One of Brenton Emanuel’s most memorable seasons as a track and field coach came in 2018.
He was the associate head coach for Illinois State at the time, with just under 10 years of coaching experience under his belt. That season brought success for him, as he was named USTFCCCA Midwest Regional Assistant Coach of the Year.
He coached seven national qualifiers during his time there as well, including three for the 2018 NCAA Indoor Championships. However, those accomplishments are unforgettable for multiple reasons.
One of the qualifiers in 2018 was true freshman Kentre Patterson, who also was a football player at the time. Emanuel said “for whatever reason,” he decided to give Patterson a chest bump after he qualified. That resulted in Emanuel rupturing his patellar tendon.
“I’ll never forget that because I have a nine-inch scar and also the trophy wall,” Emanuel said.
On top of all that, the experience was an example of Emanuel, who now is in his first season coaching sprinters and hurdlers at Nebraska, caring strongly for his athletes. He values making connections with those he coaches, and even still trains another qualifier from that season.
Emanuel said some of his athletes have described him as a “father figure,” and they don’t want to disappoint him for that reason. While he doesn’t know exactly why that is, he’s happy with that perception.
“When I was a head coach for a little bit, we were always a big family atmosphere,” he said. “So to build a good culture within the team is something that I think is really important.”
The coach said his leadership skills stem back to his childhood in Illinois, mainly coming from his mom and older brother. His brother is 10 years older than him and his father left when he was young, which he said made him “very independent.”
“I don’t like waiting on people. My mom taught me, don’t wait on anybody else. You can do everything on your own,” he said. “If you need help, you can ask for help, but try to figure it out on your own before.”
Emanuel had to make some big decisions when high school came. Growing up close to Chicago in Plainfield, Illinois, Emanuel was inspired by Michael Jordan and wanted to play basketball, not track and field.
However, as he saw himself having more success in the latter, his mindset shifted.
“I was like, my best chance to be a Division I athlete is probably going to be in track and field rather than football and basketball,” he said. “I went where the money was, and then eventually I fell in love with it and I just couldn’t walk away.”
Emanuel stayed close to home for his track career, competing at Eastern Illinois. He found success there, earning second-team all-conference honors and being a team captain for multiple years.
As his years in college neared an end, though, he had to figure out what was next. His coach suggested coaching due to his leadership skills, and while he wasn’t sold on the idea at first, a senior year knee injury helped push him in that direction.
“I missed like six weeks with surgery, and I said, you know, instead of being a bum at home I’m going to go to practice and help people out. If I can help give my knowledge of track and field to my teammates I’m going to do that.”
He became a graduate assistant at Eastern Illinois, and coaching opportunities opened up when a couple of coaches left mid-season. That served as his route into a six-year tenure as an assistant with the program.
“End of the year, they offered me a job to work in the athletic department doing office work or I can be the coach, and I say ‘I’m never going back to the office,’” Emanuel said. “I never want to do another desk job in my life. And it worked out for me.”
He eventually left for his position at Illinois State, but came back to his alma mater in 2019. This time, it was as head coach. Emanuel’s success continued with the Panthers. He won his first championship as head coach in his first year in 2019, then won two more over the next two years.
Emanuel was the OVC Outdoor Track Coach of the Year in 2019 and 2021, and the conference’s indoor coach of the year in 2020.
His sights were set higher, though. He had the goal of someday being a Power Five head coach. To make that happen, he knew he had to start coaching at the Power Five level, and he decided there was no better place to do that than under Nebraska’s Gary Pepin.
“I’m not trying to be a head coach anytime soon,” he said. “But I wanted to learn the ropes from someone who’s been very, very successful and he’s done a great job.”
Emanuel said he’s learned a lot from Pepin in his first year as an assistant for the Huskers, even in areas he already considered his strengths.
“You can ask (Pepin) about any recruit he’s had, any athlete he’s had in the last four years. He knows their family and what their parents did, and everything else like that,” Emanuel said. “And I thought, that’s something I need to do better.”
The other most eye-opening thing has been Nebraska’s resources. At his previous stops, Emanuel said that if he wanted things like new blocks, they’d have to fundraise that money. That hasn’t been the case at the Power Five level.
“It’s been very eye-opening,” he said. “Some of the things we’re able to do here, competition-wise and just travel-wise and just be able to get anything we need for our athletes to perform at a higher level.”
Emanuel is happy with how he’s seen his athletes perform in his first year at Nebraska. He’s particularly happy with how the women’s side has developed this year, and thinks the men can currently compete for titles.
“We have a good foundation,” he said. “We have some really good key guys and key people in positions. I think we can really do some big things in the future.”
A lot has changed for Emanuel. He didn’t travel outside of Illinois much growing up, and now does it all the time for recruiting. He’s finally broken into the Power Five level, and has more resources than he’s had before. However, he’s looking to stay humble as he moves forward.
“I tell people that have gone Power Five before me, like don’t forget where you came from,” Emanuel said. “So I’m trying to keep myself humbled and not get too sucked into the good life.”