The last couple of months haven’t exactly gone according to plan for Tyler Hildebrand, but he’s been back in Lincoln for about six weeks now and is settling into life as a Husker — again.
Hildebrand only spent one year as an assistant under John Cook back in 2017, but that one year made such an impression on him that went Cook came calling again with an opening on his staff, he couldn’t say no.
“We just feel so at home here,” Hildebrand told Hail Varsity. “The pace of living here is just so much better than California. We’re California people and we’ve lived there most of our lives, my wife and me. We’re not from there, but we’ve lived their most of our life there. There’s a lot of cool things about California, but raising a family there… When we were here last time, our son was born right before we left, so it was different. We knew it was going to be a few-year deal probably and then go be a head coach somewhere … This is great place to raise a family.”
Hildebrand and his wife, Kristin, have a young son named Rhett. As a player, Hildebrand was a four-year starter at Long Beach State as a setter and as a coach, he spent five seasons on staff at his alma mater. Hildebrand left Nebraska after the 2017 season to become the director of coaching for the USA Volleyball Beach National Team Program and he spent the last two years stationed in California helping prepare the USA Beach program for the Olympics.
Now, he’s back in Lincoln, and he’s laying down some roots this time.
“It’s just kind of like a home run in every area, life-wise, community-wise,” Hildebrand said. “One thing we didn’t do last time very well was really get into the Lincoln community. And what I mean by that is we didn’t know how long we were going to be here, we kind of lived on the north side of town and there’s not a lot going on there; it’s a lot of college living. We’re down at Firethorn now and we’re just meeting a lot of people, a lot of people raising kids, so we’ve been kind of adopted quickly and it’s really fun to be a part of that. It’s awesome to be back.”
The quality of living in Lincoln wasn’t the only thing that brought him back, however. Though he wasn’t officially on staff and was halfway across the country, Hildebrand served as a consultant for Cook the last two years. Through conversations with both Cook and Kayla Banwarth, Hildebrand knew an opening was coming as Banwarth was ready to set off on her own and run her own program. As they talked, Cook told Hildebrand he was going to push to name him associate head coach if chose to come back, and Nebraska’s administration was on board.
Hildebrand accepted the job and became the first associate head coach during Cook’s tenure in Lincoln.
“It allows you to kind of learn a little bit more about what a head coach does so that could prepare me down the road for whatever job may come, or maybe I just stay here as an assistant forever; I don’t know,” Hildebrand said. “It’s just kind of a respect thing I guess. It doesn’t change anything that I’m doing with the team, not one bit, and it doesn’t change anything long term here. But what it does do is it allows you to pay more money and stuff like that.
“When he first said that, I kind of was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ But then I was like, ‘Well, this is a pretty cool thing that he’s offering to me.’ Because he was offering me everything he offered, I just really felt indebted to Coach. It just kind of solidified our relationship from a business relationship standpoint that he believed I could do a good job and put some other things — I got a raise and I got this title … It meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to my wife.”
The raise and the lifestyle were big selling points, but what ultimately brought Hildebrand back was his relationship with Cook himself.
“It’s one of those things where it just fits,” Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand has worked under some of the most well-respected coaches in the world including Alan Knipe and John Speraw, but Hildebrand said Cook might be the best.
“I’ve said this before, but until ’17, I’ve been with a lot of great coaches, a lot of great teams, multiple Olympics, stuff like that, but I think my best year personally coaching was 2017 and I think that was a lot because of how Coach and I interacted,” Hildebrand said. “He pushes me and he drives me pretty hard, but it always seems to be important stuff. And then when it’s stuff I disagree with, I tell him, but I do it really respectfully because of how much respect I have for him.”
“Part of my relationship with John is he really lets me coach, but John is so organized and so great at outworking everyone, leading everyone,” Hildebrand continued. “Like, he just sent me a text and I was reading it as you called me. It said ‘You need to be consistent and build expectations for how we communicate.’ Most people think head coaches do that stuff all the time, but John does it 24/seven, all the time. He’s always guiding us, leading us. For me, that’s really good because I like that.”
Hildebrand said some assistant coaches might not like that level of oversight and it takes a certain level of resilience to work with Cook, but it’s something he really embraces. He said he really likes the vibe they have, even if it might get a bit chippy every now and then because that’s what makes it fun and challenging.
Hildebrand shared an anecdote about a match against Michigan during the 2017 season. The Wolverines went into the match red-hot offensively and Hildebrand was the one in charge of preparing defensive game plans. Cook kept riding him about how well the Wolverines had been playing offensively and delivered another one-liner about it right before the match, though Hildebrand bit his tongue. The Huskers recorded a season-high 14 blocks in the match and held Michigan to a season-low .046 hitting percentage.
As they were walking back to the locker room after the match, Hildebrand handed Cook the stat sheet and said, ‘They didn’t hit .300 tonight, Coach,” before walking off.
That’s the kind of relationship they have, and that’s a big reason why Hildebrand is back in Lincoln. Despite the additional title, Hildebrand will have a lot of the same responsibilities he had in his last stint. He’ll coach the middle blockers and coordinate the team’s block and defense. However, he’ll get a little help with the defensive scouting reports from Nebraska’s other assistant, Jaylen Reyes, who was hired to replace Hildebrand in 2018 and who has coached the defense the last two years. Hildebrand also anticipates working some with the setters along volunteer assistant Kelly Hunter, who played under Hildebrand in 2017.
Stay tuned for more on Hildebrand’s relationship with Hunter, the current Huskers he coached in 2017 and the players he helped recruit before he left.
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.