The philosophy of John Cook can be summarized in two simple words.
When Cook took over the reins of the Nebraska volleyball program, the challenge facing him was daunting. Cook replaced one of the sport’s legendary coaches in Terry Pettit, who won 694 matches and guided the Huskers to 18 consecutive NCAA appearances and six national semifinals.
Cook, who left an emerging power in Wisconsin to guide the tradition-rich Husker program, had his own vision for Nebraska volleyball. He saw a program that had even more potential to grow.
His goals included consistently selling out home matches at the NU Coliseum, expanding the media exposure for his program and most importantly, continuing the tradition of athletic and academic excellence started by Pettit nearly a quarter of a century earlier. His vision catapulted the program to a new phase in 2013 as the Devaney Center underwent a $20 million renovation and became the new home for Nebraska volleyball. Moving to the Devaney Center increased the capacity crowd for Nebraska volleyball matches from 4,125 at the Coliseum to nearly 8,000 in addition to 400 standing-room-only tickets. In addition, five suites that give a private and expansive view of the action were built on the south side of the building and student seating was drastically increased.
Cook’s vision is for the Huskers to remain at the forefront of college volleyball to enhance the sport at both the local and national levels. Nebraska enters 2015 with an NCAA-record 188 regular-season consecutive sellouts - the longest sellout streak in NCAA women’s athletics. Since the move to the Devaney Center in 2013, the Huskers have led the nation in attendance in every season.
Cook saw the long-range potential of building the audience across the state. He also believed Nebraska could shine by hosting the sport’s championship in the largest setting college volleyball had ever seen.
When others saw risks, Cook saw opportunities.
In 2006, Cook’s dream was realized, as the Husker Nation had an opportunity to see Nebraska raise the bar in college volleyball. From record-setting, sold-out crowds at the Qwest Center Omaha, to a team that maximized its potential in winning the school’s third national title, the Huskers enjoyed a remarkable season.
The Huskers entered the 2006 campaign with many questions, as they were forced to replace three All-Americans, including AVCA National Player-of-the-Year Christina Houghtelling. With four first-year starters on the court, including freshmen at setter and middle blocker, and sky-high expectations with the NCAA Championships in Omaha for the first time, 2006 shaped up to be Cook’s toughest coaching job to date.
Nebraska took on all challenges head-on, going 33-1 and becoming only the third team in NCAA history to be ranked No. 1 the entire season. The Huskers went on the road and overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat Minnesota to reach the national semifinals, marking the first time that Nebraska had won a regional outside the state. That victory set the stage for a watershed moment in college volleyball. Behind sellout crowds of over 17,000, the Huskers captured the school’s third national title with victories over No. 4 UCLA and No. 2 Stanford. Four players earned AVCA All-America honors, including Sarah Pavan, who became NU’s first Honda-Broderick Cup winner.
Two years later, the NCAA Championships returned to Omaha with another Husker team taking center stage.
An all-time NCAA attendance record of 17,430 traveled through a winter storm to witness one of the greatest matches in Nebraska’s illustrious history. After dropping the first two sets to No. 1 Penn State, Nebraska fought back, winning the next two sets to hand the Nittany Lions their only set losses of the 2008 season. Although the Huskers were unable to complete the comeback, the performance symbolized a never-say-quit attitude that fueled the team’s success. Despite losing a pair of performers to season-ending injuries, the Huskers went 31-3 and won their fifth consecutive conference title. At the Seattle Regional, the Huskers overcame a 2-0 deficit to send the match to a fifth set and trailed 9-3 in the fifth set before regrouping and earning the school’s 11th trip to the NCAA semifinals. Jordan Larson, Tara Mueller and Sydney Anderson all earned All-America honors, while Larson was named Big 12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first player in conference history to sweep both honors.
Consistent excellence has been a hallmark of Cook’s Nebraska squads. Since taking over the program in 2000, Cook has guided the Huskers to a pair of national titles, five NCAA semifinal appearances, nine Big 12 titles and one Big Ten championship. His teams have compiled a 436-58 record, owning one of the nation’s top winning percentages (.883) during his tenure. Cook has also excelled against ranked teams, compiling a 131-39 record, including a 26-16 mark against top-five squads.
With Cook at the helm, Nebraska has produced numerous individual honors, including four U.S. National Team members, a Honda-Broderick Cup winner, three AVCA Division I National Players of the Year, two NCAA Top Ten Award winners, 41 AVCA All-Americans, three CoSIDA Academic All-Americans of the Year, 18 CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, one Big Ten Player of the Year, six Big 12 Players of the Year and three Big 12 Co-Players of the Year. Husker student-athletes have also combined for 40 first-team All-Big 12 awards and 61 academic All-Big 12 certificates. The Huskers have also earned 13 All-Big Ten honors, and 18 academic All-Big Ten accolades.
