John Cook has never been shy about advocating for the sport of volleyball, and the latest example is his thoughts on the structure of the offseason for his sport compared to others.
Back in June, Cook shared his thoughts with Hail Varsity on the AVCA filing a waiver request to the NCAA that was focused on the disparity in offseason contact with coaches between sports like volleyball and those like football. Currently, volleyball coaches can’t work with players until 17 days out from the start of the season (whereas football teams get 31 days of preseason practice).
Unsurprisingly, the topic came up once again at Big Ten Volleyball Media Days. Cook said he’s hoping the inaugural event — the first of its kind for any Division I conference — will serve as a prompt leading to further change.
“That whole thing is about money,” Cook said. “It’s about Division II and Division III not having those opportunities, and some Division Is that don’t want to pay for their players to come in during the summer. All Big Ten schools, all the players are already here.
“The fact you’ve got 100 football players that get to work with football coaches and 15 men’s basketball players and you have 15 women’s basketball players that get to work with their coaches, that’s a little bit of a Title IX inequity right there.
“So to me, it’s ridiculous that we can’t work with them and have the opportunity because otherwise they just have to go do it on their own. They’re there, so why not let the coaches work with them?”
After saying his piece, Cook deferred to the players that accompanied him to Chicago — seniors Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles — to get their opinions. While it’s something he seems to feel strongly about himself, he said he’d never directly asked his players before.
Kubik pushed back slightly and provided a different perspective. While she acknowledges the inherent disparity between the opportunities provided to the various sports, Kubik also said she likes the opportunity a player-led offseason provides to build team chemistry and establish a “team-led culture.”
“I think what was so strong on our team last year was having that and instilling the things that are so important to us being Nebraska volleyball players and kind of down through our younger players, of that being led by us,” Kubik said. “And if we don’t care about what we’re doing and with each other, then — if the coaches care really deeply, that’s great and we want that. But if we don’t care about it within each other, we’re going to have a problem there. So I think the summer presents that really unique opportunity for us to find that in each other.”
Knuckles played “peacemaker” in Cook’s words, acknowledging both points while also positing that it’s different at Nebraska than a lot of other programs.
“I see with what you [Cook] are saying, I think that it would be really nice to be able to work with coaches and it’s a little bit unfair,” Knuckles said. “But I also see what you [Kubik] are saying and I think it’s nice for us because I feel like there’s a lot of us that are really bought in and can teach the younger players, like, ‘this is how we do things’ and stuff. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that’s everywhere and at every college and every university, and so that’s why I think that it’s a little bit unfortunate.”
The Huskers weren’t the only attendees who addressed the topic on day one of Big Ten Media Days. New Michigan State coach Leah Johnson does see change coming.
“Public pressure seems to influence the NCAA pretty frequently, especially when it comes to things of equity, inequalities,” Johnson said. “I think they’re much more in tune with that. When you’ve got the sport of volleyball, which is growing at an exponential rate on the women’s and the men’s side, the number one sport in girls high school, and then you’re looking at this event, the inaugural right here in the Big Ten Media Days for our sport, it’s almost impossible for it not to.”
Johnson agreed with Kubik’s point about the importance of leaving time for players to do their own thing as a team without the coaches, but she’s hoping for a better balance. The limited preseason practice time is especially difficult for first-year coaches like Johnson.
“I’m an advocate of letting our athletes have a lot of time of their own because that’s where they develop their voice, their leadership … And so I think there’s a caution there as well,” Johnson said. “I want to step out of the way more often and let them guide themselves, motivate themselves. So that will be a balance I’m looking for, but when you’ve got what I could have done eight weeks this summer, just learning names, learning positions, repositioning, introducing a system. So we’re going to have two and a half weeks before we’re expected to win our first game, to do all of that with all these new faces? And we’re going to do frickin’ do it.”
Michigan coach Mark Rosen was focused on the potential danger of having to pack so much in to a short amount of time, and the impact it could have on player health.
“I think more than anything, it’s dangerous to have people coming in and you have two and a half weeks to get ready to play matches,” Rosen said. “That’s tough. We want to try to be really careful about how we ramp up and make sure that we do it in a really good way and healthy way and a strategic way. But there’s such a short period of time, you have to try to get a lot of stuff in in a short period of time.”
Like Johnson, Rosen is looking for more balance in the offseason. He understands the importance of players to have time to themselves during the offseason and acknowledged that coaches have gone too far in the past.
“We need to be really thoughtful of how we do that and make sure we don’t go crazy one way,” Rosen said. “But we also, what we’re doing right now I think is pretty prohibitive in getting everybody ready and in a healthy way. The good thing is our teams work over the summer individually to do that. I know they’re all back now working together to try to do that. We can’t be in the gym with them yet, but they’re trying to ramp it up in a smart way so they can be ready to go when we hit the practice gym next week. But I think we need to look at some summer access as a way to help bridge that gap where we aren’t being unhealthy with how we ramp into things.”
Regardless of how the players and coaches may feel, any changes will be made down the line with the 2022 season fast approaching. The Huskers will start their 17 days of preseason practice on Tuesday, with the season-opener schedule for Aug. 26.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.