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Because of Nebraska's record-breaking fan support, plus its standard for consistent excellence, John Cook thinks he has the best job in college volleyball. He also thinks he has the hardest job in college volleyball because ticket demand always exceeds supply, and the expectations to perform match his team's unparalleled level of interest.
The good thing is, Cook is never afraid to speak his mind, especially when the subject concerns the good of his sport, so sit back and consider the dilemma he has coming off one of the best road weekends he's ever experienced after the fifth-ranked (and now fourth-ranked) Huskers swept Wisconsin before more than 5,000 fans in Madison and then stormed back to overtake Minnesota in five sets before more than 9,000 fans in Minneapolis.
First, Cook considers Saturday night's five-set battle at Minnesota an "instant classic" in the annals of Nebraska volleyball, and fans can draw their own conclusions after watching a replay of that match from 7 to 9 p.m. tonight on the Big Ten Network, following a 6:30 p.m. show featuring Tom Osborne.
Secondly, riding the momentum of an 8-0 start in its inaugural season in the meat-grinding Big Ten Conference, Cook had to turn down a chance to get live national exposure Saturday on the Big Ten Network for what could have been a 3 p.m. match against unbeaten and top-ranked Illinois at the NU Coliseum.
It was somewhat painful, but Cook said thanks but no thanks for the opportunity to play the nation's top-ranked team on live national television.
Cook Prefers to Avoid a Football Conflict at All Times
Nebraska's 11th and 13th-ranked football team, you must understand, is playing at Minnesota, Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ABC-TV (and ESPN2), and no way does Cook want to compete with the sport that helps feed his annual budget. "We've already done that once because we had no choice, and we had every Nebraska fan you can imagine wondering why we were playing Ohio State in the Coliseum at the same time our football team was on national TV at Wyoming."
The Huskers had no choice that night, he said, because Big Ten volleyball schedules are mostly built around Friday/Saturday dates, which leave little margin for change, especially when you consider the visiting team is usually playing back-to-back road games.
There's a reason for setting the stage to this discussion, and now's the time to cut to the core. John Cook, a proactive thinker as well as a cutting-edge coach, believes there is a perfectly logical solution to the pitfalls of going head-to-head with the program that funds most of what the Athletic Department does, even though his own program generated $1.4 million last year itself.
So what's his home-Cooked solution? Move NCAA volleyball to a spring sport instead of a fall sport. That way, you are not competing against football for schedule time, play time or air time. You are instead showcasing every positive aspect of your sport to an already captive audience that has the ability to expand instead of shrink to accommodate others.
"Look, right now we're not only competing against college football for fans and media time," Cook said. "We're competing against the NFL, which is in full swing, and against basketball, which is just starting to warm up. I mean, I pick up the Omaha World-Herald today, and there's a story on how Creighton basketball is using Yoga to get ready for the season. And guess what? The high school football playoffs are coming up soon, and in this state, that's a big deal."
Cook is a Faithful Nebraska Football Fan Himself
Understand that Cook doesn't begrudge any of those sports their rightful place among a finite number of fans and followers. He just thinks his sport would be infinitely better served when it gets a chance to be the feature attraction for a sustainable chunk of time in the spring, not play hit-and-miss throughout the fall, when fans across the country are consumed with football and preparing for basketball.
Again, get this straight. John Cook is as big a football fan as you and those around you. He loves Memorial Stadium on a Saturday and completely understands the football and basketball obsession in the Big Ten.
Two weekends ago, for instance, his volleyball team played at Michigan State on Friday night and then at Michigan on Saturday night. Because Ann Arbor was so packed for a home football game, Nebraska was forced to stay in East Lansing, and Cook does not consider that an optimal choice for his team. "This league packs those big stadiums at Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and just about everywhere else for football," he said.
Maybe, just maybe, Cook thinks, more of those fans might consider attending nationally prominent volleyball games if they had more freedom to plan in advance and see the beauty of a highly competitive sport all the time, not just part of the time.
Monday, Cook did not cover much of this discussion in his weekly press conference because he's squarely focused on Wednesday night's home match against Iowa and Saturday night's showdown against the nation's No. 1 team. But when asked, he couldn't resist promoting an idea he's analyzed six ways to Sunday. Cook never needs a podium to continue a debate that makes more sense to him year-by-year, month-by-month, and now, week-by-week.
Spring Match Would Have Been 'A Real Boon'
He loves the idea of the Nebraska-Minnesota match getting national play tonight on the Big Ten Network. He just thinks it would be better and "a real boon" for the sport if fans could see it live on a spring night instead of delayed two days because of all the other competitive options.
Watching his team come back from two games down at Minnesota, Cook admitted that he was "as surprised as anybody else" watching it. "That's what you want to see from your team," he said. "When they can dig down and rally like that in front of a big crowd at a big-time program and against a very good team, I think our team showed the heart of a champion. Everybody was making plays. They played for each other."
They also were buoyed by the support of Nebraska fans mixed in among the 9,334 fans who were celebrating High School Night and Pink Night. "What was really cool," Cook said, "was I had no idea how many Nebraska fans were there. In Game 5, they got the Go Big Red chant going, and Minnesota tried to drown out our fans. I thought there might be a brawl. They were really getting into it, so I was really impressed with how many Nebraska fans were there. I had no idea until that chant started, and I saw how loud they were."
According to Cook, most fans will look past Wednesday night's home game against Iowa, but he's not, nor is he about to let his team. Still, he does not deny the historical significance of Saturday night's date with Illinois. "This is great," he said. "It's what our fans want and what our players want. This is what's great about our conference and one of the reasons why we joined. I don't know the last time we played a No. 1 team at the Coliseum."
It was Aug. 26, 1995, and Nebraska lost to Stanford, 3-1. Who knows? If that match had been played that spring instead of late that summer, maybe everyone, including Cook, would remember it.
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I'm just a huge volleyball fan and wondering why the heck they don't move the Husker-Illini game to a bigger venue. I think you would sell out even at a 10,000+ arena. Don't they still have the Devaney Center? Just curious. It may well be the game of the year. Soooo glad it will be televised, albeit delayed. Best, Bill Grady, Portland, Oregon (p.s.: I'm an Oregon Duck fan, but love good volleyball anywhere (except Penn State; they've had their run, let someone else have it; feel the same way about Stanford.)
Editor's note: Nebraska plays one volleyball game each season at the Devaney Center, and that match against Iowa State drew 10,380 fans on Sept. 17. It's worth pointing out that Nebraska has produced the all-time top 10 largest regular-season crowds in NCAA volleyball history, ranging from the record 13,870 crowd against UCLA at the Devaney in 2009 to the No. 10 all-time crowd of 11,032 in 2001. When Nebraska's basketball teams leave the Devaney Center to play their games at the new West Haymarket Arena in 2013, NU Athletics will invest $20 million to reconfigure the Devaney Center into what many believe could become the world's best volleyball facility.
I don't know Coach Cook but have always marveled at the excellence his teams display. It seems like they always reload instead rebuild. I did watch the replay of the Nebraska-Minnesota match and thought that was a great crowd in the middle of football season. I think he's ahead of the game, though, proposing that his sport analyze the prospects of moving to a spring season. Now that Nebraska is in a proactive conference I see some hope here. At the very least, the idea should merit at least some consideration. Ron Miller, Omaha, Nebraska
Great story on Coach Cook and the Husker volleyball team. Keep up the good work! Vince Zavala, Grand Island, Nebraska