Thunderous applause and a standing ovation greeted Husker volleyball coach John Cook as he entered the Fox Theater on Monday night.
The four-time national champion was brought to North Platte by the North Platte Area Sports Commission to provide a night of inspiration, motivation and fun for those in attendance.
Cook told the audience — that filled almost all of the red-upholstered chairs in the building — many stories about Husker volleyball that carried life lessons and teaching tools.
“Sixty percent of our rosters in the last 18 years, a mother or father has been a teacher or coach of all of our players,” he said. “I just met several coaches here tonight and I can see the passion on their faces working with the young kids, working with the high school kids. They’re doing that because they love and they care about those kids and want to make a difference.”
He explained how that investment and subsequent ingrainment of work ethic and heart is at the root of success and determines the future of a program.
That work ethic and heart, he said, were key to building the juggernaut that was the 2017 team, a team that many saw as one of the weakest in recent memory.
Cook flashed the audience back to a night a year ago where he was forecasting the season ahead and not reaching many favorable outcomes.
“I’m thinking, I’ve got two coaches I barely know, neither one of them have any women’s experience coaching. My director of operations isn’t here. And I’m like, ‘Okay. This is going to be the nightmare year of all years,’” he said. “In addition to that, in late July when I’m on vacation, I get a call from my trainer who says ‘Hey, Kelly Hunter is going to get surgery on her shoulder.’ Now this is the nightmare of all years.”
That nightmare quickly turned into Cook’s wildest dream as his team navigated a schedule full of top-10 matchups to finish with a 32-4 record, a Big Ten conference title and a national title.
Any mention of that team and the crowd erupted with cheers and “Go Big Red” chants.
Cook spoke of a togetherness the 2017 team exhibited that was unlike that of any other team he’d coached.
On the first day of official practices in August, he came to the facilities and, with the other coaches, was redirected to the film room. There they waited until the whole team entered with music and videos and performed a skit incorporating all the members.
“It was one of the coolest and most powerful things I have ever seen a team do. And after that skit, I knew this team had a chance to be special,” he said.
He also talked about how the team came in ready to work before that point and had devoted themselves to the “mother of all summers,” working out, practicing and studying to become a team capable of high-level success.
That mentality of “champions are born in the summer” was oft-repeated by Cook who emphasized to the audience that the key to winning championships is to train like champions.
Throughout the rest of his time, Cook gave more practical examples of the ways coaches can better their players in today’s society. Such ideas included confiscating players cell phones on trips, becoming more hands on when teaching and overall just adapting as a teacher to the needs of the students.
At one point during the night, Cook singled out one member of the audience and asked her questions periodically throughout about how she would best prepare to win a championship, her previous experiences with teams and coaches, and other questions along those lines.
At the end of the night, he rewarded her participation with the promise of two tickets to any future Husker volleyball game.
The crowd reacted accordingly.
The two-time American Volleyball Coaches Association National Coach of the Year ended the night by using the analogy of a plane making a crosswind landing. After all, Cook has his pilot’s license.
As it is for both the occupants of a plane forced to attempt a crosswind landing and a college volleyball team, trust is non-negotiable.
“Trust the coaches. Trust the game plan. Trust your training,” he said.
As he prepared to exit the stage, the crowd rose once more, cheering in response to the lessons and spirit the AVCA Hall of Famer brought, a fitting bookend to Cook’s evening in North Platte.