Growing up in San Diego, Cook acquired his coaching philosophy from his experiences first as a football coach, then as a student of the sport of volleyball on the beaches of Southern California. After a stint as an assistant volleyball coach at Nebraska, he returned to Nebraska as head coach in 2000 and won the national championship in his first season. Even with a bar set so high, Cook saw at Nebraska’s tradition-rich program the potential for even greater growth and success. He decided to focus on higher expectations, training, motivation, goal setting, and other ways to build the strongest teams possible.
In Dream Like a Champion Cook shares the philosophy behind Nebraska’s culture of success and reveals how he’s had to learn, evolve, and be coached himself, even in his fifth decade as a coach. With openness and candor he delivers insights about his methods and passes along lessons that can be used by leaders in any field. Cook also shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes about Nebraska volleyball moments and players—and how he coaches and teaches his players about life beyond the court.
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About the Author
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Learning to Lead
"The game is over-coached and under-taught."
— Pete Newell, Hall of Fame basketball coach
I always knew I wanted to help mentor and lead young people, but I never planned for it to be as a volleyball coach. That was more the result of timing and circumstance. Life has a way of rewarding you if you are receptive to the opportunities it presents. Especially if they are not the opportunities you are necessarily expecting.
When I first became a volleyball coach in 1982, I had to go to the library and look for a book on the sport just to understand the indoor game. By then I was a football coach who had played a few summers of beach volleyball, and a football coach is what I thought I would continue to be. The football mentality meshed well with my upbringing.
I grew up south of San Diego in Chula Vista, California. My mother, Bobby Jo, had me when she was seventeen years old and still a junior in high school. My father, Chris, was eighteen and a senior. We lived on a nine-acre lemon ranch.
It was a five-acre lemon ranch when my great-grandparents, Maxwell and Hazel Goes Cook, homesteaded there in 1911. My great-grandmother was an amazing woman; she graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1906, just twenty-one years after it had opened. Most men did not have the opportunity to attend college in those years, much less women.
After getting married, Maxwell and Hazel were living in Chicago when Maxwell contracted scarlet fever. There were no antibiotics then, so a doctor told them the best treatment would be to move to a place with better air quality. Many places would have offered better air than the stockyard stench of Chicago, but they picked the place that was perhaps the total opposite: San Diego. They purchased five acres at $25.00 per acre and built a house overlooking the ocean.
Chula Vista had just been incorporated as a town then, but it was already known as the "Lemon Capital of the World." My grandparents started planting lemon trees and adding acres; in the years to come the ranch grew to include fifty-five acres and more than fourteen hundred lemon trees. Hazel became a community leader almost immediately. She is credited with helping create school lunch programs in California. During the Great Depression many families struggled to have enough food, so my great-grandmother and her friends would make soup, load it into a Ford Model A, and drive it to nearby schools. She went on to serve on the school board for fifty years, eventually retiring at age eighty-seven. There is an elementary school named after her in Chula Vista.
Hazel also earned a spot on the all-male board of directors at one of the nearby citrus packinghouses and loved to exercise. She built a tennis court on her property and played every day. When her doctor told her she had to give up tennis at age seventy, she replaced the tennis court with a swimming pool and swam every day. That exercise helped offset a couple of her vices. I remember she smoked two packs a day and every night at 6:00 p.m. she had a martini. At 6:15 p.m. she had another martini.
Hazel was never afraid to make her own way. She was the backbone of our family and I spent a lot of time with her while growing up. She was a great mentor for so many kids in the area over the course of her life, including me.
When lemon ranching hit an economic downturn in the 1960s, Hazel sold off most of her land to Rohr Inc., an aerospace manufacturing company, which built its factory in Chula Vista and needed housing for its employees. But there was still enough land left for my parents to have a house. My dad grew lemons and cucumbers on the land and picked up work as a welder for Rohr to make ends meet.
I started selling cucumbers by the side of the road when I was old enough to work. If I wanted money to buy something I had to save the money, so I picked up whatever additional jobs I could. I mowed lawns, detailed cars, did cleanup jobs, whatever it took. It was very much a working-class existence for my family, but my dad was always a people person and that was a trait that would eventually help me land my first coaching job.
I was the first member of my family to go to college. I attended the University of San Diego on a basketball scholarship. Before my senior season, USD transitioned from Division II to Division I in basketball and my coach, Jim Brovelli, a basketball lifer who went on to be an NBA scout and assistant coach for a handful of teams, told me what I already knew as a six-foot-three forward: "You know, John, I don't think you're going to play much." That was the end of my basketball career, but it would lead to the start of a career in coaching.
In the summer of 1979 my younger brother, Dave, and I moved into an apartment overlooking South Mission Beach. We lived there with Hank and John Ashworth, brothers who went on to found the golf-apparel company Ashworth. An apartment on the beach was a pretty good arrangement for four college guys, all of us athletes.
