Cook: There’s No Place like Nebraska
Video: Kelsey Robinson Tearfully Describes Her 'Adopted State'
Sometimes, John Cook feels like he’s the only one pounding the drums and sounding the trumpets to elevate the importance of a packed volleyball venue. For decades, Nebraska has made a living on sellout crowds that tighten the pressure, increase the drama and multiply the experience for players, coaches and fans. After the first ever season that Nebraska has led the nation in attendance, Cook is no longer the sole proponent in a one-man line.
Former Husker assistant and longtime Penn State Coach Russ Rose handed out bouquets of appreciation for the Devaney Center environment when his team beat Nebraska in the regular-season finale. Two weekends ago, Oregon’s head coach praised Nebraska’s venue and this past weekend, head coaches from San Diego and Texas couldn’t say enough nice things about the game day experience inside the renovated Devaney Center. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a national dialogue where volleyball coaches are finally acknowledging better venues, praising bigger crowds and enjoying a level of excitement that has been oh-so rare on college campuses from the powerful Big Ten schools to the volleyball-rich Pac-12 Schools on the West Coast.
Huskers Have Raised the Bar and Upped the Ante
Perhaps it’s time to be more blunt about what’s happening at Nebraska and what isn’t happening with so many other schools considered first-tier NCAA powers. With the Devaney Center, “we’ve raised the bar and upped the ante of what can be done volleyball-wise,” Cook said Sunday. “What’s sad is the other three regionals combined can’t match our one-game attendance.”
Cook believes a place like Nebraska should be a preferred annual post-regular-season site for two primary reasons: 1) “We put people in the seats,” he said, and 2) “We need more places like Nebraska if we’re ever going to become a mainstream sport.”
Any clear-thinking head coach would agree, but the issue goes beyond that pivot point and cuts right to the chase – the student-athlete experience. Even when Nebraska swept 2012 national runner-up Oregon in NCAA Round 2, one of the Ducks’ top players expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to play in front of a sellout crowd. Ditto for a San Diego player who expressed the same sentiment when her team lost to the Huskers.
Atmosphere + Level of Play = Most Incredible Match
“I read where one Texas player, who did not play against us Saturday night, said that was the most incredible match she’s ever been a part of,” Cook said. “She wasn’t just saying that because Texas won. She alluded to the Devaney in the same way Russ Rose did.”
After coaching his team to its first full season inside the Devaney Center, John Cook is willing to share his strategy on why so many Husker purists were wrong when they insisted the Devaney Center would never overtake the NU Coliseum in a comparative analysis based primarily on nostalgia. “The Devaney Center turned out better than anyone expected,” Cook told me. “Our fans love it. It’s a great volleyball venue, and it’s going to be a great venue for gymnastics and wrestling, too.”
If Cook were a lawyer and trying to win over a jury consisting of all the head volleyball coaches he faces, he would use this past weekend as a compelling argument for why players thrive in an electric environment. Yes, the home team gets a major booster shot of extra adrenalin every time the Huskers step on the floor. But who were those veteran players in burnt orange on the other bench? Could they possibly jump any higher while cheering on their own teammates? The Devaney Center elevates the play of everyone who walks through the doors and onto the court.
First-Class Husker Fans Know How to Cheer
“It’s a fantastic volleyball event, especially when you get more than 8,000 people in there,” Cook said. “They’re great fans. They know the sport, and they know how to cheer. They’re first-class. They treat all the kids with great respect and that’s what college volleyball should be all about.”
Contrast that scene with the USC-Washington regional final that Cook watched after his team was eliminated from the tournament. “It seemed to me like most of the people in the best seats in the house weren’t even watching the match,” he said. “They were too busy texting or doing something else. The gym looked half full.”
A half-empty facility is a negative site for a Nebraska fan who’s seen nothing but 200 straight sellouts over the past 13 years. “We feel really lucky, even when we lose a match like that in front of that many people who are so passionate about the sport,” Cook said. “Take their disappointment and multiply that times 10 for the way our kids and coaches feel. I just hope recruits out there see that and that more teams will want to come in here and play in this environment.”
There’s No Place like Nebraska … Anywhere
“There’s no place like Nebraska to play volleyball, and all the credit goes to our fans for creating such a wonderful environment,” Cook said. “Student-athletes from both schools love to play in front of crowds like ours. We need more people to realize how truly special a place like the Devaney is.”
Cook was proud Saturday night listening to Kelsey Robinson, the Big Ten Conference Volleyball Player of the Year, during postgame interviews. “She did a great job of putting into words what it really means and how special the Devaney really is,” Cook said. “Kelsey played in two different conferences (the SEC and Big Ten). (Cook’s daughter) Lauren played in three conferences (Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten). They’ve played in those other places, and they have a great appreciation for what we have at Nebraska.
“At Nebraska, it all goes to your heart,” Cook said. “I know it was an incredible experience for kids on both teams. For Kelsey, who’s seen the other side, she knows, and that’s why she came here when she could have gone anywhere, including Texas. She sees what we have and what she’s helped build and helped lead. She appreciates how important volleyball is here, and she really appreciates how much people care.”
Huskers Care: Kelsey Reflects the Brand
Talk about how much people care ...check out the video at the top of this column. Watch Robinson explain what Nebraska has and why there’s no place like it … anywhere. The female anchor who showed this clip on television had tears in her eyes, too, especially when Kelsey reflected on those young women she played with and how other teams “better watch out” because those scrappy freshmen and sophomores are going to win a national championship someday.
For Robinson, Nebraska became a second chance and she made the most of it. Take 49 seconds and see just how much it meant to a player who will now try to play professional volleyball and do what Nebraskans do so well – shoot for the stars and try to make the 2016 Olympic team. With passion like Robinson shows in the post-match presser, don’t count her out. Her season-long leadership and performance, combined with this video of raw emotion, represent Nebraska’s brand like few others can. Her passion plants the seeds for the teammates she’s leaving behind and reflects her vision of better things yet to come.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Thanks for writing this column. We watched the regionals on television and commented about the lack of atmosphere in the other three cities hosting a regional. On TV, Nebraska’s sellout crowd was a big part of the action on the court, so we can see why any player in the country would want that kind of experience, especially when it counts most. College volleyball in Lincoln is like college baseball in Omaha. Players from all over the country look forward to coming to the College World Series because the experience is first class and people pay to see them play. That’s why the College World Series has never left the state. Nebraska is a huge volleyball state, and Lincoln deserves to be a national leader in the sport’s development. Nebraska’s earned it the old-fashioned way – through hard work. Steve Henderson, Orlando, Florida
Really appreciate the story on Nebraska volleyball and the clip of Kelsey Robinson. I envy you and the opportunities you have to write stories like this. You are privileged to associate with the University of Nebraska and the class of coaches and student-athletes we have. In Nebraska, we really are fortunate to have people like Kelsey representing the University and other great athletes. Keep at it. Larry Stunkel, La Vista, Nebraska
Well written article on Nebraska volleyball – you really captured it!! Chip Maly, Lincoln, Nebraska
She'll forever go down as one of our favorite Huskers, even though she was only with us for one short year. So excited for what her future holds. Steve Wiltgen, South Sioux City, Nebraska