A Legend Resigns
It’s the end of an era for the Kearney High Boys Track program. Long-time head coach Roger Mathiesen has resigned after 38 years at the helm of a program that has won 16 State Championships in 21 seasons. It’s a run that will never be forgotten and go down as, arguably the most impressive run in the history of Nebraska high school sports. A dynasty remembered not by state championships, but by the way it was done. It was accomplished in one of the smallest towns in the largest, most athletic and competitive class in Nebraska high school sports. It was led by a man that never cared nor concentrated on winning, but focused on the effort and competitiveness of his athletes. This is his story.
In his childhood, Roger Mathiesen was a small town guy. He first grew up in Nebraska before moving to McMinnville, Oregon, and then back to Nebraska when his father became ill. As a child and continuing into today, he was always a bookworm first, athlete second. Like a small town athlete, Mathiesen played all the sports, not just one.
“If you would ask me what was my favorite sport, I would say well, the one that was in season.”
That was when he was first introduced into track and field where he ran the 400 and 800 meter dashes. Mathiesen said he didn’t love it in high school, but it was introduction to the sport that come into play years down the road.
Going into college, Mathiesen set his eyes on a teaching degree for history that he accomplished at several colleges, but Mathiesen never set his eyes on becoming a coach until he was at Kearney High.
“I didn’t go to college and start teaching to coach. That was never a motivation of mine,” he said.
Before being hired at Kearney High, Mathiesen worked at Shelton for two years before applying for the open position at Kearney. Mathiesen said he was one of 320 applicants who applied, most of whom were far more experienced then himself. He received the job with astonishment, being shocked on how he got the job of all the applicants. The reason for his astonishment was the fact that Kearney High was the gold-standard of teaching back in the 1970s, and Kearney State College specialized in producing teachers. When he arrived, he was asked to become an assistant coach for the boys track team who was coached by Craig Lathrop at the time. Mathiesen agreed, but not for the reason that was expected.
“They had a couple of coaching positions to fill and so, why did I do it? Because I didn’t have any money. I could make a few pennies doing it,” he stated.
When Mathiesen arrived as assistant coach, Kearney’s track program was one of the worst in Class A. Very few kids went out, making it very difficult for the Bearcats to do well during the regular season and state meet. The next couple years went by with slight improvement before Mathiesen took over as head coach in 1980. It at that point, Mathiesen decided it was time to make major changes to the program. He wanted to start a process and that all began with participation from the athletes. He said kids go out for sports for a variety of reasons, but primarily one reason is because their friends do. It was a matter of drawing the students and their friends to go out for track. From there, it was all about developing a mindset of success.
“I learned two things since I’ve been teaching and coaching. What are those two? Kids are a lot smarter than they think they are, and they are more athletic, but the trick is you have got to get them to do it,” he said.
That process was a recipe mastered over the next 14 years as Kearney was slowly built into the juggernaut it is today. It was a matter of structural building blocks. They started doing better in invitationals, which led to winning conference invitationals, which led to winning district competitions. The first breakthrough was in 1989 when the Bearcats finished as the runner-up at the state meet. It was then in 1994 when Kearney finally struck gold, winning their first ever State Championship. Mathiesen credits the winning to being able to establish faith in the athletes and their ability to perform at the highest level. That was evidenced over the next 10 seasons as the Bearcats were able to rattle off 11 straight State Championships, a run that is unparalleled to any modern-day high school sport. The day the streak was snapped was in 2005 when Fremont defeated the Bearcats 65 to 62 to end the historic run. However, it was not because Kearney couldn’t win but how Kearney could’ve won that troubled Mathiesen.
“We had a couple other potential State Championships that I threw away. I had two other state runner-ups I threw away. We could’ve won them but I chose not to win because there were rules, I could’ve turned my head…Tom Osborne said to me one time there’s not another coach in this state or even in the nation that would’ve done what you did. You gave up the longest winning streak in the nation. I wasn’t trying to prove a point, there’s right and there’s wrong.”
After the streak ended, Kearney had a few unprobable years where they weren’t able to claim a state championship. In 2006, they tied for fifth, and in 2007, they finished second. In 2008, the Bearcats came back with thunder finishing first by a 44.5 point margin, making them the 4th highest scoring team in state meet history. The next year, in 2009, Kearney claimed their 13th state title, winning the state meet by 22.5 points.
It was then in 2010 when it all seemed like the dynasty was coming to an end. That year, Mathiesen announced he would be retiring as a history teacher from Kearney High which also meant he would be leaving as head track coach as well. Back then, superintendent Dr. Brian Maher was not going to let that happen. Along with other parents and athletes, Maher was able to convince Mathiesen to come back and coach for a few more years. When asked about why he convinced him to stay, Dr. Maher stated, “Because he makes kids better than they think they can be. His ability to teach kids to do the right thing, to persevere, to work hard are easily stated and not easily lived. He made living those virtues attainable for all around him.”
After deciding to stay, Mathiesen led the Bearcats to three more state championships from 2012-2014. Kearney won those by an average of 16 points in an era where the athletes are getting faster and stronger year-by-year. Leading up to his resignation, the Bearcats finished fourth, sixteenth and eighth but Mathiesen is confident he is leaving a good foundation.
“My hope was to leave it on a solid foundation so I could sit back one day and look on it with a source of pride and feel like you were part of the reason why it did so well,” he said.
As for why he has decided to step down is a reason that was years in the making. He said things are now different here at Kearney High then it was years ago along with the fact that there has been a big overturn of teachers throughout the years.
“Things are just different now. The culture is different, the environment is different.”
However, Mathiesen’s impact has reached far more than the track. Former Bearcat state champion and Gatorade Track and Field Player of the Year, Brett Maher remembers his first interaction with Mathiesen. His family had not even moved into Kearney, but decided to attend the Kearney High invitational in 2007. When he was introduced, Mathiesen took them up to his office and connected immediately with his sister and himself. He didn’t just talk about athletics, but about academics.
“He went out of his way that day, and many other times, to make sure me and my sister, Maggie, felt welcome in the Kearney family,” said Maher.
Current Kearney boys hurdles coach Steve Cherry also will remember Mathiesen for the way he did things, not just the results.
“Coach M did it the right way…His personality gave a sense of drive,” said Cherry.
Roger Mathiesen will always be remembered as a legend. A legend who impacted his athletes more than just on the track. A legend that put right and wrong above winning. A legend who lead one of the smallest schools in Class A through a dynasty that will down in Nebraska athletic history. A legend that will never be forgotten.