We watched from our apartment window as the same group of middle-aged guys headed down to the beach each day to play volleyball. "Looks fun," one of us said, and finally one day we went down there and asked them to teach us how to play.
As basketball players, we were athletic enough to pick up the sport quickly, but the beach veterans — teachers and physical education instructors from the nearby schools, for the most part — knew the ins and outs of the game. I do not think we won a game that first summer, but we were hooked on beach volleyball.
I did not like losing much, so, without really knowing it at the time, I started coaching. Similar to classic pickup basketball rules, the rules of the beach were that you had to win to stay on the court. Lose and you might not get back on. We had to get better if we wanted to keep playing. I started setting up drills for us to do. It was simple stuff butalways with a clear goal in mind. We would draw a circle in the sand and try to pass the ball into the circle. We had to get ten in a row before we could quit. Then we would toss and hit ten balls as far as we could down the beach, chasing each one in the soft sand for conditioning. We slowly started getting better.
Later that summer I landed my first coaching job. My dad had started working as a team representative for a local sporting goods company. He was the guy all the local teams — San Diego State, USD, the Padres, the Chargers, the Clippers before they moved to Los Angeles — called when they needed equipment or uniforms. He was also supplying most of the high schools in San Diego and he had the right personality for the job. Through his network of connections my dad heard that Coronado High School was looking for an assistant football coach. I had played football in high school, quarterback and linebacker, and got the job. That fall I was coaching the defensive line and linebackers, completing my undergraduate degree atUSD, stealing away to the beach when I could to play volleyball, and generally loving life.
After my first season at Coronado and once I was done with school, the Ashworth brothers, Dave, and I were ready to get back to the beach for another summer of volleyball.
The drills had paid off. Not only were we starting to win some games and staying on the court, we had started to win enough to enter some tournaments. Over the next couple of years Dave and I played enough beach volleyball to work our way up the rankings in the just-formed Association of Volleyball Professionals tour. In those tournaments we faced beach legends like Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, and Randy Stoklos. We also occasionally ran up against legends of a different kind, too. I played against Bill Walton and Wilt Chamberlain a couple of times, two seven-foot basketball hall of famers who fell in love with volleyball after their professional playing careers were over.
I, too, was falling deeper in love with the sport in that summer of 1980, but I also fell in love with a volleyball player who I eventually married. I met Wendy at a beach tournament while she was still amember of San Diego State's indoor team. I did not know it at the time, but watching Wendy play for the Aztecs, where she would earn All-America honors twice, would be the only experience I would have with the indoor game when I needed it a few years later.
But there was more football to coach before that. In 1980, my second year at Coronado, our defensive coordinator came down with mononucleosis during the first week of practice and I was suddenly running the defense. We played in the city league, which was a really tough league, particularly for a second-year coach just out of college.
We ended up winning our conference title in 1980 and had the top-ranked defense in the league. In the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs we faced San Diego's Abraham Lincoln High School. Lincoln was led by future Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen, and he was catching passes from his younger brother, Damon, who went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the Canadian Football League. The Allen brothers, not surprisingly, ended our playoff run.
I knew I wanted to be a football coach at that point, but I wasn't going to get by on the $1,000 a season Coronado could offer an assistant coach who was not also teaching. I wanted to teach, but finding a job proved more difficult than I expected.
In 1981 I took the defensive coordinator job at the University of San Diego High School with the promise that I would get a teaching job the following year. When that teaching job never materialized, I was suddenly in a tough spot. Wendy and I were getting married and I had a job I loved but a salary that certainly was not paying the bills.
A few weeks before the 1982 football season started, Francis Parker School, a private school just up the street from USD, called to offer me a teaching position. It came with a $10,000 contract and an apartment. The only catch was no more football.
Instead, I was asked to coach girls' volleyball, girls' basketball, middle school boys' basketball, and middle school boys' track. I loved being a football coach more than just about anything, but with this new job I had health insurance and a place to live, so it was not a hard decision to make. I became a volleyball coach and the extent of my experience with the indoor game was what I had been able to pick up watching Wendy play the previous fall and what I could cram from an impromptu crash course. In the few weeks before the season started, I went to a couple of nearby clinics and practices to learn what I could and picked up a book to help me understand the rules. Away we went.
Girls' athletics were a fairly new thing in that era. Many of the girls on that first team were competing and training for the first time. There wasn't much of a foundation there compared to what a coach would have now, so I coached them just like I had my high school football players. We went on five-mile soft-sand runs on South Mission Beach and I gave them goals to hit. "If you can't make it back in this amount of time, you're not going to play," I told them.
Maybe I did not know how to do it any other way at that point in my brief coaching career, but it worked. The girls that stuck it out became a mentally tough and in-shape team. We became the first San Diego school to make it to the state playoff in girls' volleyball, a sport then dominated by schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento.
