Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook is guided in part by a saying: "The longer I coach, the less I know."
During the past few seasons, the 16th-year NU head coach has emphasized learning more about himself in his profession. He wanted to address his shortcomings. Don't underestimate Cook's desire to improve, and the lengths he's gone to do it, as a leading reason the fifth-ranked Huskers reached this week's NCAA Final Four.
Excellent leadership involves both art and science. Cook long has had the science part down. You know, the technical side of the sport, the physical training, the tactical elements.
"He's a master of analytics," said Jack Riggins, a Navy SEAL commander who along with sports psychologist Larry Widman has logged an untold amount of volunteer hours during the past three years in consulting roles for Cook and his players — at Cook's urging.
Cook hasn't always been deft when it comes to the art element behind good leadership — which involves an intuitive feel for what players might need emotionally and mentally.
"Oh, Jack, you're not going to give me that Phil Jackson crap," Cook often would say to Riggins, referring to the NBA coaching legend known as the "Zen master."
Cook, though, knew he needed upgrades in that area. Widman espouses the notion that players don't care how much their coach knows until they know how much he/she cares.
"It's not that John wasn't caring," Widman said. "He just wasn't always as caring as he should've been."
Cook listened intently to his mentors. The world evolves, and Cook said he needed to evolve along with it. Good for him. He's in his 50s. He's guided two national championship teams (2000 and '06) and six Final Four squads. He could have decided he had all the answers. The fact he wants to keep learning indicates not only a high level of competitiveness, but passion for putting his players in the best-possible positions to succeed at a championship level.
"When you talk about evolving, I think student-athletes 15 years ago, even 10 years ago, were much different to coach than they are now," he said. "I don't think we've lowered our expectations as a program, but I've had to adapt in many, many ways."
Widman thinks athletes of today often have a greater sense of entitlement and are less resilient than in decades past. He cites factors such as a breakdown in the family structure and players being burned out from too much specialization in one sport.
Said Cook: "The big thing is, I listen to my players better and I surrounded myself with a team within a team."
He mentioned Riggins, Widman, Husker director of operations Lindsay Peterson and athletic department psychologist Brett Haskell.
"I bounce things off of them and I ask about situations — how I could've done it better," Cook said. "I actually have them observe me during games."
Riggins and Widman analyze Cook's body language. They watch his demeanor in the huddle. They also scrutinize the huddles. Like poker players, they look for "tells," or signs of trouble. Riggins has a photo of a Nebraska huddle last season in which the circle was too wide, with noticeable gaps separating individuals. NU was trailing at the time — and it's evident with one glance at the photo.
In times of adversity, that circle actually should tighten, Widman said.
Cook, in his extensive dealings with Riggins and Widman, has learned the value of cultivating trust throughout the program. Of building relationships. Of open and honest communication.
It all sounds so logical. But think about life. Think about how often communication breakdowns lead to problems that never would've occurred had there been open and honest dialogue.
"Some of the feedback I got in the past was our girls maybe were not getting all they needed from me and my coaching staff," Cook said.
He hasn't become softer in his approach. In fact, he bristles at the suggestion. However, he said, he has become more open-minded.
"Every player is wired a little differently, and we have to figure out how to connect," he said.
Cook is old-school at his core. He relates well to a bygone era when it was incumbent upon players to adapt to what coaches wanted. It was a one-sided discussion.
"Now, we as coaches have to be more adaptable to what players need," he said.
Yes, Cook said, it was a challenge to adapt. He acknowledges he made mistakes and "learned some hard lessons" along the way.
"As I look back, I would love to do it all over again, because I think I'm a lot wiser now," he said. "I would love to write a book about the experiences — a coaching book."
He envisions chapters that address ways he could have motivated certain players differently. Of course, it's easy for all of us, regardless of occupation, to second-guess ourselves. We all make enough mistakes to fill a book. If only there was time to write it all down ...
"I'll do it when I retire," Cook said.
Until then, he'll keep learning. And, yes, winning.