Could This Be Cook's Best Coaching Job Ever?
As the countdown continues before Nebraska battles perennial power and No. 1-ranked Penn State in the 2017 NCAA Volleyball Tournament semifinals Thursday night in Kansas City, the time has arrived to ask Husker Nation a very simple question – is this the best coaching job John Cook has ever done?
Please bear in mind that I am not the first person who asked that question. Let the record show that when No. 5 overall seed Nebraska beat No. 4 overall seed Kentucky last week, Wildcat Coach Craig Skinner was at the podium for a post-tournament analysis. Since Skinner’s team was the only No. 1 seed that did not qualify for this weekend’s Final Four, he had the savvy to commend the only NCAA regional champion that did not earn a No. 1 seed.
Skinner used 14 words to describe what was uppermost in his mind. “One of the best coaching jobs I think John and his staff have done,” he said.
“I thought it was a telling quote from a guy who was on a couple of staffs with Cook, but he's far from alone in saying it,” Brandon Vogel told me Monday. “I do think this season is one of the more remarkable seasons John has had, given the loss of three All-Americans from the 2016 team, plus two assistant coaches, both of whom helped take their new team to the NCAA Tournament.”
Cook and Vogel were co-authors for Dream Like a Champion, the 2016 collaboration that had great intentions to celebrate back-to-back national championships. Unfortunately, the result did not match the vision.
Ironically, however, the same book that was published earlier this year epitomizes “a lot of what has clicked for this 2017 team,” Vogel said. “It’s from the playbook that John shared in the book. I guess you could say it’s by the book."
The Pathway to a National Volleyball Title: With Each Other and For Each Other
It is also the perfect prelude for the 2017 theme – WITH EACH OTHER, FOR EACH OTHER.
Here are things that Vogel sees in lockstep with Nebraska’s attitude of a champion and the hustle required to reach such a pinnacle achievement.
Recruiting is foremost. “Much like Husker football fans love homegrown players, so does Nebraska Volleyball,” Vogel points out. “Cook took a count a few years ago and found that 40 percent of his players were from Nebraska."
The takeaway? It is impossible to overstate how much value local players bring to our program. When recruiting in-state players, Nebraska knows it is getting somebody whose dream is to play at Nebraska. It is also a really big deal for their families and a really big deal for their hometowns.
As talent-rich as Nebraska is in volleyball, the Huskers still have to look for players elsewhere. “This year's team only has three Nebraska natives,” Vogel said, referring to Kelly Hunter, Sydney Townsend and Hayley Densberger. Two more Huskers on this roster have strong Nebraska ties – Lauren Stivrins, who’s dad was a basketball star at Lincoln East High School and Annika Albrecht, whose parents are UNL alums.
“One of the smartest ideas in the book is when Cook tried to determine what it was he liked most about Nebraska players and how to find them,” Vogel said.
Like Nebraska Football, Husker Volleyball Program Also Craves In-State Roots
This next point is fascinating because it shows how Nebraska Volleyball’s roots run parallel with Nebraska Football.
"I have found over the years that about 60 percent of our athletes are daughters of teachers or coaches,” Cook said in his book about the 2016 team. “In recruiting, that is a great cue for me. If a prospect has at least one parent who is a teacher or a coach, those kids bring something different to a team. They know it is not about them. It is about something bigger than them."
Cook goes on to mention that teachers and coaches are not doing it for the money. They are doing it because they care about kids and they care about traits that are apparent in their daughters. Vogel did not know off the top of his head how many daughters of teachers and coaches Nebraska has on the current team.
“The larger point is that while Nebraska gets to pick from the elite-level recruits in the country, it is also thinking about what sort of teammate that player will be almost as much as raw ability,” Vogel said.
The 2017 team’s passion to be greater than the sum of its parts is definitive because the players have bought into it, physically, mentally and emotionally.