In 1985 Francis Parker made it all the way to the state semifinals in the small schools division. There we faced a Southern California Christian High School team that was led by setter Cinnamon Williams, who went on to play at UCLA, and outside hitter Tara Cross, who played in four Olympic Games on the U.S. Women's National Team. That was a tough tandem to handle and we got swept 15–9, 15–1, 15–7. A year later, however, we won our first state title and then did it again in 1987 while stringing together a 90-match winning streak. I was perfectly content. The football coach had become a volleyball coach.
While I was happily coaching volleyball, however, Wendy was killing herself working sixty- or seventy-hour weeks at Price Waterhouse. It was time to take the next step up the coaching ladder.
In San Diego in 1986 there was no such thing as club volleyball. One night over beers and tacos a friend of mine, Dick Templeman, and I decided to change that. We founded the San Diego Volleyball Club and had two hundred boys and girls come out that year. San Diego offered the one thing most fledgling athletic programs in any sport need: talent. There were a lot of good volleyball players around the area and they needed a place to play outside of their school teams. We offered them that place.
By 1988 our top club team had ten players who would go on to sign with Division I programs. Not just any programs, but powerhouses like UCLA, Hawaii, and USC, among others. These were the real heavyweights of the sport at the time. When you have that much talent in one place, the college coaches cannot help but find you. That is how Terry Pettit found me.
Pettit, a published poet with a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, was Nebraska's second volleyball coach after taking over the program in 1977. Before Pettit, Pat Sullivan had guided Nebraska through its first two years of intercollegiate play with an 83-21 record. Pettit was an instant success, winning both the Big 8 Conference regular-season and tournament titles in each of his first nine seasons. In 1986 Pettit led the Cornhuskers to the NCAA championship game, making Nebraska the first school from outside California or Hawaii to ever play for a national title in women's volleyball.
In those years Pettit would bring his Nebraska team to San Diego every spring. He was a friend of Doug Dannevic, then the head women's volleyball coach at the University of California–San Diego. Those annual trips offered Nebraska the chance to scrimmage against Dannevic's team. It also gave Pettit the chance to mix in some golf while doing a little recruiting.
My top San Diego Volleyball Club team at that time was good enough to scrimmage Pettit's Nebraska squad, which was coming off a regional appearance in the NCAA tournament. After the scrimmage Pettit asked me out to lunch and we picked each other's brains for a while. It was a pleasant but perfectly normal conversation between two volleyball coaches.
Or so I thought. It turned into much more a few months later. In June of 1988 Pettit got me on the phone. "We have a position open," he said. "Would you be interested?" I was interested.
Nebraska flew me out for an interview. It was maybe my second or third time on a plane. I got to Lincoln and they put me up at the Cornhusker Hotel, an opulent local landmark in the heart of downtown. For a teacher and coach whose vacations consisted of taking his wife hiking and then sleeping in the truck, showing up to a fancy hotel and having a gift bag waiting felt like the big time.
I did not have to think too hard about taking that job either. Next stop: Nebraska.
We pulled into Ogallala, Nebraska, on August 5, 1988. We had been towing a rented trailer full of all our belongings behind our Toyota pickup truck for thirteen hundred miles. It was a 105-degree day and the nearby feedlot smelled like feedlots tend to smell in 105-degree heat. We got to our motel room, opened the door, flipped on the light, and watched as cockroaches scattered.
This was Wendy's introduction to our new home state. She started sobbing. "Where are you taking me?" she asked. "If this is Nebraska, we're out of here."
"No, Lincoln is a little different," I said.
And it was different. For me it was a little bit of a dream destination. Not only was I joining a volleyball program that was serving notice that the sport could flourish at the college level outside of California, but I was also going to have the opportunity to study Nebraska's powerful football program up close.
Like all sports fans at the time, I had watched those classic Nebraska-Oklahoma football games on Thanksgiving Day. I loved the option offense. I admired coach Tom Osborne, or "Dr. Tom," as he was sometimes referred to by television broadcasters. "Why is a doctor coaching football?" I recall asking my parents as a kid while we watched the Cornhuskers battle the Sooners one year. "Does he take care of the players?" He was not a medical doctor, of course. Osborne had a doctorate in educational psychology.
I was working on my own postgraduate degree through San Diego State University at the time. It took me seven years to finish my course work as I worked on it in the summers between coaching duties. It was a job on top of a job, but it was time well spent because it provided the chance to study under Dr. Brent Rushall, a professor at San Diego State who was doing some groundbreaking work in the field of coaching theory.
Excerpted from "Dream Like A Champion"
Copyright © 2017 John Cook and Brandon Vogel.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsList of Photographs
1. Learning to Lead
2. Culture Drives the Dream
3. Why Nebraska?
4. Training the Complete Athlete
5. Coaching the iCentered Athlete
6. The Team Within the Team
7. Motivation, Mentors and a Magician
8. The Longer I Coach the Less I Know
9. Destination Omaha
10. Two Points Better
11. Never Stop Coaching
13. Is God a Coach?
14. Ultimate Trust