Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Spring Volleyball? The Idea Isn’t New for Nebraska’s John Cook

September 18, 2020

John Cook has a plan. Well, has had is probably the better way of saying that. Either way you put it, Nebraska’s head coach was ready for the Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall sports, effectively shifting volleyball’s schedule to spring.

You see, Cook has been an advocate of spring volleyball for some time. So much so, those around him—like UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green and Athletic Director Bill Moos—are more than aware of his plan, one he presented 15 years ago at an AVCA convention. The idea? Volleyball should move to spring. The reason? To start, Cook believes that championships in December haven’t been all that great for the sport.

“You’re competing with football,” Cook recently told Hail Varsity. “The Big Ten Conference is awesome with getting us Wednesday night volleyball and even Saturday night volleyball on TV, but once basketball starts and football’s going in November, volleyball disappears. So let’s do it in the spring when we’d have less competition for TV.”

Exposure isn’t the only challenge for volleyball teams in the fall. Take a Saturday in State College. If the Penn State football team is at home and the volleyball team is too, the visiting volleyball players may not even get a hotel in town.

“That has always been a big issue,” Cook said. “It’s expensive, you may have to stay somewhere else and we’re trying to travel Friday/Saturday and the hotels want two-night minimums.

“The other thing is volleyball has to play freshmen. These freshmen come in and we’re playing. Why not give them the whole fall to prepare to get to play?”

The Big Ten postponed fall sports on Aug. 11. The discussion quickly centered around football and what would happen for those teams, but Nebraska has four fall sports that were impacted. Volleyball, soccer and cross country will all give spring seasons a shot.

The Big Ten’s decision to postpone created plenty of controvery, primarily for football. For Nebraska volleyball, however, Cook was thinking about the possibility of postponement long before the decision ever came. That’s not to say other sports weren’t as well, of course, but it helps when the person helping navigate has been thinking about reshuffling the schedules for some time.

As things were developing amid the COVID-19 pandemic on campuses nationwide, Cook talked with Green about what things might look like come August. Could Nebraska volleyball adapt? Yes, and the Huskers would. Cook offered up the option of moving matches to Pinnacle Bank Arena, allowing more space to spread out and to help mitigate the risk.

Cook also turned his attention toward spring. If fall ultimately wasn’t an option, how would things look in 2021?

“He talked fairly openly about what would things look like in the spring if we had a spring season,” Green said. “I don’t want to put words into John’s mouth, but I think having thought about that and having put some real energy into thinking about what would it take to pull off a spring schedule, winter-spring schedule, for volleyball among the coaches is a step up to the situation that we’re now in.”

Big Ten volleyball teams aren’t alone, either. The Pac-12 postponed fall sports to the spring, as well as the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference. The NCAA announced two days after the Big Ten postponed its seasons that no Division I sport that happens in the fall, with FBS football as the exception, will have a championship.

The NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship was scheduled to be played in Omaha this December. The NCAA’s announcement effectively changed that, but did leave open the possibility that the event could be rescheduled for the spring. That’s what President Mark Emmert is hoping for, at least, with previously scheduled fall championships. It’s what Nebraska is hoping for too.

“I think the fact the NCAA has moved those championships to the spring is a great decision,” Moos said on Sports Nightly. “It really helps us. I’m confident as we sit here, without saying for sure, that Omaha will host that Final Four. Hopefully we’re in it and get to enjoy the great Nebraska fans, much like we did when it was in Kansas City a few years ago.”

While the SEC has not postponed its fall sports, volleyball has made adjustments to its schedules. SEC volleyball teams will start Oct. 16 and play eight total matches against four opponents. The matchups will take place over six weeks, ending by Nov. 27. The conference would then have some kind of spring schedule before the NCAA tournament.

Moos didn’t want to comment on the specifics of the decisions made by other conferences, but he wasn’t surprised that the conferences—like the SEC—would want to move at least some of their schedules to spring. The Big Ten and Pac-12 host a few of the top-tier volleyball programs in the country, like Nebraska and Stanford, and the potential of playing against those teams is a motivating factor in making unconventional schedules work.

“It gives us a lot of flexibility to be honest,” Texas A&M head coach Bird Kuhn said. “I think we’re in a really good situation moving forward. We’re all training right now and into it, so if we have that opportunity to play matches, that’s huge. We’ll see how this progresses into the spring.”

Could all of this ultimately lead to volleyball shifting to spring full time after all? We know Cook wouldn’t mind, but it’s always been an idea for him. Could the 2020 season for volleyball, which is now mostly being played in spring of 2021, be the start of something new for the sport?

“One of the things that is an ongoing dialogue in COVID land, I’ll call it that, which we’re in right now is what does this mean for the future?” Green said. “That question gets posed a lot. What does the work environment look like in the future as compared to now as a result of what we’re going through with COVID-19? Will things change? How might things change? This dilemma that we’re in with intercollegiate athletics right now—and I think it is a dilemma, I’ll be really clear about that, it is a dilemma—means we have some conferences moving forward, we have some not, or many not moving forward with competition at the moment. What’s the other side of this going to look like? Both from a financial perspective, institutions are going to have a really hard time making their way through this financial landscape. Even just the postponement part before you get to what do we complete for the year, given the fact that we’ve already lost a whole season of sports behind us in the spring. What long-term impacts will that have?

“I don’t know. It may be right that we’ll see sports pivot to or change in terms of when the optimal time is for those seasons. Hopefully, we’ll only go through this once, but it is a vortex that we’re going through all at one time.”

While it’s a lot for both Green and Moos to filter through, both agree that having Cook part of Nebraska’s family is a huge benefit through all of the uncertainty. Nebraska volleyball is a leader in its space, and Cook is too. His ideas—including those about moving the sport to spring—are ones that are listened to. When Cook speaks, people pay attention.

“He’s an exceptional individual and, of course, a magnificent coach,” Moos said. “We’re lucky to have him.”

The landscape of college athletics will continue to change in the coming weeks and months. As universities work to navigate COVID-19 at all levels, new opportunities—like where a sport’s season fits best—may present themselves.

Until then, just know that John Cook has a plan—well, has had a plan—and that means a lot if you’re Nebraska.

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