Cook’s accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed, as he is a two-time AVCA National Coach of the Year, earning the prestigious honor in 2000 and 2005, and a four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year. He is one of only four active coaches - and one of six all-time - to be a two-time AVCA National Coach of the Year and was honored in 2008 by USA Volleyball, receiving its All-Time Great Coach Award.
In 2014, the Huskers reached their third straight regional final after upsetting No. 3 Washington with the youngest team in school history and playing the second-toughest schedule in the nation. With only one senior, the Huskers showed great improvement throughout the season and finished 23-10, although nine of the 10 losses were to teams that finished in the top 13 of the final AVCA rankings. Sophomore Kadie Rolfzen was an All-Big Ten and third-team AVCA All-American for the second straight season. Junior Kelsey Fien had a breakout season to earn All-Big Ten honors for the first time in her career. After a rigorous Big Ten schedule that included seven matches against ranked foes, the Huskers drew one of their toughest postseason draws in Cook's tenure. Despite it, NU swept past a 28-6 Hofstra squad and then beat red-hot No. 20 Utah to advance to Seattle. Not many gave the Huskers a chance to go into Seattle and upset the 31-2 Huskies, but the Huskers' schedule had prepared them to do so. And that's just what NU did in four sets. It was the second win for the Big Red against a top-five team in 2014, as the Huskers also beat No. 3 Penn State at the Devaney Center, 3-1.
The Huskers' NCAA Tournament appearance was their 33rd in a row, and in doing so, they improved their all-time record to 92-30. The Huskers have enjoyed unprecedented success under Cook. They have been to the Sweet 16 in 14 of Cook's 15 years at the helm, including 12 Elite Eight appearances, five NCAA Semifinals showings and three NCAA Final appearances, with two wins.
In the Huskers’ first year in the Bob Devaney Sports Center in 2013, Nebraska notched a 26-7 record and second-place finish in the Big Ten Conference. NU advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight as Kelsey Robinson was selected as a first-team All-American, Kadie Rolfzen earned third-team accolades and Mary Pollmiller and Meghan Haggerty were chosen as honorable-mention selections. Cook coached Robinson to one of the most successful seasons in Husker history, as she was selected as Nebraska’s first Big Ten Player of the Year. Along with Robinson, Rolfzen and Pollmiller were also honored as All-Big Ten selections.
The Huskers posted a 26-7 record in 2012, a historic season the marked the final year at the NU Coliseum. The team advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight as Lauren Cook was named a first-team AVCA All-American, Gina Mancuso and Hannah Werth earned second-team honors and Meghan Haggerty was as an honorable-mention pick. Cook guided the Huskers to a 10-5 record against ranked teams and topped two No. 1 teams during the course of the season. The Huskers also posted four All-Big Ten picks and seven academic All-Big Ten accolades in 2012.
During the 2011 season the Huskers made history with their first Big Ten Conference title, as they won their 32nd overall conference crown. Nebraska notched a 25-5 record on the year. In addition, Mancuso was named a first-team AVCA All-American, while Werth, Morgan Broekhuis and Cook were tabbed honorable-mention picks.
In 2010 the Huskers won their 12th conference title as a member of the Big 12 with an overall record of 29-3. The team advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight, while Brooke Delano was named an AVCA first-team All-American. Lindsey Licht and Werth were second-team picks. Werth was also tabbed the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Cook was named Co-Big 12 Coach of the Year and Lauren Cook was the league’s newcomer of the year.
During the 2009 season, Nebraska overcame a slow start to play its best volleyball down the stretch. The Huskers won 10 straight matches - all by sweep - before falling to eventual NCAA runner-up Texas in the regional final. NU finished with a 26-7 record and was ranked fifth in the final AVCA poll. Delano and Sydney Anderson earned AVCA All-America honors, while Kori Cooper repeated as a first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American.
In 2007, the Huskers set a pair of NCAA single-match attendance records and won the Big 12 title for the fourth consecutive year. The Huskers advanced to the NCAA regional final before a loss to Cal ended a 30-2 season, while a school-record five Huskers earned AVCA All-America awards. Pavan, Houghtelling and Tracy Stalls all earned first-team CoSIDA Academic All-America honors.
The 2005 campaign was a special one for the Nebraska program. The Huskers advanced to the national title match for the fifth time in school history and finished with a 33-2 mark. Nebraska led the nation in blocking (4.12 per game) and ranked in the top 10 nationally in assists, kills and hitting percentage. Four Huskers earned AVCA All-America honors, while Houghtelling was named AVCA National Player of the Year.
Cook has also been instrumental in helping to expand the program’s visibility throughout the state and the Midwest. Nebraska played a regular-season match in North Platte in 2004, and the team has played exhibition matches in Scottsbluff, Ogallala, Wayne, Grand Island and Norfolk over the last decade. In addition, Cook’s efforts have helped Nebraska enjoy one of the most extensive multi-media packages in the country, as every match is carried live on a state-wide radio network and nearly every contest is shown either live on television or streamed live on the Internet.
