Which Big Ten school has won the most recent NCAA National Championship?
Lolololol, I kid. C'mon.
It's Nebraska*. The Nebraska women's volleyball team, to be exact, which won the school's fourth volleyball National Championship in Omaha on December 19, 2015 in front of an NCAA-record 17,561 fans. They beat much-hated Texas in straight sets, and yes, that made an already wonderful achievement even more enjoyable for Husker fans.
Though Penn State is rightly known as THE traditional volleyball power of the Big Ten, a conference that frankly has an embarrassment of riches in the sport, Nebraska was a power in the Big 12 and started making waves in the Big Ten the moment it joined, winning the conference on its very first try. That's some athletic chutzpah, and some darn good volleyball to boot.
Yet unlike other coaches in the Big Ten who have won multiple National Championships or who have become household names through their odd and sometimes unsettling behavior, John Cook is far from a household name.
Here's who Google thinks you mean if you google "John Cook":
The golfer John Cook in the lower right stole Pat Sajak's hair, and it's creeping me out a little bit.
Wait a second...
None of these are in the least correct. This is the John Cook in question:
John Cook, head coach of the Nebraska Cornhusker volleyball team for sixteen years, presents a public persona of great solemnity and gravitas. This is not a man who will ever enter a stadium while dangling a cat above his head. In fact, it is rare to see Cook publicly crack a smile, even with all of the success of his teams. He has the aura of a man completely, intensely focused at all times. He also has the aura of a man on whose bad side you certainly would not want to be on. Cook is lucky, because in a non-revenue sport, it's ok for a coach to have this personality, rather than be forced to kowtow to pressure to be Jim Harbaugh or Coach
Hype Franklin. But Nebraska is even luckier, because Cook's laser-like focus has secured Nebraska's volleyball program juggernaut status.
Cook's road to Nebraska began as not many roads to Nebraska begin--in California. Earning his bachelor's degree in history (which guarantees you to be an awesome person, by the way) from the University of San Diego, his early coaching experience took place in the same city at, among other volleyball-related ventures, UCSD. Then, in a foreshadowing of what was to come, he spent 1989-1991 as an assistant coach to Nebraska's legendary volleyball coach, Terry Pettit--the man who led the Huskers to their first volleyball National Championship in 1995. Cook's apprenticeship under Pettit earned him his first trip to the Big Ten--as head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team. Cook's success in Madison paved the way for his return to Nebraska, and he took over the head coaching job in Lincoln in 2000.
Starting off his Husker career by setting the highest possible bar, Cook's team concluded his first season at Nebraska with a 34-0 record and the NCAA National Championship. Although Nebraska has not, as yet, had another undefeated season in his tenure, it has added two more National Championships, and compiled a slew of other unbelievable streaks and numbers:
- A 631-62 overall record. For those who don't wish to do the math, that is an average of fewer than four losses per season, which is saying something in a 30+ match season.
- Fifteen Sweet 16 appearances in his 16 seasons at Nebraska
- Six Final Four appearances
- Four Finals appearances (with three national championships, this means that if Nebraska makes a Final , it's a smart bet to take them winning it all)
- 14 Top Ten final rankings in 16 seasons
Along with his predecessor, Cook and his teams have succeeded in making Nebraska truly a "volleyball school" with sellout crowds since 2001, even as arena capacity nearly doubled in size with the move from the Colosseum to the Bob Devaney Sports Center. Attendance figures for home matches are far above others across the country, and the top five largest crowds in NCAA volleyball history have all involved the Huskers.
In fact, although volleyball is considered a "non-revenue sport" generally, as is every sport that is not football and men's basketball, this is, in fact, a misnomer for the Huskers. The volleyball team is so popular that it has actually begun to turn a profit, bringing in a half a million dollar profit in 2014. Not only is it exceptionally rare for a non-football, non-men's basketball team to turn a profit, it is rarer still for a women's sports team to draw requisite numbers to be self-supporting. The Husker volleyball team's financial viability is perhaps wholly unique in college sports.
So, what's the outlook for Coach Cook and the Huskers in 2016? As we all know, Husker fans are extremely realistic and always able to develop and sustain reasonable, realistic goals for their sports teams...
Or, uh, not.
But things certainly look good for the Huskers this fall. The defending champs are still a young team, despite losing four seniors off of last year's squad. But the bulk of the talent is back, they are well-used to playing with each other, and they know exactly how very high their ceiling is. The trick will be to help them manage expectations and the attendant pressure that comes with on-paper prognostications bred by incredible success.
Luckily, in addition to their own considerable talents, they have Coach Cook, his experience, and his characteristic laser focus to help them in the quest to repeat.
*Apparently, some late-March winnings invalidate this statement. Whatever, it's still not Rutgers.