On Monday, John Cook talked about tradition, finances, China, communications and athleticism.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

For Cook, That One Big Thing is Self-Support

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Anyone who’s been in the same room with John Cook for one minute gets a sense of how competitive he is and how driven he can become.  On Monday, inside the hospitality room a few steps down the hallway from college volleyball’s most fabled venue – the renovated Devaney Center – the Huskers’ legendary coach tried to divide his thoughts into three segments. 

Mentally, he had a 1-2-3.  That’s how elementary it was going to be.  But I’ve been around Cook long enough to know that on this particular day, his second priority superseded the first, which was to communicate the excitement of getting Husker tradition on the walls and in alignment with the completion of a grand entrance in all of its inherent splendor.  For Cook, it’s time to put volleyball trophies, pictures, jerseys and banners in the right places so the new showplace truly feels like home in the midst of grand staircases, illuminating light and all the glass that comes with it.  His second segment would communicate the record financial results Nebraska achieved over the past year, and the third segment would connect the Huskers' trip to China to the confidence he has heading into his 15th season as NU's head coach.

It’s about One Thing, Just One Thing

Before pinpointing Cook’s second thought that seemed foremost in his mind, let’s go back to a cheesy movie released 23 years ago when Cook was in his third season as an assistant under another legendary Nebraska head coach, Terry Pettit.  In the movie City Slickers, Jack Palance played scary cowboy Curly, and Billy Crystal was Mitch, the city slicker who took a vacation on a dude ranch to gain some perspective.

At a pivotal point in the movie, Curly asks Mitch – “Do you know what the secret of life is?”  Sensing Mitch was puzzled, Curly holds up one finger and says “This!”  Incredulous, Mitch asks: “Your finger is the secret to life?”  Curly responds:  “One thing, just one thing,” he said.  “You stick with that and the rest just don’t matter.”  Still inquisitive, Mitch asks: “But what is the one thing?”  Curly just smiles before responding.  “That is what you have to find out,” he said.  That piece of drama is the backdrop for the point I think John Cook wanted to make most in his first official press conference of the 2014 season.  Before getting to that point, Cook had an interesting opening, a dramatic description of a memorable moment and a payoff that he received executive permission to share.

Fourteen Years Later, Cook Answers

“For the younger reporters in here, when I got hired in 2000, one thing we did was go to China (the third segment theme) that summer,” Cook said.  “In the spring, I spoke at a big event, and I was talking about how excited we were to go to China.”  Cook then recalled “this booster guy” asking him a tough question: “Hey, how are you guys paying for that?”

“I said, we’re going to do a golf event and raise money,” Cook recalls, even though the real answer was that Bill Byrne, Nebraska’s athletic director at the time, was providing the necessary funding.  Cook took another shot when the Nebraska fan offered up his own blunt opinion.  “You know, if it wasn’t for football," he said, "you guys wouldn’t be able to do that.”  From that moment on, Cook set a goal to oversee a program that makes more money than it spends, and the Devaney Center gives volleyball the potential to achieve that goal someday because its capacity is roughly twice what the Coliseum was.

Seat Revenues Hit a Record $1.7 Million

At this point in the press conference, Cook is like Mitch in the movie.  Now that he knows what that one thing is, he’s ready to tell reporters young and old.  “I know for a fact and this would be public information,” Cook said.  “Our ticket revenue was $1.7 million (the highest in the country)," he announced.  Most in the room could tell how important it was for Cook to deliver a message he’s wanted to communicate for 14 years.  "When you come from a state of 1.8 million people, I think it’s a statement of how big volleyball here is," Cook said.  "We’re just really very proud of that and we wanted to do everything we can to keep that (200 consecutive match) home sellout streak going and keep people wanting to come to our matches.”

Still a Waiting List for Volleyball Tickets

Cook reminded reporters that Nebraska’s season-opening match against Florida State would be the 201st consecutive home sellout, an ongoing NCAA record.  “One of the big worries of coming here was would we continue that sellout streak?” Cook said.  “The answer is (because the Huskers doubled its capacity) we oversold on tickets with standing-room only, and we’re really, really proud of that.  We still have a waiting list for season tickets, so we still have a great problem … there’s a lot of interest here.”

In hop-scotching the state during the summer, Cook visited Holdrege and was startled to learn that 30 people in a town located near the geographic midpoint of the country had season volleyball tickets for the first time.  He pointed out that those 30 Holdrege residents drive 165 miles one-way to attend every Husker home match.  It’s the kind of proof Cook wanted when Nebraska volleyball left its Coliseum roots in the rear-view mirror to enable a new generation of Husker fans to watch.

New Game Day Experience for New Fans

“A lot of new people now have the opportunity to see us play, and one thing is really interesting to me," Cook said, pointing out Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst's "brilliant" emphasis on fan experience.  "When it comes to game day, I don’t think we can rely on what we’ve done in the past," Cook said.  "Football’s making some changes, and we’re going to make some changes in our game as well.”

Those changes range from pregame introductions to new, student-driven ideas designed to give Nebraska a greater home-court advantage than the Huskers already have.  Bottom line, fan experience is paramount for both programs this fall, and this much is certain: Both want their stellar winning streaks to continue as long as humanly possible.

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