Earlier this month when the news came out that Darin Erstad had resigned as Nebraska baseball coach, Husker volleyball coach John Cook was shocked.
But Cook also understood the reasons, with Erstad wanting to spend more time with his family, including three young children.
It’s a challenging spot that many coaches — and parents in other professions as well -- feel while trying to balance a job and a family, especially college head coaches who are often busy recruiting and managing players.
Cook used to live near Erstad and saw how busy Erstad’s kids were playing hockey and baseball.
“I can tell you this, I’m sure that was a hard decision to walk away,” Cook said. “Most people don’t understand the emotional connection you have coaching a team and going through all of that. You get a deep bond with those student-athletes.”
While Cook’s children, Lauren and Taylor, are adults now, for many of the years Cook was a head coach they were involved with their own activities, including volleyball and baseball.
“You miss a lot,” Cook said. “What was lucky for me was that Lauren was a volleyball player, and I was recruiting a lot of the same places she was playing, so that worked out pretty well for me.”
Lauren Cook played in high school at Lincoln Pius X. And after beginning her college volleyball career at UCLA, she transferred and played for Nebraska from 2010 to ’12.
It was more of a challenge to be at Taylor’s activities. Taylor played football at Lincoln Pius X, and Cook rarely got to see his games because volleyball matches were on the same days.
But in 2012, Nebraska changed the schedule for a home tournament so the Huskers played the afternoon match. That allowed Cook to go and watch Taylor play a game at Omaha Northwest that evening. Not only did then-athletic director Tom Osborne support the change, he encouraged it.
It was during the season when it was most difficult being a parent and coach, Cook said.
“I think that’s the hardest time for me,” he said. “Otherwise you can work your schedule around and be creative, especially in recruiting, and stuff like that.”
During the 2015 season, Cook missed a match at Iowa State to be with his sister in California as she battled an illness.
Early in his career Cook coached with the United States men’s national team — and he probably could have done so again later in his career — but being a college coach has a less demanding travel schedule.
“I used to coach with USA men and the reason I got out of it was the travel was so much,” Cook said. “Like what Karch (Kiraly) and the USA team is doing right now, they’re literally on the road for five weeks all over the world. I was doing that, and we were a year-round training program.
“I loved it because when you coach at that level you’re coaching the best, and the only thing that matters is winning. There really is nothing else. There is no recruiting, there is no NCAA tests. It’s just about if you can win tournaments and win medals, and that’s it. But I got out of that because the travel is so much; I thought there is no way I can raise a family doing this.”
Cook said it helps him that his family is around the program. His wife, Wendy, was a college volleyball player. She hosts meals for the players and attends the matches. Taylor lives in Boise, Idaho, now but regularly attended home matches and the NCAA Final Four when he lived in Lincoln.
For the past two years, Lauren Cook has been on the radio broadcast for Nebraska volleyball matches, and she also helps coach at Nebraska volleyball camps during the summer.
— Lauren West (@lo_westy) November 26, 2016
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When Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams heard the news about Erstad, she felt sad for the athletic department, but happy for Erstad that he would have more time with his family.
Williams and her husband, Lloyd, have two children. Kennadi will be an eighth grader and Bentli is in the fourth grade.
Williams reminds herself to be focused on her family when she is home.
“It’s easy to get sucked into this world where your job can completely consume you,” Williams said. “For me the thing that has been a challenge is that when I am present with my family to be able to put the phone down and occasionally be OK with the fact that I might miss that underclassman (recruit) that’s calling one time.”
It’s when Williams talks about Lloyd, and how she can make it all work because of him, that her tone is different, with a mix of pride and gratitude. He also used to be a college coach, and played in college at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Now his job is to help run the basketball facility at Speedway Village in Lincoln, which allows him to have a flexible schedule the family needs at certain times of the year.
“When you’re a parent and you have as much responsibility as you have in this position in the coaching profession, there’s a lot of guilt that is involved in that,” Williams said. “And that may be just me. I don’t know that everybody feels that way. But I find myself at times feeling guilty about some of the time that I have to miss events or whatever. And when I was recruiting and my 9-year-old scored two soccer goals, and she hadn’t scored a goal all year long, and she’s like, ‘Mom, you missed it.’
“When you feel that, it’s just the most comforting thing for me to know that one of us is there, and if I can’t be there to pick them up from school, that he (Lloyd) can. Or if I can’t be there to watch Kennadi play, that he’s going to be standing right there watching her and supporting her. There is a tag team, and it eases any of that guilt that I feel knowing that sometimes they’re getting quality dad time, and they need that as well. And then I step in when it’s not the busy time.”
— Amy Williams (@gussowilliams5) September 16, 2018
There are also times when Williams knows that her job gives her more flexibility than other parents have.
“For me, mornings are my time with my girls,” Williams said. “I know I’m not always going to be there to pick them up after school, and we don’t get to have every dinner at the table together as a family. But every morning I get them up and help fix hair before school, and I drive them to school. Unless I’m out of town, that’s my time. There are a lot of parents who have to be in the office at 8 a.m. and clock in, and the fact that I can drop my kids off at school and I can run an errand or two and come to the office, there is some flexibility.”
And sometimes when Williams is evaluating a recruit in the area, her daughters get to ride along. Bentli even likes to coordinate her outfit with the school colors for the player they’re watching. Her daughters are also at practice a lot, which Williams thinks is good for both her family and the players.
“Usually Kennadi has got a ball in her hands and she’s working on her game, and Bentli is usually using our foam rollers to build towers and castles and things,” Williams said.
“I just think it’s really important for me that they have a presence in my program. It allows for me to be able to share that with them, but it’s good for my daughters to have the young women be role models to them. But also it’s really good for our players to be able to see that side of me and to be able to see that you can be a leader and do your job, and you can still be a mom.”
My 8-year old’s practice plan! Looks pretty good to me Bentli! Except...where’s the defense???? pic.twitter.com/DwdCFJKLfZ— Amy Williams (@gussowilliams5) October 18, 2018
Both daughters attended basketball camps at Nebraska this summer, and Bentli even won one of the shooting contests.
Williams’ family also travels with the team to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. And Williams takes her daughters to the NCAA Final Four each year. She attends the coaches’ convention during the day, and then spends time with her family in the evening.
“When (Kennadi) was a fourth grader, we came home from the Final Four and she wrote an essay in class and it said, ‘My mom and dad both played in the NCAA Tournament, but I’m going to win it,'” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Dream big, sister.’ I like it.”