a lot of that stuff and we tried a lot of things.”
In 2002, Peterson stepped down as head coach of the cross country and track and field teams. However, his former mentee Rod Hegge - who took over for Peterson in track - asked him to stay on staff as the assistant coach and to coach distance. The two worked perfectly together and helped the Lady Warriors win six state crowns and crown numerous individual champions.
“They needed someone in defiance running,” Peterson said. “He (Hegge) mentioned about helping me out and I told him if I had time. I had grandkids participating and if there was a state meet or something, I’d go see my grandkids. I did that, but was also at practice and almost every meet.”
His cross country team also continued its strong tradition after Peterson retired. Jayne Arens, who replaced Peterson in 2002, took over the program and led Crofton to 11 state titles, including a stretch of 10 consecutive girls Class D championships.
Peterson’s legacy can be seen across Northeast Nebraska as several cross country programs have grown into competitive, high-quality teams.
“Plainview has tough teams, and (Duane) Wilken (Bloomfield’s head cross country and track and field coach) always has good teams,” Peterson said. “I coached Duane, and he’s a heck of a coach. He gets them going and gets everything out of them. There are a lot of good coaches around. The area has really helped kids.”
This past season, which was his 57th year coaching, was his final year.
Peterson will be enshrined on June 25 in Bismarck, ND. Despite some recent health issues, the former Warrior coach plans to be in attendance.
“People keep asking if he’ll go, but I don’t see why not,” remarked Peterson’s wife Wanda Peterson. “There’s no reason why he can’t be there. He might need help getting there, but he’ll be there.”
Despite receiving one of the nation’s highest honors, nothing stacks up to Peterson watching his former athletes succeed, on and off the field.
“To see them afterwards is bigger than anything,” Peterson concluded. “To see their accomplishments is special.”