“It is a reflection of Nebraska volleyball and the program, and not about one person or one player,” Cook said when accepting the AVCA Coach-of-the-Year Award in 2005. “We’re trying to be a leader in the sport. We’re trying to take risks and dream big, and fortunately I’m surrounded by a lot of people who have that vision. I’m really proud of what we’re doing to try and enhance the sport.”
Three Straight 30-Win Seasons
In 2001, Cook’s second season, Nebraska fell just two wins short of capturing another NCAA title. The Huskers, who were ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the AVCA poll all season, went 20-0 in the Big 12 and Cook was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year. NU finished the season with a 31-2 record after falling to eventual national champion Stanford in the NCAA semifinals.
Nebraska placed four players on the AVCA All-America teams, while right side hitter Nancy Metcalf was selected as an NCAA Top Ten Award winner and was also named the CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year. Pilakowski and Cepero joined Metcalf on the CoSIDA Academic All-America teams, as Pilakowski earned second-team honors and Cepero received third-team recognition.
In Cook’s third season, the Huskers continued their remarkable success. NU finished the season ranked fifth in the AVCA poll with a 31-2 record to secure its third straight 30-win season. Nebraska produced the most dominant conference season in school history, going 20-0 and losing just two sets en route to winning the league championship for the third straight year. Cepero and Amber Holmquist again earned first-team AVCA All-America honors, and Pilakowski was recognized on the second team. Pilakowski was named a first-team CoSIDA Academic All-American, and Holmquist was a second-team pick. Cepero, Holmquist and Pilakowski shared Big 12 Player-of-the-Year accolades.
Cook faced perhaps his greatest coaching challenge at Nebraska in 2003, when the Huskers had to replace three All-Americans and their first-ever libero. That season, Cook opted to run a 6-2 (two-setter) offense to utilize as many players as possible. NU went on to finish the season with a 28-5 record and an appearance in the Sweet 16.
The 2004 season may have been one of Cook’s best coaching jobs, as a youthful squad that featured five freshmen and sophomores in the lineup went 30-2 and was ranked No. 1 heading into the NCAA Tournament. The Huskers led the nation in both opponent hitting percentage (.103) and blocks per game (4.02) before falling to two-time defending NCAA champion USC in five sets in the regional final. Three Huskers earned AVCA All-America honors, while Pavan was chosen as the AVCA National Freshman of the Year. That group of Huskers became the centerpiece of Nebraska’s consecutive NCAA Finals teams in 2005 and 2006.
Building the Badgers
Cook’s accomplishments at Wisconsin earned him praise as one of the game’s top young coaches. Cook built the Badgers into a top-10 program during his seven-year career in Madison, which included back-to-back trips to the NCAA regional finals in 1997 and 1998.
Cook compiled a 161-73 ledger at the helm of the Badgers, including an 89-51 league mark in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. He was named the Big Ten Co-Coach and AVCA District 2 Coach of the Year in 1997 after leading the Badgers to a share of the Big Ten title with a 19-1 mark and school-best 30-3 overall record.
In his seven years at Wisconsin, the Badgers advanced to six straight postseason tournaments, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1998. In 1995, Wisconsin won the National Invitational Volleyball Championship with a perfect 6-0 record. During his tenure at UW, he coached four AVCA All-Americans, nine AVCA All-District award winners, 11 All-Big Ten honorees and two Big Ten Freshmen of the Year. He also coached 21 academic All-Big Ten selections.
During his first tenure at Nebraska (1989-91), the Huskers advanced to the NCAA semifinals two of the three seasons, including a runner-up finish in 1989. Nebraska went 36-0 in conference play, capturing three Big Eight Conference titles. During that time, he served as Pettit’s recruiting coordinator, chief scout and strength and conditioning coordinator. Cook was also the liaison with the academic advising center.
In the U.S. Olympic Festival competition, Cook served as head coach of the bronze medal-winning North team in 1989 and was also an assistant coach with the third-place West team in 1987.
A co-founder of the San Diego Volleyball Club, Cook served as a coach with the club from 1986 to 1988. The club won two Southern California Regional Championships and finished among the final four teams twice in the USVBA Junior Olympics for girls 18 and under.
Cook also served as the head assistant coach at the University of California-San Diego from 1983 to 1984, where he aided the Tritons to an NCAA Division III national championship in 1984 and a second-place national finish in 1983. Cook’s coaching credentials also include leading Francis Parker High School in San Diego to two California state championships. During his six-year coaching stint from 1981 to 1988, he had an overall record of 162-18, including a 90-match winning streak.
A well-known speaker on volleyball skills, Cook travels around the nation participating in clinics. During his stay at Wisconsin, he served as the host of the Badger Coaching Symposium every spring.
A graduate of the University of San Diego, Cook earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1979. He completed his master’s degree in teaching and coaching effectiveness from San Diego State in 1991.
Cook and his wife Wendy, a former two-time All-America setter at San Diego State, are the parents of two children, Lauren and Taylor. Lauren completed her senior season at Nebraska in 2012.