John Cook walked onto the court at the Devaney Center Sunday afternoon a rock star. Smoke poured out of the tunnel, lights flashed, and a crowd of well over 1,000 cheered. There was a national championship trophy – Nebraska’s fifth, Cook’s fourth – sitting on a table at center court. He’d won it just over 12 hours ago.
Cook took his seat at the end of a line of chairs, next to his support staff and his players looking out at a crowd that had gathered on short notice to celebrate the Huskers’ 3-1 victory over the second-seeded Florida Gators in the National Championship. He listened to his senior setter, Kelly Hunter, a living, breathing Nebraska legend in his eyes, thank the fans for their support all season. He listened to his senior outside hitter, Annika Albrecht, who he’d watched blossom into a star, try to find words to explain what the team had just accomplished.
Then he stepped to the podium, waved for the crowd to quiet down and reached into his pocket to pull out a whistle.
“This is how we get things going in Devaney every day, starting with a whistle,” he said as he tucked it away. “I had it in my pocket for some reason.”
Not just some reason. Coaches like Cook, who Chancellor Ronnie Green dubbed the greatest in all of volleyball, know that championships are born early. You have to put in the work when no one is looking. You can be certain Cook will enjoy this title, his second in three years, but he’ll be getting back to work soon preparing for next year.
But on this day, he was retrospective. He played to the crowd and asked for a show of hands. Who thought back in August the Huskers would be winning a national championship. Cook has famously said “we don’t rebuild,” but surely this wasn’t what he expected heading into a campaign with an entirely new support staff and a team full of new faces.
“I sure as heck didn’t,” he said.
In the offseason, Nebraska created a name for its summer workout program: MOAS. Affectionately called the “Mother of All Summers.” If they weren’t going to rebuild, Cook said they needed to do more work than ever this summer to reload.
On Aug. 8, the first day of practice, he remembered being told to wait in the team’s ready room.
“Next thing I know the music is blasting and they come walking out of the locker room and they do a skit, a PowerPoint presentation and they basically explain what this year’s team was going to be about,” he said. “That’s where ‘With Each Other, For Each Other’ came out.
“It was one of the greatest moments for a coach to see this team come up with such a creative and powerful message of what they wanted to be about. That’s what really set the tone for it.”
A day later, he invited Green to come speak to the team and give a lecture on leadership. Green expected a brief meeting, Cook wanted the full thing. It was then that Green learned the team’s slogan.
“I thought how appropriate for Nebraska,” Green said. “These ladies and their team and their staff and their coaches have lived that in a way that has blessed this state and we cannot thank you enough for it.”
Cook remembered the feeling he had when he learned Hunter would miss the start of the season with an injury.
“I was actually really in the tank,” he said.
They went to Florida for the VERT Challenge, Cook not really knowing what to expect, and lost their first two matches.
“We could have won both matches down there, it was really close and we came away from that tournament thinking ‘you know what, this team has a chance to be pretty good,’” he said.
He remembered losing to Northern Iowa and he fondly remembered the reasoning for their five-seed in the NCAA tournament because of it.
“The NCAA committee gave us a fifth seed because we lost to Northern Iowa, who beat the champion of the ACC who got six teams in, so I guess that was a pretty crummy loss,” he quipped.
He remembered losing senior middle blocker Briana Holman to an ankle injury against UNO, and the questions that raced through his mind when he thought about facing top-ranked Penn State on the road without her. He remembered Holman emphatically telling him that she was going to play no matter what.
“Sometimes when you hit bottom, sometimes when you think you’re down at the lowest or you’re injured, you have to be tough and come back,” Cook said. “We go to Penn State and we beat Penn State 3-0.”
He remembered beating three more ranked opponents in the coming weeks and starting to feel good. But he wondered about his team. Was the Big Ten down, or was his team just that good? They were 13-4 when Cook decided to run some numbers from his last five years.
“We’ve had some great teams – two Final Four teams, a national championship team,” Cook said, “but I compared the stats and this team across the board in every statistical category was playing at a higher level than any team in the last five years at Nebraska.”
I looked over at Albrecht and there was a look of shock on her face. She looked at Hunter sitting next to her. They didn’t know. Cook must not have told them.
He remembered hearing athletic director Bill Moos call his program the poster child for success at Nebraska during his introductory press conference and he remembered thinking “great, that’s just what we need, more pressure."
“But you know what, that’s what brings out the best in people, when you have expectations. We embraced that as a team.”
He remembered his team bringing their dogs to the selection show watch party. They were underdogs, why not embrace that, too.
He remembered senior Sydney Townsend winning her second straight Elite 90 Award, given by the NCAA to the student athlete with the highest GPA amongst teams at the Final Four.
“They have a Final Four banquet on Wednesday night,” Cook said. “We’re there with Stanford, Penn State and Florida and I can’t tell you how good it feels when a Nebraska student athlete gets that award as the best GPA of all the Final Four teams and Stanford’s sitting right next to her.”
He remembered a promise he had made to Holman when she got to Nebraska that she would get her degree as a first-generation college student. He remembered the feeling of watching her look up at the video board in Kansas City and hear Green call out her name at graduation.
“Very, very powerful moment yesterday for our team, our coaches, for me personally to see somebody accomplish that,” he said. “I’ve got to brag about Bri, because they give out all these awards and it’s never fair. Bri went up against all these All-American middle blockers supposedly in this tournament and kicked their butts.”
He remembered a bracelet he was given years ago when Hunter was in tenth grade. When she committed to Nebraska, she gave him a friendship bracelet. He’s kept it ever since.
“You gotta do what you gotta do in recruiting, you know?” he joked.
He ended his near 15-minute session at the microphone telling the crowd something big, something larger than volleyball.
“Nebraska needs this,” he said as he raised a fist. “We needed this.”
Nebraska did. It was a hard year for the Huskers’ athletic program and its proud fans. But there has been some good that’s come from it. Moos is around now. He said he came to be a part of a “championship mentality,” and around Cook, he’s gotten a “real good dose” of it. The Huskers also have another Big Ten trophy to show off and a football-tying fifth national title to brag about.
Cook meanwhile was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame over the weekend and can now enjoy a team that he said has been as fun as any to be around.
Soon though, it’ll be time to get to work on No. 6.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.