LINCOLN — Last week, Lauren Cook jumped ahead of the game that most college seniors are facing in a shaky economy.
The transportation and hospitality management major planned an elegant, four-course dinner for a final project and impressed a local catering company enough that she was approached about a job after graduation.
Her father, John, was proud, eagerly relating the story to a room full of acquaintances.
“Oh my gosh! He's bragging to everyone. I'm so embarrassed!” the daughter said in a sheepish-yet-grateful way that kids accept such approval from parents.
It was a glimpse — small but unmistakable — that the time is drawing close when John Cook, the Nebraska volleyball coach, and Lauren Cook, the team's standout setter, will finally be able to remove the fence between their two relationships.
A coach applauds his players' off-court happiness. A father wants it for his daughter more than air.
“You come to college, you go through these experiences, you learn, you grow, you get humbled,” John Cook said. “You compete, you get a degree, and you get prepared for the world. That's what it's about for all these kids.
“At the end of the day, that's what they're going to remember.”
The Husker coach prides himself on being an educator, but there are plenty of lessons he couldn't prepare his daughter for the past three years. Many of those were public, and painful.
It's hard to explain how growth has to come in front of crowds of 4,000. How humility may mean your face splashed on the front page of a newspaper. Decisions bring consequences. Failure provides perspective.
Lauren Cook began her career deliberately far from her father. The high school All-American from Lincoln Pius X enrolled at UCLA and was named the nation's top freshman. But she wasn't happy in Los Angeles. She raised eyebrows when she left UCLA and transferred home to the program she had grown up watching her father lead.
After splitting time at setter with the team's returning starter in 2010, Lauren took sole possession of the starting job a year ago.
That was supposed to be the year she proved herself. Instead, it was one of the toughest of her life.
While the team she left behind at UCLA would eventually win the national championship, Lauren was in the headlines for an October car accident that left two people injured. Her father suspended her for two matches late in the season as the Huskers entered a funk.
Nebraska held on to win the Big Ten championship, but the season ended with a home loss to Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the earliest the Huskers had exited the postseason in 18 years.
“I look at some of the greatest people in the world, and you look at how many times they've failed,” Lauren Cook said. “Then, you look at yourself and you think 'OK, I'm failing, but this is how I'm going to get success.' That's how I've looked at it. With success comes failure, and with failure comes success.
“I wouldn't give up what I have here. Because what I have here is way more important to me (than being at UCLA), and I care way more about that and how happy I am here.”
What she knows she has now is a relationship with her father that is stronger than ever. That fence she built to ensure that her teammates could trust the coach's daughter — she publicly refers to him as “Coach” almost without fail — could come down away from the court. John Cook had to dispense discipline during his daughter's legal troubles, but the father's love was never far.
The two work even closer this season now that John is coaching the setters for the first time in Lauren's career, which in practices and matches has sometimes led to sharp words that are not unfamiliar to coaches and players. Or fathers and daughters who sometimes disagree.
“It's funny looking back on it, because sometimes we really get into it,” Lauren said. “Like, 'Dad, no, we're going with this play. Listen to me, this is going to work.' And he's like 'No, I want you to run this.'
“But, sometimes, I'll be about to call a play, and he'll say 'Lauren, run this.' And I'll say 'Oh my gosh, I was just going to call that.' It's like wavelengthed on our brains.”
What becomes of the fence Saturday for No. 10 Nebraska (22-6, 14-5 Big Ten), facing Northwestern (16-14, 5-14) at 7 p.m. on Senior Night? Do the Cooks celebrate the end-of-season ceremony as coach and player or father and daughter?
Neither is saying.
“You'll have to see,” Lauren said.
But no matter if it's a coach-player handshake or a father-daughter embrace, there's nothing a fence can do to block John Cook's pride.
“She has done a great job here,” the father said. “She's worked hard. It's not easy having your dad be the coach. It's just not easy. But she's done a great job of managing that.
“She's a great kid.”
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