WITH EACH OTHER, FOR EACH OTHER is a capstone that equips, enables and empowers everyone on the team.
For John Cook, Staff and His Players, Six-Word Mantra a True Rallying Cry
“Cook and his staff spend a lot of time thinking about what the specific challenges are for the season ahead,” Vogel said. “They really put the work in to come up with a slogan that actually means something. It is not just a saying for this team. It is a true rallying cry.”
The best part of the six pivotal words that emphasized “with” and “for” is the players contemplating and describing where they wanted to go after reaching last year’s Final Four. “It was an early sign of a team coming together,” Vogel said. “The veterans on this team would've been very used to having Cook present them with a theme for the year, but this season they did it themselves.”
Mantras are B1G at Nebraska. “We all know that once you see a mantra emerge, you see it everywhere,” Vogel said. “In 2015, NU broke every huddle with Destination Omaha. They do it now with this year's slogan. That goes to Cook's "see it, share it" philosophy, which was highly detailed in the book.
"We push that idea to the limit,” Vogel said. “Our seasons are full of slogans and sayings. Some are little scraps of inspiration our coaches or players find along the way. They can come from anywhere."
Cook's contention is that every team sets goals, but too many set and then forget them.
At Nebraska, if the mantra is WITH EACH OTHER, FOR EACH OTHER, “they're going to put it out there for anyone to see,” Vogel said, adding that Nebraska wants to be judged on coming to fruition. “They remind the players of it every single day. Goals at Nebraska don't just go on a whiteboard in August never to be viewed again. This team thought it would be defined by how well it played together, and it has carried them to the Final Four.”
When the Going Gets Tough, John Cook Preaches ‘Trust Your Training’
In the video Husker Volleyball posted on Twitter after winning the Regional, Cook used the term "Trust Your Training" in his pregame speech before facing Kentucky.
“That's a big part of the book, too, and it occurs near the end,” Vogel said, adding that Cook was worried that he had lost a little joy for coaching after the 2008 season. Because it was a team he loved, Cook decided he needed to be coached by someone else for a while. He decided to become a pilot, and in chapter 14 of the book, Cook recounts the dry period and his very first lessons.
The key section is on crosswind landings and YouTube helps you get a sense for what Vogel means. “It’s worth it,” he said. “Basically if you have a wind that's perpendicular to the runway, you have to turn a plane into the wind while landing. It feels like you're flying sideways.”
In Chapter 14 on page 161 of the book, Cook talks about what makes crosswind landings so tough. “They go against all of your instincts,” he said. “You feel like if you land your plane sideways, you will slide right off the runway, when in actuality, that is what this type of landing is designed to prevent. I think most pilots are terrified the first time they attempt it, but the mantra when we would practice these landings was to 'trust your training.'"
Cook Lesson: Players that Start Guessing Are the Ones Who Get Beat
"The moment the flight inspector said it, I added something to my coaching repertoire,” Cook said. “It’s a great lesson for sports. Sometimes, in athletics, there are things we think we see and things we think will happen. There are times when the play or assignment seems counterintuitive. Players must trust their training in such moments. The players that get caught up in what they see, or worse, players that start guessing, are the ones who get beat."
Vogel is certain Cook will mention it again before his team plays Penn State, which has lost only to Nebraska this season. “That match will be tough,” Vogel said. “The team will be stressed at times, but Cook will reiterate the message that they've been trained for this. I think it helps the players try not to do too much. If they find themselves down a few points, they do not have to do something out of the ordinary to get back in it. Just trust your training.”
Who knows? If the Huskers can win two more games in Kansas City Thursday and Saturday at the Sprint Center, Vogel’s up close and personal scattershot will be pure prime. Yes, the Huskers missed a golden opportunity to win back-to-back national championships last year, but they can make 2017 as surprising as 2016 was disappointing.
One thing is certain. For Cook’s team to claim his fourth national championship, six words will end up speaking volumes – with each other and for each other.
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