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Padding the Stats: Thoughts on Inaugural Big Ten Media Days

August 03, 2022

Media days are an annual tradition in college sports, at least for the most popular ones. Every football or basketball season in all of the major conferences begin with a media day or days.

Volleyball is one of the fastest-growing sports in North America, and the Big Ten coaches felt they deserved an opportunity for a chance to open their season just like football or basketball. Through their efforts and others, the Big Ten made history this week by holding the inaugural Big Ten Volleyball Media Days at Big Ten Network headquarters in Chicago.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of it when I saw the announcement. Media day set-ups are typically more for national writers than local beat writers like me, who will likely get the chance to talk with John Cook and the Huskers multiple times before the season begins. However, in hearing from the Huskers and others in Chicago, it became clear how much this opportunity meant to them.

“This is a historic day for volleyball,” Cook told six local writers on Monday, in a separate breakout interview after his time in front of the Big Ten cameras. “And we don’t have to go to Chicago in Nebraska to do this, so I really appreciate all of you guys being here and it’s a pretty cool setup, so I hope you’re enjoying it. But I just want you know I appreciate you guys being here and I think your readers, followers, listeners, all those things will do the same.”

Senior Madi Kubik described her time in Chicago as “sick.”

“It was really cool,” Kubik said. “It’s a huge step for women sports and the sport of volleyball, and it’s really cool to be a part of this kind of unprecedented event in history.”

Fellow senior Kenzie Knuckles called it an “eye-opening” experience. 

“It’s been really fun and kind of just opened my eyes a little bit to how times are changing and they’re accepting volleyball being more than just a sport and it kind of having meaning to more people than just me,” Knuckles said. “So that’s been really awesome and I’m just really grateful for that.” 

The press conferences and media interviews were only one part of the day for the athletes and coaches in Chicago. Cook said his favorite part of the day was shooting a feature for BTN with Emily Ehman.

“She had Madi and me sitting there, and I had to say what I appreciate about Madi as a player, and it took off from there and we got into some heavy, deep questions,” Cook said. “Both of us got a little emotional. It was a very powerful moment. But Madi and I are just looking at each other answering these questions while they’re filming. That was probably the highlight for me because I said some great things about Madi, she said some great things about me and there was an emotional connection.”

The “most epic moment,” however, was a TikTok challenge that required Knuckles and him to close their eyes and clap at the same time, and it only took them two tries, which Cook didn’t think anybody else could match.

The event also provided an opportunity for players and coaches from all 14 (at least for now) Big Ten schools to gather together in one place to celebrate heir sport and conference.

Combine Monday’s groundbreaking festivities (which continued on Tuesday with the other half of the league) with the continued expansion of the league’s television reach, and this has been a huge week for the best volleyball conference in the country. Hopefully, other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead next year, which is Cook’s wish as well.

“Thank you to Big Ten for doing this,” Cook said during his opening statement during Nebraska’s turn at the table. “Incredible experience for the student-athletes. It’s a great statement for our sport. One of my hopes and wishes from all this is this is now going to spread to other conferences and continue to validate the growth of volleyball in this country and how big it is and the Big Ten is certainly leading the way in setting the example.”

Unfortunately, Monday wasn’t all TikToks and group photos for the Huskers. The strangest saga of the offseason also took another confusing turn. I’m speaking about the Kayla Caffey situation, of course. Nebraska announced late on Thursday that Caffey had entered the transfer portal, marking the end of her time at Nebraska after two years. In her message on Instagram, Caffey said she was told she wouldn’t have a scholarship for the fall semester.

To be honest, I’ve been confused about this from the start. Unless there was documentation that Caffey was actually injured during her first season at Missouri (which looks like a voluntary redshirt without any further details) I’m not sure how she had any eligibility left in the first place. However, Nebraska’s compliance department apparently found some — with strings attached. 

Cook had mentioned previously that a return for Caffey for one more season would carry a penalty for Nebraska, which is why he said both she and he had a decision to make after the NCAA initially granted her waiver back in the spring. On Monday, he explained that penalty as her scholarship counting double — she’d either take up two scholarships this year or count both this year and next.

Cook tried to “clarify” the situation on Monday, which only ended up muddying the waters even further. 

He explained the process they went through to get her another season and that Nebraska was “fully committed to her financial situation for two years; she had everything covered.” Cook said he was waiting for her to make her return announcement, but it never came. He also made some strange comments about NIL. His comment about Nebraska “covering everything” seemed to conflict with Caffey’s explanation. 

Later on Monday night, Cook issued a statement addressing his comments. 

”To clarify my press conference statement at Big Ten Media Days earlier today, Kayla did not have an athletic scholarship for this upcoming fall semester,” Cook said. “Kayla had been working on outside NIL deals that would cover her expenses, but she notified me last week she was going to enter the transfer portal. Kayla was a great Husker. While we anticipated having her be a part of this year’s team, I respect that this is a personal decision for her. We wish her the best going forward.”

The Omaha World-Herald’s Lincoln Arneal dug into the rules to find a possible explanation for the situation, and found some interesting tidbits worth reading.

Cook is one of the best coaches the sport of volleyball has ever seen, but nobody bats 1.000, and that portion of his Monday press conference was at best a foul ball, and at worst a strikeout (considering he doubled down on it with local reporters later).

However, while I’m still very confused about what the actual story is, Caffey’s time at Nebraska has come to an end and the Huskers are moving forward. Cook will simply have to rely on an another All-American in Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord and the top two middles in the 2022 recruiting class in Maggie Mendelson and Bekka Allick to hold things down.

Nebraska is poised for a big season, and the inaugural Big Ten Media Days was a perfect way to begin a journey that they are hoping will end in Omaha.

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