This time one year ago, John Cook, Dani Busboom Kelly and Chris Tamas were each in Cook’s office coming up with a plan to guide the Nebraska volleyball team through the NCAA Tournament.
The coaching trio coached the Huskers to the national championship in 2015, and got the Huskers back to the Final Four in 2016.
Now each is the head coach for different teams playing in the NCAA Tournament. Cook is in his 18th season at Nebraska. For Busboom Kelly and Tamas, their success at Nebraska, and previous experiences, allowed them to get jobs that most first-time head coaches would envy.
Busboom Kelly is the head coach at Louisville, returning to the school where she left a good impression while she was an assistant coach there. Louisville will play Northern Iowa in the first round Friday in Minneapolis.
Tamas is the head coach at Illinois, stepping into another good program in the Big Ten Conference where the previous coach had not been fired, but had left to take one of the best jobs in the country at Stanford.
Illinois got back to the NCAA Tournament after not making it last year. Illinois will play Hawaii on Friday in Seattle. Illinois and Louisville are each just out of the top-25 rankings.
Louisville (24-6) was a co-champion in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That came after the team was picked to finish eighth in the league in the preseason poll.
“It’s awesome," Busboom Kelly said. "Our players are super-proud, and the staff is proud that we were able to move up eight spots throughout the year.”
Busboom Kelly said she's having a blast being a head coach.
“I’m having more fun than I probably thought I would be being a head coach, just getting to write practice plans, and communicate with the team and our staff is awesome," she said.
Busboom Kelly hired Dan Meske, another former Husker assistant who had gone to be head coach at Augustana, as the associate head coach at Louisville. She knew right away when she took the job that she would try and hire Meske.
“We balance each other out as far as strengths and weaknesses,” Busboom Kelly said. “So he runs the defense here, and I do most of the offense. I knew that he was great at the defensive part of the game, and I knew that was a huge part of the success that Nebraska teams have is just being a great defensive team, so it was really important for me to find somebody that I was comfortable with and knew would be really good at that. We led the ACC in opponent attack percentage, and that was a goal we set, so he’s earning his keep.”
Both Busboom Kelly and Tamas have talked with Cook on occasion during the season.
Busboom Kelly’s parents, Gene and Bonnie, live in Cortland, and have attended about six Louisville matches this season.
“It’s funny because my dad is a farmer, so it rained one weekend when they were supposed to be harvesting and they decided to get in the car and drive out here because of the rain,” Busboom Kelly said. “They’re definitely big supporters.”
Illinois (21-10) tied for fifth place in the Big Ten Conference, after being picked to finish ninth. Tamas knew more about his new team than most new coaches do.
“I think that’s why I had a little bit of an advantage is when I was scouting for Nebraska last year we followed Illinois, so I literally watched every match they played,” Tamas said. “So I had a pretty good idea of what needed to be changed. There wasn’t a ton that needed to be changed, but I thought there were a few key things, mainly passing technique, to kind of their floor defense, that I thought could have picked up. That’s pretty much all we did for the spring. We just passed and played defense. We have a very good setter in Jordyn Poulter, and when you can pass and give her the opportunity to distribute the ball, you’re going to be in good shape offensively."
If Nebraska wins its first three matches in the tournament the Huskers could play against Kentucky, which is coached by former Husker assistant Craig Skinner. Seven assistants under Cook at Nebraska have gone on to be head coaches.