KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the moments immediately after the Nebraska volleyball team won a share of the Big Ten Conference championship last month, coach John Cook gave a voice-cracking, emotional speech, declaring to the 8,000 fans soaking in the scene how proud he was of what the Huskers had just accomplished.
In a news conference about 20 minutes later, senior Briana Holman was asked if she was surprised that the emotion of that moment had gotten to Cook. Holman grinned, and laughed.
“No,” she said, “he gets really into it.”
Some fans were surprised with what they were seeing and hearing, thinking of Cook as being more of an all-business coach.
But the players know differently. And now there is also video evidence of what this team, and this season, has meant to Cook, a season that resulted in a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four.
Cook showing his pride and emotion for the team showed up on the internet and TV a few times, courtesy of the all-access videos from the athletic department.
One of the first moments was after the match against Penn State, when the Huskers got a surprising road sweep. In the locker room, Cook told Holman how proud he was of her. She’d had one of the best matches of her career, and did so on an injured ankle. Soon the players could tell Cook was about to get emotional, and many said, "Aah."
“Nice job, guys, that’s a hell of a win,” Cook said. “You just shocked the world tonight.”
It got emotional again the next week. The Huskers had rallied from down 0-2 to beat Wisconsin in five sets, capping a two-week stretch that suddenly had the Huskers a favorite to win the Big Ten.
“I got to be careful here,” said Cook, and both he and the players had a good idea of what was coming. “Well, when you’re really proud of something, it’s hard to not get emotional. I want you guys to understand, you just beat three top-(10) teams in eight days. It’s never been done before, it’s never been done at Nebraska, and it’s unbelievable.”
And then, of course, there's the scene from when the Huskers beat Kentucky to advance to the Final Four.
“I’ll tell you what, I don’t know if I’ve ever had so much fun coaching,” said the three-time national champion coach. “So let’s go to Kansas City.”
Yes, one of the most fun, emotional, rewarding rides of Cook’s 25 years as a college head coach has arrived here for another Final Four.
Most coaches will go a lifetime and never get to coach in the Final Four. Cook is here for the eighth time in 18 seasons as Nebraska’s head coach.
Cook told the players after they won the Big Ten that he really wanted this for them, and they deserved it. A team that had two big question marks to start the season, at outside hitter and right-side hitter, and minor question marks at one of the middle blocker spots and libero, had won a championship in the conference where it may be the toughest to do so.
After it was over Cook could exhale, and what came out in his speech to the fans was one of the rawest forms of pride a leader could have in a group.
“On the first day in August when we started, (the players) presented to us a skit, to the coaches, and what came out of that was, why not us, and with each other, for each other, and you just saw a team embrace that and do it,” said Cook, his voice cracking as he said those last few words.
He looked proudly at his players, who then engulfed Cook in a hug.
So what is it in those moments that prompts the release of emotions? Cook explained this week.
“It’s just the connection that we have with them, and the relationships that we have as a team, and as a group,” he said.
Cook doesn’t know if this season is the best job he’s ever done as a coach. But he’s certain of one thing about this season.
“It’s been one of the most enjoyable years because of the dynamics of the whole group and the relationships and what they’ve put into this, and really what’s in their hearts and how hard they’ve played and what they’ve given to each other. That part of it is what taps into the emotional part,” Cook said.
Cook loves coaching during seasons like this.
“Because there was such a big challenge, and a new staff and a new team, and it’s an adventure,” he said. “And I think nobody knew what to expect. Pat Riley calls it the innocent climb. You got this new team, and where are we going to go? Where last year it was, basically it came down to could we repeat and win another national championship. That was the whole season. Those seasons are fun, but they’re not as energizing as a season like this.”
But Cook wasn’t feeling like that five months ago. He was exhausted.
In the offseason he had to replace both of the full-time assistant coaches. The program had been running smoothly with veteran assistants Dani Busboom Kelly and Chris Tamas, but now Cook had to work harder than he ever had.
But the old middle school geography teacher loves to teach. He’s got to do a lot of that this season, both with new players and a new staff, and it has energized him.
It’s kind of weird when you see your coach get emotional, Kelly Hunter said. It's like seeing your dad cry.
“You don’t really see your dad cry, you know,” Hunter said. “It’s like that one time it actually happens you’re like, ‘uh,’ and a little shocked.”
But when Cook shows how he’s feeling, it makes you feel good, Holman said, because you know the hard work was worth it and you’ve made your coach proud.
“I think that this team, we started off a little rough with our season, and we started off a little rough with our team and we were kind of working with some in-house things that I’m not going to talk about,” Holman said. “But just seeing where we’ve come from, and the growth that we’ve had over these last few months, I think it’s really important to him, and him seeing our growth really means a lot to him.”
Cook will go into the American Volleyball Coaches Hall of Fame this week during a banquet at the Final Four. He’s won 12 conference championships in 18 years at Nebraska. Since coming back to Nebraska as head coach in 2000, Nebraska has won a remarkable 88 percent of its matches (529-69).
He isn’t ready to say if this is one of his best coaching jobs, but Busboom Kelly says it has to be near the top. She’s followed from a distance from Louisville, where the ex-Husker is the head coach, and watched the Huskers in person last week.
“You’d be crazy to think it’s not a good job,” Busboom Kelly said. “I just think whenever you have a big turnover there is going to be questions and three huge roles to fill, and so you might not get the exact offensive numbers you got from (Kadie and Amber Rolfzen), or Kenzie Maloney is not going to be exactly like Justine (Wong-Orantes).
“But just the fact that the entire team stepped up and bought in from Day One I think is pretty impressive. And then when you see a freshman (Jazz Sweet) on the court that’s doing very well statistically, and looks comfortable, that’s a big testament to the staff and the current players.”
Some things have never changed about Cook since she played at Nebraska, Busboom Kelly said. He’s always trying to learn how he can coach better, and has high expectations for himself and the rest of the team.
But he’s changed in other ways. He’s softer than when she played, Busboom Kelly said. He makes an effort to make positive connections with the players. Maybe it’s a fist bump after a good play at practice, or slapping hands with a player during a match, even after they’ve just missed a serve, or an invitation to meet him for lunch.
“I think those who have watched John through his career, the way he does approach mistakes by the team has definitely changed,” Busboom Kelly said. “He’s got great body language and he’s been very consistent, and that’s one thing I’ve noticed the last few years is the players aren’t playing with fear. And not that they were before, but you definitely don’t see that anymore.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the program wasn’t meeting its very high standards. The Huskers lost in the Elite Eight three straight seasons from 2012-14, before the current run of Final Fours.
He hasn't made any drastic changes to the program, Cook said. Some years it just depends how the tournament bracket lines up, he said.
Then Cook remembered one change, which may not seem like much, or it may be a sign of how Cook has developed a program where players are comfortable making suggestions.
Cook used to stand more during the matches, but a few years ago he hurt his back one week and sat most of the match. Hunter told Cook that she liked it when he sat down.
“She said, ‘I think we play better,’” Cook said. “So I started sitting down the rest of the time, and we won (28) straight matches.
“But that’s the sign of a great coach-setter relationship, and somebody that’s being a leader and saying, ‘Coach, you may not like this, but sit down.’ It’s basically what she told me. So I’ve just done that.”