When Nebraska takes the court in front of 8000-plus fans on Friday to face Iowa, it will make the program’s 300th consecutive sellout.
Spanning more than two decades and two different facilities, the steak is a testament to the success of the program and the support for volleyball in the state.
“Friday is a big day,” Coach John Cook said on Tuesday. “I just did an interview with the Wall Street Journal, so it’s getting getting some pub. We’re pretty fired up about that. It started in 2001 for you history buffs. It started with a dare to our fans and they stepped up and have been since 2001. Remember, we used to only have to sell out 4,000; now it’s 8,000. So we doubled that when we moved to Devaney and it’s pretty special. I don’t think any volleyball team even dreams about doing that.
“Thank you to our fans. We’ve had some great teams that are fun to watch, and volleyball is continuing to grow. And again, I always say that the epicenter of volleyball is right here in Nebraska.”
Many of Cook’s former assistants who leave to coach their own programs have had to add marketing and ticket sales to their list of responsibilities as they seek to drum up support for their teams. Cook doesn’t ever have to worry about that; in fact, he runs into the opposite problem — too much demand.
I’ve got people calling me, they want tickets and we can’t get them,” Cook said “We’ve got people from other programs complaining because they can’t get them. So it’s a good problem to have, but with all that comes expectations. We have a lot of expectations here and we’re the highest-priced ticket in the country for volleyball … Our job is to continue to put out a great product that Nebraskans can be proud of.”
The origins of the streak date back to Cook’s first season at the helm in 2000. He was getting ready to take the team on an international trip when he spoke at a Beef Club meeting.
“This guy — we do the question-and-answer thing afterward — said, Hey, who’s paying for your trip to China?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Bill Byrne’s doing something.’ I said ‘We have a match club that’ll pay for part of it.’ And he said, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for football, you guys wouldn’t be able to go,’” Cook said. “And I walked out and made a vow that someday we were going to shut that guy up. In 2001, I challenged our fans that we need to start a sellout streak like football … We started selling more season tickets in the Coliseum and then we’ve continued.”
The streak faced a significant challenge in 2013 when volleyball moved from the Coliseum (capacity: 4,030) to the Devaney Center (7,907 seats plus standing room only) as the basketball programs vacated the building to move to Pinnacle Bank Arena. Cook wasn’t thrilled about the idea when he first heard about it, and said as much when asked by local reporters.
“They said ‘Hey, are you guys moving to Devaney?’” Cook said. “And I said ‘If it’s not good enough for basketball, why would it be good enough for volleyball?’ And then I got the call from Coach [Tom] Osborne about 10 minutes later, ‘Get up to my office.’
Serving as athletic director at the time, Osborne wasn’t thrilled by Cook’s comments because he was set to meet with regents to discuss the move and ask for funding. He asked Cook what it would take to make the Devaney Center work for volleyball.
“I said ‘We’ve got to take the Coliseum and we’ve got to plant it in Devaney and make it the same type of feel,’” Cook said. “So we sat down and made a list of seven things right there on his desk, and one of them was creating an intimate environment, because volleyball, if you feel close to it, it’s a great sport to watch and feel and you get to see the players’ emotions and all those things …
“So he agreed, and John Ingram and Maggi Thorne did a tremendous job of designing it and making it really cool. Paul Meyers was here at the time and he said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put in sky boxes.’ I go, ‘What are you going to do that for? There’s no way those are going to sell out.’ He goes ‘No, we’re going to sell them, and then we’re going to put in 128 court-side seats, and then we’re going to put in standing room only. I go, ‘Who the heck is going to go stand up there?’”
The standing room only areas above the seats are routinely filled, and Cook said he thinks they’re selling out this year. The sky boxes have been booked for years and Cook called the court-side seats the hottest ticket in town.
Cook was worried about losing he sellout streak when they made the move, that fans would prefer the old building and lose interest. However, the risk proved to be worth it, especially because the status quo wasn’t without its own perils.
“We could have lost a generation of fans by staying in the Coliseum because people weren’t giving up their seats, and we have an older crowd,” Cook said. “We didn’t have a student section. There was no place if a high school team wanted to come in; they couldn’t get in the Coliseum, there were no tickets. So we could have lost a whole generation. By opening Devaney, we got 4,000 more season tickets and a whole new generation of fans and a lot of those are younger families and younger kids. I see how many kids are down in the hallway after the matches, so it was a great move.”
As the fight song says, there is no place like Nebraska, and Cook believes that to be true with the game-day experience and atmosphere at the Devaney Center. The sellout streak is a testament to that.
“It starts with the team and the players,” Cook said. “I think Nebraska volleyball is a big deal now; look at the state tournament for volleyball. I went to PBA one night and it was packed in there; I couldn’t believe it. It’s a hard ticket to get; I think the court-side seats are a big deal because if you pay for that, you’re sitting there, every time somebody goes back to serve you’re on TV. So there’s a little bit of that part going on. And I think going to a volleyball match is a cool thing. Our people do a great job of making it fun.
“It pays to win. If you can win, people want to come to see you. Our teams play at a high level and it’s fun to watch and our players do a great job of giving back, so there’s a connection there. People are emotionally connected to our team. Sometimes I wish I could share all the emails that people send me, random emails. For some of these people, it means the world to them, win or lose. They’re very emotionally connected.”
The national championship in 2000 sparked the momentum, the following years carried it forward and in 2006, Nebraska sold out the Final Four in Omaha as the Huskers captured another national title. Things started rolling downhill from there, and Cook makes a conscious effort not to take it for granted, and to make sure his players don’t either. The streak is also one of his favorite recruiting pitches.
“I love it when I talk to these recruits because I can say, ‘You know what, what year were you born?’ ‘2005.’ I go ‘We were selling out four years before you were even born,’” Cook said. “So that’s where we’re at. It’s pretty incredible.”
Friday will be consecutive sellout No. 300, and the streak doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon as Nebraska continues to lead the country in attendance and compete for a national title year in and year out.
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.