KEARNEY — Marc Bauer sits at his desk in his office in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Health and Sports Center and flashes a grin when he thinks back to his journey that molded him into a Hall of Fame wrestling coach and now UNK’s athletic director.
He has an energetic personality. He can’t help but express his passion for the university, even though he understands the challenges that lie ahead.
Bauer isn’t afraid to think differently and knows it’s the only path to rejuvenating the athletic department. He stresses time, acknowledging “it takes three years to build a culture” and unity among the department, university, community and alumni. He welcomes collaboration and confesses he won’t always make the right decisions.
Bauer has firsthand experience constructing a program from mediocrity into a juggernaut. He proved it during his 17 years as the Lopers’ wrestling coach and believes there are parallels to trying to accomplish that on a larger scale for a 14-sport NCAA Division II athletic department.
“The similarities are that it’s just a bigger team,” Bauer said. “It’s truly working with people and trying to help them to make sure they have the resources they need to be successful. As a coach, you kind of think about those same things.”
In one sense, it’s the unlikeliest of ascents.
Bauer had no interest in coaching after his decorated wrestling career at University of Nebraska Omaha ended in 1993. He returned to Kearney, his residency since 14 years old, and accepted a fourth-grade teaching position at Windy Hills Elementary. He also declined numerous offers to join Kearney High School’s wrestling program as an assistant under Tom McCann.
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One day he was talking to Shirley Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Windy Hills, about her husband Dick, who was the wrestling coach at Horizon Middle School. She told Bauer that her husband needed assistance and Bauer agreed to meet with him.
The two met for coffee and Dick Johnson, who grew up as a Golden Gloves boxer and had little experience with wrestling, convinced Bauer to join him as an assistant coach.
It was a five-week season. Johnson handled the paperwork while Bauer taught the middle school children how to wrestle.
It wasn’t necessarily about the minimal money he made. He wanted to coach his brother Joshua, who is 11 years younger. He craved a relationship with him and hoped wrestling would bring them together.
After two years as a middle school coach, UNK wrestling coach Jeff Cardwell reached out to Bauer to gauge his interest in serving as an assistant coach. Bauer didn’t have to recruit or travel with the team. His main duty was to train the wrestlers at the lower weight classes.
Unexpectedly, Bauer was promoted four years after joining Cardwell’s staff.
Cardwell abruptly quit after a season where they qualified seven wrestlers for nationals but finished last with minus one point. Then-Athletic Director Mike Sumpter selected Bauer as the interim head coach for the 1999-2000 season.
Bauer then led the Lopers to an eighth-place finish at the national meet and earned rookie coach of the year honors. Although Sumpter awarded Bauer the permanent job, the program faced challenges.
In the second year under Bauer, the Lopers competed without their top two wrestlers, as one redshirted and one was injured. They placed an underwhelming 23rd at nationals.
The university was experiencing budget cuts during Bauer’s early tenure as a wrestling coach. Within a three-year span, the program’s recruiting budget went from $26,000 to $10,000 for scholarship money. It prompted Bauer to start the Midwest Classic wrestling tournament and team camps to supplement the program’s scholarship budget.
Bauer’s work ethic and hunger for greatness allowed the wrestling program to experience unimaginable success. He led the Lopers to a national runner-up finish in 2003, which was his fourth year at the helm. He guided the Lopers to three national championships, five runner-up finishes and two dual national titles in his tenure.
After stepping down as the wrestling coach in 2016, Bauer embarked on his doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership at Creighton University and taught courses at UNK. During that phase in his life, he became intrigued with being an athletic director.
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen hired Bauer as the interim athletic director after the sudden departure of Paul Plinske in April 2018. Bauer held that role for one year before Kristensen selected him from a group of four candidates for the permanent position.
Bauer is trying to build a strong foundation and eventually a thriving athletic department. He’s experiencing similar challenges he did when he first became the UNK wrestling coach but believes his familiarity with the university and community, success as a coach and fundraising experience will allow him to build a successful department.
“I never wanted to be a wrestling coach,” Bauer said. “Life just led me there. Ten years ago, was it my goal to be an athletic director? No, it was not but life has led me to where I am today.
“Life and my experiences have prepared me for where I am, and it fits well in this position.”