When Kayla Banwarth’s phone started ringing nonstop toward the end of Nebraska’s season, Coach John Cook knew he had to start preparing to lose her.
Cook said he’s got a list, and when Banwarth accepted the head coaching job at Ole Miss, he knew right away who he wanted to reach out to: former assistant Tyler Hildebrand.
On Monday, Nebraska announced that Hildebrand is coming back to Lincoln.
“I feel a strong responsibility to do the best we can to have the best staff, support team, performance team for our players to give us the best chance to win,” Cook said. “I had noticed Tyler had been coming back every fall the last two falls and I could see his passion for Nebraska volleyball. When Kayla got the job at Ole Miss, I approached him and said ‘Have you ever thought about coming back here?’ We talked through it and it’s worked out. Bill Moos was a big part of that and I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Hildebrand was on staff for the 2017 season that ended with Nebraska hoisting the trophy, but he left that offseason to run USA Volleyball’s beach program in a role that he designed. He’ll continue in that role through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics before starting at Nebraska on Aug. 10.
Convincing him to give up that job to return to Nebraska wasn’t easy, according to Cook, and it was a team effort from everyone at Nebraska. Cook said Hildebrand and his wife Kristin have thought about settling down with their 2-year-old child after a lot of travel over the last few years, and director of operations Lindsay Peterson and director of sport psychology Brett Haskell both talked to the Hildebrands about the pros of raising a family in Lincoln. Cook also got support from the administration in his pursuit of Hildebrand.
“Bill Moos was 100% on board and supportive and like ‘John, whatever we’ve got to do to help you we’re going to do,’” Cook said. “That’s one of the great things about Nebraska, we teach people to dream big here but you have to have the support to be able to do it, and I feel like we dream big here.”
Part of Nebraska’s pitch was to name Hildebrand associate head coach, the first time an assistant has held that title at Nebraska under Cook.
“I think Tyler has certainly earned an opportunity to be more than just an assistant coach and that was one of the things that we proposed,” Cook said. “With that, it is a new title, there are other benefits that go with that. He’s obviously leading the USA beach program right now and is doing a fantastic job with that. I think that was one of the things that I could entice him with to leave the USA program and come back here. There is going to be responsibility that comes with that and more expectations, but he needs to feel that and he needs to have that responsibility and that pressure and expectation.
“I’m pretty fired up about it and it makes me feel like I can really challenge him in maybe other ways and give him some responsibilities more than beyond just a young assistant coach. He’s got experience.”
Cook said there aren’t any hard feelings about Hildebrand leaving after just one season to take another position. Just like with Chris Tamas — who spent two seasons as an assistant under Cook before leaving to take the head coaching job at Illinois — Cook said there are times where he just has to support them.
“This USA thing is a big deal for him but now that he’s done that, I think what’s so great about this is he now knows what he wants,” Cook said. “He knows where he wants to be, so now I’ve got somebody coming back who’s not thinking about ‘OK, do I have to go be an assistant somewhere? What head job am I going to get?’ He did his USA thing, he’s going to get to go to the Olympics, and then this is where his heart’s going to be.”
Though he’s only spent on season in Lincoln, Cook said Hildebrand’s ties to Nebraska date back to 2006 when Nebraska beat Stanford in Omaha for the national title.
“Tyler was dating Kristin, his wife, who was on the Stanford team, and that was a great Stanford team,” Cook said. “I’m not sure we had any business beating them, but we beat them. And Tyler told Kristin after that match, he goes ‘Some day I’m going to coach at Nebraska.’ True story. Something I think started then with his connection to Nebraska. Then he came here and we had a magical season; that team was not expected to do anything. I just think it got in his soul a little bit and his heart, and the opportunity to come back here was pretty powerful for him.”
Cook said this wasn’t necessarily a head coach-in-waiting situation, claiming it’s not in his job description to hire his successor. Cook said he wasn’t sure how much longer he planned to continue coaching and that he’s taking it day-by-day.
“I love coaching right now and I’m fired up,” Cook said. “My wife’s ready to kill me because she had to spend three weeks with me. I’m thinking about how we’re going to beat Wisconsin and get to Omaha. She’s probably glad I’m back at work today, I can tell you that.”
Cook said the 2017 season recharged his coaching batteries and Hildebrand was a big part of that. He said he’s looking forward to recapturing that dynamic with his current staff.
“I probably had more fun coaching in 2017, felt more recharged, more innovative, more challenged and probably grew more as a coach that year than I have in all my other years coaching,” Cook said. “I think we have a great chemistry. I think Jaylen [Reyes] and Tyler already have a great chemistry; Jaylen’s already spent a lot of time out there with Tyler learning how to coach beach because he’s our beach coach. And then the fact that I get to mentor Kelly Hunter makes it even more special. Obviously she has a great connections with Tyler because she was our setter in 2017 and they had a great connection and he really helped her develop to another level than what I could take Kelly as a setter.
“I’m pretty fired up and I feel really good for Nebraska volleyball and our players. I think our senior class is going to be really excited because they obviously have a very strong and deep connection with Tyler as well.”
Hunter, who served as a graduate assistant for the 2019 season while completing her master’s in business, will be the interim assistant coach until Hildebrand arrives in Lincoln and then will stay on as a volunteer assistant for the 2020 season. Hildebrand left a big impression on Hunter when he coached her in 2017.
“You can just tell that he is so committed to learning,” Hunter said. “He studies the game more than anyone I’ve ever met, any coach I’ve ever had. Any time he’s like ‘Hey, you need to try this,’ I couldn't argue because I know that he watches so much film he knows exactly what works. Just knowing how passionate he is about it and how much knowledge he has it’s like you automatically trust him. Then just the way he was really confident in his opinion and wanting to try new things; he was never like ‘Maybe we should try this.’ He was like ‘No, we should try this.’ Just seeing that confidence and his personality, it’s really easy to hop on board with whatever he throws at you.”
Cook echoed Hunter’s praise for Hildebrand’s work ethic and volleyball acumen.
“Tyler has a gift of how he sees the game,” Cook said. “He studies the best players in the world, men and women, and he’s able to communicate and translate that back into the gym and he’s able to translate that and communicate that to our players. I had to get way out of my comfort zone and be open to learning, and he had convince me. He’d be in here every day showing me video, showing me stats, and we would hash it out and make a decision. The good thing was he was not afraid to challenge me. He’s very confident in how he sees the game and that’s why I think we have this great dynamic working together. Sometimes what he likes we do, sometimes I make the final decisions.
“But it’s a really, really healthy relationship and I think Kelly and Jaylen are going to just blossom being around all this as well.”
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.