The John Cook coaching tree has never looked this good, and that’s a source of pride for a coach who cares about winning, but also improving college volleyball and the people in it.
The Nebraska head coach is in his 26th season as a college head coach, and at least eight coaches who have been assistants for Cook at Nebraska or Wisconsin have gone on to be NCAA Division I head coaches.
But last year was really something special, when Cook faced off against former assistants Chris Tamas and Craig Skinner during two of the biggest matches of the season in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 and Final Four.
Here is how the three weeks of the NCAA Tournament in 2018 looked for the John Cook coaching tree:
* In the second round of the NCAA Tournament Louisville played Illinois, with each team coached by the two assistant coaches from the Huskers’ 2015 national championship team. Dani Busboom Kelly, a former Nebraska player and assistant coach, is the head coach at Louisville, and Tamas the head coach at Illinois.
* In the NCAA Sweet 16 Nebraska played Kentucky, which was coached by another star of the Cook coaching tree in Skinner. Skinner was an assistant coach at Nebraska from 2000-04 including on the Huskers’ undefeated national championship team in 2000. Now he’s turned Kentucky into a winner, including winning the past two SEC championships.
* Then at the Final Four in Minneapolis, Nebraska played Illinois. In just his second season at Illinois, Tamas helped the Illini reach the national semifinals, and the Illini were a 2-0 run at the end of the third set away from beating Nebraska. Instead, Nebraska rallied to win in five sets to reach the championship match.
Leading up to those matches, Cook doesn’t think much about how he’s coaching against a former colleague, just like he didn’t think about it much when he coached against his mentor, Terry Pettit, when Cook was the head coach at Wisconsin.
But when there is time to reflect, Cook takes pride in seeing assistant coaches go on and elevate the sport at other schools.
“There’s pride in that, but it’s pride for our program,” Cook said. “We want to be a role model for volleyball in this country, and I think we have been with hosting Final Fours, with selling out Devaney. We want to be a program everybody is looking up to, and I think that’s another aspect of it.
“I want coaches to come here because they know that this is going to prepare them to go be head coaches. That’s probably why I’ll never have coaches that are here for 15 years as assistants.”
Another star of the coaching tree is Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. She was teaching and coaching at Millard North when Cook hired her to be one of his assistants at Wisconsin. At Iowa State, she’s taken the Cyclones to the NCAA Tournament in 12 of 14 seasons, including the Elite Eight twice. And Iowa State won a regular-season match against a top-five ranked Nebraska team in 2009.
Another one of Cook’s assistants at Wisconsin, Kathy Litzau, was the head coach at Milwaukee until 2007, including for six teams that made the NCAA Tournament.
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But a few years ago the Cook coaching tree didn’t look very good. Lee Maes resigned after four years as head coach at Virginia, and Lizzy Stemke resigned after six years as head coach at Georgia.
Each of the coaches deserves the credit for being a quality candidate to be a head coach, and not just their connection to Cook. Busboom Kelly had previously been an assistant at Louisville, and then returned as head coach after four years at Nebraska.
But Tamas’ story shows what being an assistant at Nebraska can do for a coach's career. After two years at Nebraska in 2015 and 2016 as the Huskers’ defensive coordinator on teams that won a Big Ten title and national championship, Tamas got a lucrative job at Illinois, especially for a first-time head coach.
Illinois had been to the Final Four before, and was committed to getting back. They gave Tamas a five-year contract starting at $300,000 per year, which was $100,000 more than previous Illinois coach Kevin Hambly earned, according to the Daily Illini.
When Cook hires assistants, he asks for them to commit to three years, but he gave Tamas his blessing to leave after two years because good jobs in the Big Ten don’t come open very often.
“When the Illinois AD called, I said, ‘Hey, if you’re just interviewing and trying to find people, don’t waste our time because he owes me another year, but if you’re serious ...'" Cook said. “He goes, ‘No, we want Chris.’ And he was on a private jet and it was done I think in like two hours. I think good athletic directors are following what’s going on in the sport and they know who they’re going to go after.”
Many of Cook’s former players are coaches at all levels, from high school to their kids’ teams.
Angie Oxley is an assistant at Creighton. Sara Westling is the head coach at Iowa Central Community College. Paige Hubl is the head coach at Lincoln Southeast. Kori Cooper is a director for a volleyball club in Texas.
Alicia Ostrander is a volunteer assistant at Omaha. Maggie Griffin runs a large youth club in Lincoln. Hannah Werth has been a college and club coach. And many more.
“That’s my pride and joy right there is how many players want to stay involved,” Cook said.
The players get pushed hard at Nebraska and have a lot of pressure, Cook said. But if the players stay in the sport after college, Cook says that shows they’ve had a good experience.
“We’re developing people, and I think that’s the mission of the university,” Cook said.