Coach John Cook filled the vacancy on his coaching staff on Monday by announcing that Tyler Hildebrand had agreed to return to Nebraska as associate head coach. Hildebrand won’t arrive until Aug. 10, however, and that’s where the second part of Monday’s news comes into play.
Two-time national champion and All-America setter Kelly Hunter will serve as interim assistant coach while Hildebrand finishes up his duties with the USA Volleyball beach program, and then she’ll continue on as a volunteer coach once Hildebrand arrives.
Hunter spent five years as a player at Nebraska (redshirting in 2014) and briefly played professionally overseas after finishing her Nebraska career in 2017. She returned to Lincoln to serve as a graduate assistant for Cook during the 2019 season, getting her first taste of the coaching world.
“It was definitely an adjustment, just going from being a player and I was a player here pretty recently, but I found it was kind of cool to have still a relationship with some of the girls but also distance myself and kind of set that boundary, like ‘Hey, I’m kind of a coach now, I’m helping out with practices and stuff like that,’” Hunter said. “It was just a cool dynamic having some girls that I did play with and being closer in age to them, trying to relate to them. But it was a really cool first experience getting kind of behind the scenes coaching, a look at that.”
Hunter said Cook started talking to her about a role on the staff moving forward shortly after the 2019 season ended, and once they received clarity from Hildebrand Cook went to her with details about the position.
“I was kind of just shocked,” Hunter said. “To get a really cool opportunity like this when I’m so young and just kind of like fresh out of college and playing, I think it’s a really unique situation. Like I said, I was shocked, I was stoked, I took a couple days to think about it and he was like ‘Why aren’t you getting back to me?’ and just all that stuff.”
Hunter, who had reached out to a couple other colleges about potential jobs, talked with her parents and her sister, who is also a coach, before accepting Cook’s offer.
Cook saw enough from Hunter in her one season as a graduate assistant to feel comfortable elevating her to to a full-time coaching position for the next seven months.
“She earned instant trust with our team,” Cook said. “She is a great communicator. She has a great eye for the game, which I already knew — I’ve been telling her for five years she should be a coach. I’ve seen the qualities. I think setters make great coaches. I think now she’s deciding what she wants to do with her life. You’ve got to transition from being a player to a coach, but I think she’s as natural a coach for that age that I’ve been around and now we get to really mentor her.”
Hunter has almost completed her accelerated MBA (all she needs to graduate is to complete an internship), but she’s starting to get that coaching itch after years of Cook pushing her in that direction.
“Volleyball is what I know the best,” Hunter said. “As a player, we always coached Husker camps in the summer and I always felt like I really enjoyed that, I was pretty good at it. So just getting the experience here at such a great program under a really great staff. It was a really good segue into it and I think I found out that it’s kind of where I want to be at.”
Cook is throwing her right into the fire as she’ll hit the road to recruit and evaluate and will also help Jaylen Reyes coach the Huskers during the spring beach season.
“She’ll be out of her comfort zone but again I think this is a great transition,” Cook said. “I’m just as excited about getting a chance to mentor Kelly to become a coach because I think at this point in my career it’s great to win and it’s great to continue what we’re doing here, but also I get a lot of joy out of mentoring coaches and Kayla [Banwarth] getting a great job and those things. That’s what fires me up every day.”
In addition to helping get a strong group of returning Huskers ready to make a run to the 2020 Final Four in Omaha, Hunter said the thing she’s most looking forward to is continuing to learn from the other coaches on staff, including Hildebrand whom Hunter built a strong relationship with in 2017.
“Tyler was my coach for one year and I learned a lot from him from a player’s perspective and just seeing how passionate he is about the game, it will be really cool to learn from him,” Hunter said. “I think we’re going to have one of the best staffs in the country if not the best, so it will be really cool to kind of get to learn from every single one of them.”
Hunter will continue to be an important part of that staff even after she swaps out the interim title for the volunteer one. For just the second time in his career at Nebraska and the first time since 2011, both of Cook’s full-time assistants will be men.
“It’s a little bit of a concern, but that’s where mentoring Kelly and having her as a volunteer — and that was the agreement we made was that she would have to be a volunteer in the fall,” Cook said. “She has no experience, so this is a great deal for her as well. She’s going to be paid a full-time salary up until August 9, she’ll go on as our volunteer and then we’ll re-evaluate at the end of the year where we’re going to go.
“I’ve got [director of operations] Lindsay [Peterson] who is very involved in our program and with our team, Kelly who had an instant connection with our team and then [director of sports psychology] Brett Haskell who is very involved with our team. We have a very strong female side of the connection that I feel really good about. I think that is a really important part and that’s one of the reasons I’m excited about mentoring Kelly.”
Cook has made a habit out of building up former players into high-level coaches with Dani Busboom Kelly and Banwarth both getting the keys to their own programs in the last few years. For Hunter, that journey is just beginning.
“Coach keeps telling me I don’t know what I’m in for and I’m starting to believe him so we’ll see,” Hunter said. “I think I’ll adjust quickly and be able to kind of figure it all out on the fly.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.