Cornhuskers face death of beloved coach
Nebraska sophomore discus thrower Morgan Wilken knew something wasn't right early Wednesday. Her coach, Mark Colligan, was always by her side when she was practicing and competing.
"Coach would usually ride the shuttle bus over to the meet from the hotel with the first group of athletes competing for the day," Wilken said. "When he didn't show up, we saw his truck in the parking lot, so we figured he was planning on driving over himself. We were a bit confused why he didn't let us know."
Throughout her warm-up, Wilken searched for her throws coach in the crowd. "When other coaches from Nebraska asked me if I knew where he was, I knew something was very wrong," she said. "Nobody could get a hold of him. I thought maybe something happened to his family."
Colligan, 47, was found unresponsive in his hotel room on Wednesday afternoon. He and the team were in Des Moines, Iowa, for the NCAA outdoor track and field championships.
A hotel manager found him sitting in a chair with the television turned on. Although the cause of death is unknown, it is believed Colligan may have suffered a heart attack.
"Coach told me when I was getting recruited that he couldn't wait for the day he would stand 200 feet away from me and I wouldn't be able to hear his voice," Wilken said. Unlike regular season competition, the NCAA championships operate with increased boundaries that exclude coaches from being right next to their athletes in the infield. Colligan looked forward to coaching Wilken at the National Championships.
The Cornhuskers are now left competing with emotions of grief and sadness at the largest meet of the collegiate season. I am grieving, too, as I am a former distance runner for Nebraska track. I was impacted by Colligan, especially by his love, enthusiasm and passion to bring out the best in all of us -- even if we weren't directly in his event group.
He was the glue that bound our Husker track family together. He was the go-to for a rousing speech. His tough demeanor and high expectations meshed with his teddy bear personality and unyielding love for his athletes. Above all, his passion for our school infused the way he coached. Nebraska was his life, and there was never a question about that.
"We've got the whole gamut of emotions going on," Nebraska head track and field coach Gary Pepin said. "We've lost one of our leaders. There is a great deal of passion for a leader -- that person who has been with you every day through the good and bad, highs and lows."
Wilken's first throw was at 3 p.m., 15 minutes after her coach was found back at the hotel. News of Colligan's death spread throughout the track and field community at Drake Stadium while she threw. Wilken was unaware until her mother told her after her competition.
Of the 18 Huskers student-athletes competing Wednesday through Saturday at Drake Stadium, five are throwers, including Wilken (discus) and Samantha Musil (hammer throw) in the women's competition and Adam Wolkins (javelin), Chad Wright (discus) and Tyler Hitchler (discus) in the men's field.
All four throwers who competed the day of Colligan's death turned in top-20 finishes. Wright and Hitchler earned All-American honors in the discus.
Hitchler, the only junior elected co-captain on the Huskers' squad, learned the news before boarding the shuttle bus to the meet for his competition.
"I think people assumed I knew," Hitchler said. "Coach Jay Dirkson [distance] pulled me aside to tell me."
Hitchler then shared the news with Wright, his freshman teammate.
"We had to stay focused. It really didn't sink in, so we tried to keep it business as usual," Hitchler said. "We tried to stick with the motions. It was a shock, so the emotional side wasn't there yet.
"I thought about it the whole time during competition. After every throw, I instinctively looked at the sidelines for coaching on my technique. It was quiet. I had my dad and some other support there, but the face I had looked toward my entire career at Nebraska was gone."
One of the reasons Hitchler chose Nebraska was because of Colligan's interest in his athletes outside of track and field.
"He's always been the kind of guy that isn't just there to coach you how to throw far. He would tell me, 'You're going to have a few All-American trophies, but you'll just put them next to your med school degree.'' Hitchler said. "He cared about people, not just how they performed as athletes."
Pepin, in his 31st year at NU, led a team meeting Wednesday evening.
"I told them that as well as I know Mark, Mark would have liked you to certainly continue in this meet. But at the same time, if you feel you can't compete, you don't have to," Pepin said. "It was really tough on the kids. You just have to let them know that you love them."
Pepin is the winningest track and field coach in the history of the Big 12. His coaching staff, one of the oldest in the country, has more than 200 years of combined experience.
"I've got coaches reflecting on their own lives, thinking if they've short-changed their own families in terms of time," Pepin said. "Mark was one of the younger guys on the staff, only 47 years old. It's mystifying.
"Mark gave so much of his life to athletes and to the University of Nebraska. He was born in the state, raised in the state, competed for the University of Nebraska, graduated from the University, married his wife, who also was a student-athlete for Nebraska. His roots were here, and even though his talent as a coach gave him tremendous opportunity to move to other schools, his heart was here."
Colligan's coaching career with the Huskers began in 1987, following his outstanding career as a Nebraska student-athlete. Voted team captain, the two-time letter winner received the squad's most-improved athlete award in 1983 and 1986. Colligan qualified for the NCAA indoor and outdoor qualifier his senior year, after winning the Big Eight outdoor shot put crown with a toss of 63 feet, 2.75 inches. The following year, his future wife, Jean, was the 1988 Big Eight discus champion for the Huskers.
Over the past 27 years, Colligan coached 74 conference champions and five athletes who have a combined 12 national titles. His throwers have earned a combined 68 All-American awards, and 44 have qualified for the NCAA championships.
In addition to Jean, Colligan is survived by his children, a daughter, Jessica, and two sons, Max and Sam.
Joslyn Dalton was a four-year track and field and cross country letter winner for the Huskers (2006-07-08-09). The team captain was a five-time All-Big 12 performer, specializing in the distance events. She was born and raised in Nebraska.