John Cook was a successful beach volleyball player before becoming a coach.
By Randy York
Having won more than 93 percent of his matches and two national championships since taking Nebraska’s volleyball reigns from Terry Pettit 12 years ago, John Cook’s player resume gets lost in the avalanche of his coaching accomplishments. You won’t find it in his bio, but he was quite a volleyball player himself back in the mid-1980s in his home town of San Diego.
When the University of San Diego made the decision to move from Division II to Division I in basketball before his junior season, Cook, who was on an athletic scholarship, was the first to realize that he was not a Division I type of forward. So he moved on, concentrating on becoming a teacher and a coach, not to mention a serious volleyball player at South Mission Beach.
“I really enjoyed playing beach volleyball,” Cook said Tuesday. “I played with my brother and within two years, we got our Triple-A rating, which is a big deal in that sport.“ The Cook brothers finished in the Top 10 Open Division on the California beach, but unlike today’s players, their only rewards were shirts and restaurant certificates instead of a healthy stash of cash. Ask Cook’s wife, Wendy, a two-time All-America setter at San Diego State, what competitive volleyball was like before television changed the paradigm. Wendy and Cook’s brother, for instance, won a mixed doubles beach tournament in the early 1990s, and their prize was a windsurfer, not exactly something that helps with the groceries.
Cook’s crowning achievement as a beach player was winning the Open Division in the 1986 MotherLode Volleyball Tournament, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive beach double’s event in the country. His partner was Gary Stephenson, an attorney who can vouch for John Cook knowing men’s volleyball almost as well as he knows women’s volleyball.
Is the College Game Trending to Men’s Style?
And that gets me to the point of this blog. Cook had an interesting observation in his postgame radio show with John Baylor following Sunday’s 4-set win over a Top 10 Minnesota team that has enough talent not only to reach the NCAA Final Four, but to win the national championship.
“Minnesota’s a great team. They bring it, man,” Cook said. “They put on a clinic, especially in that first game. They were banging jump serves. They bring heat. There were dynamic big plays out there by both teams. Big stuff blocks. This is where volleyball is going. It’s becoming more like men’s volleyball.
“You don’t see a lot of rallies in men’s volleyball, but you see a lot of great hits,” Cook said. “It’s hard. Those Minnesota hitters are good. They’re really good. You just have to hold them. You have to get ‘em out of system and then make ‘em pay.”
Baylor had an apt description for what he saw. “More rockets and shorter rallies,” he said.
“They were bombing balls and we call them bounce blocks because balls were getting bounced all over the gym,” Cook said. “I mean, we had 49 digs in four games. This isn’t rally volleyball. This is more like pass, set, smack it and block it. I wish we could play these guys every night.”
In the House: Karch and Coach McCutcheon
Cook thinks the bombs that made the Coliseum shake were part of the atmosphere and, perhaps, might have had something to do with a couple international names inside the building. “The place just had the feel of a huge match. It was a big-time environment, and our crowd was really into it,” Cook said. “Karch Kiraly was in the house. So was Hugh McCutcheon. You could just feel something special was going to happen, and it did.”
Kiraly has been called “the finest volleyball player in the world for the last century” and is the only person to have Olympic gold medals in both the indoor and the beach versions of the sport. He was at the Coliseum to announce the Nebraska-Minnesota match for ESPN2. McCutcheon, a native of New Zealand, is Minnesota’s head volleyball coach. He was also the head coach for the USA Olympic Men’s Team that defeated Brazil for the gold medal in 2008 in Beijing. This past summer, McCutcheon was Jordan Larson’s Olympic head coach, guiding the USA to a silver medal finish in London.
Kiraly, McCutcheon and Cook all know, love and embrace men’s volleyball. They also all know, love and embrace women’s volleyball.
Cook’s team plays four consecutive Sunday matches in the Big Ten Conference. He doesn’t like a college team literally having no days off during the week, but he lives with it and can’t resist making a comment about why the NCAA needs to move volleyball from a fall sport to a spring sport. Meanwhile, he’ll roll with the punches and have as much fun as he can in the process.
Cook: RPI the Only Thing that Truly Matters
Imagine sweeping two Big Ten teams, including one in the Top Ten, and then dropping from third to fourth in the latest AVCA national ratings. No big deal there for Cook. “National rankings don’t determine seeds in the NCAA Tournament,” he pointed out. “The only thing that matters is the RPI.”
What about Kiraly’s voice and ESPN’s telecast going cutting off in the fourth and decisive set of Sunday afternoon’s match against the Gophers?
“Here’s a little history lesson,” Cook said. “When I was a younger, there was a football game (Oakland Raiders/New York Jets) called the Heidi Bowl, and the network kicked it off right at the end of the game to go to the movie Heidi. I think a lot of people were comparing our game to the Heidi Bowl. I guess there were a lot of calls to find out who won.”
Somehow, listening to a mischievously smiling Cook, you sense that he does not necessarily buy into technical difficulties being the problem … unless, of course, you’re referring to all the bombs and the rockets that were going off all over the Coliseum.
Follow the Action on Husker Sports Network
Make sure you catch Nebraska’s 7 p.m. Wednesday night match at Iowa on the Husker Sports Radio Network. Sunday’s 2 p.m. match at Illinois is set for the same ESPN2 channel that switched to a hockey game before Nebraska’s fourth set against Minnesota. If you tune in to the Husker Sports Network, you’ll be every bit as prepared as a Boy Scout. Make sure that John Baylor and Lindsay Peterson are dialed up on the road-game radio. Their four eyes help you see things you don’t see even when you’re watching volleyball on television. Join the club, which includes Diane Mendenhall paired with Baylor for Husker home games. If you do, your volleyball IQ can’t help but go up every match of the season.
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