Give or take a Hawaiian palm tree or Malibu sunset, John Cook has the best view in volleyball.
His office perch looks down on the Nebraska volleyball court in Devaney Center. Down the hall are five skyboxes that go for $39,000 a year. Down below is what Cook calls the best practice setup in the sport, including three practice courts.
From his desk, Cook can see the arena where the largest crowds in college volleyball (nation-leading average of 8,183) come to worship the game.
From the two couches next to the window, he can look down and see one of the great accomplishments in women's college sports history.
This year, for the first time, Nebraska volleyball is going to make money.
And for the next two weekends, the NCAA tournament will roll through Devaney Center, meaning the Huskers won't have to leave their home court to make the final four.
Camelot is back, bigger and fresher than ever.
So why in the world did Cook almost leave all this?
It was after the 2009 season. The year before, Nebraska's season ended in the NCAA semifinals with a loss to Penn State at CenturyLink Center. In 2009, Cook's Huskers had gone 26-7 and 16-4 in the Big 12. Their season ended on that same court in Omaha against Texas in the regional final.
Cook had won two NCAA championships and been to five final fours in 10 seasons. It's one of the great rides in the sport.
But now the coach was out of gas.
“After the 2009 season, I was really thinking, 'Do I want to do something else?' ” Cook said. “I just kind of hit the wall physically and mentally. I had a definite burnout, meltdown. Do I really want to do this?
“What was happening in the Coliseum was, we were expected to win everything and when you don't, nothing's ever good enough. It's more internal. We were dominating college volleyball, then all of a sudden, you're not.
“You feel like nothing's ever good enough. It's hard to coach under that.”
Adding to the decision was a contact from USA Volleyball, which was interested in talking to Cook about becoming the head coach of the men's developmental team — a full-time gig that would have led to Cook being the head coach of the U.S. team in the 2016 Olympics.
Was it time for the next adventure?
Yes, and it came in the form of a phone call from then-Athletic Director Tom Osborne. He told Cook of the plans to move basketball to the new Pinnacle Bank Arena.
And what would he think about volleyball taking over the Devaney Center?
“When I heard it, my quote was, 'If it's not good enough for basketball, why would it be good enough for us?' ” Cook said.
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Then Osborne expounded on the idea. NU would hire an architectural firm from Kansas City. There would be skyboxes, a seating capacity more than 8,000. The volleyball offices would be there. And Cook could be the lead designer.
He was listening. But still concerned. Cook had been to some basketball games over the years. He sat in the dismal, half-empty arena nicknamed “The Library.” His program had it going in the raucous, old Coliseum, one of the great home-court advantages in the country. Why risk losing that?
This was the kind of all-in move that could transform Cook and his program's place in the sport, or be a total bust.
Just what the burned-out coach needed.
“Yes, there's no question, I'm rejuvenated,” Cook said. “What rejuvenated me was the idea of coming over here. This has completely changed my energy.”
It's unreal what they've done to the place where Eric Piatkowski and Tyronn Lue and so many Big Eight basketball legends used to play.
They took the basketball arena and made it more intimate — like the Coliseum — by building the skyboxes over the old B and C sections on one side. They put a black wall around the top of the arena, the standing-room section, where you can watch while your kids run around.
They draped the championship banners on the wall, and all of the names of the Husker legends, too. They put the red arches on the ceiling, to give it the Coliseum feel. Basically, they added room for 4,000 new volleyball fans.
Cook thought that was too many. It turns out it might not be enough.
“It's different,” Cook said. “It's a lot more festive than the Coliseum. You can get up and walk around. It's more of an experience.”
At first it was awkward, Cook said, like the team was playing away matches. Half the crowd knew the volleyball cheers, but 4,000 didn't. The noise level wasn't the same. Then again, it's hard to scream when you're too busy gawking at the place.
Then it happened. Around Oct. 4, when eighth-ranked Minnesota came to town, Cook said the old feeling came back. Two top teams. Big Ten Network in the house. The Huskers swept, the old noise came back, and something else, too.
“You could feel the floor starting to shake,” Cook said.
It's been amazing, Cook said. Exceeded his expectations. Every visiting coach offered rave reviews. In fact, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State all are building new volleyball arenas and want to come back this summer to take notes.
Terry Pettit, the legend himself, loved it. So did Penn State coach Russ Rose, whose Big Ten champs won there last Saturday.
“He said it's awesome,” Cook said. “He later told me the atmosphere was incredible. They were happy they don't have to come back here for the regional.”
It's the envy, in more ways than one. Mostly, because the risk has brought an immediate reward.
“We are going to generate revenue,” Cook said. “We are going to pay our way. It will be historic.”
Cook won't comment on what the projected number is, but he said the program's budget is $1.2 million. So NU volleyball is making more than that this season.
Revenue from the suites helps there, as does revenue from 128 courtside seats that go for $2,000 each. Cook said Hawaii volleyball is the only NCAA women's sports program known to have made money. Top women's basketball programs such as Connecticut and Tennessee have large budgets that include hefty coaching salaries. A Bloomberg.com report in 2011 said that the UConn and Tennessee programs had deficits of more than $700,000 in 2010.
This one is for the Husker booster group that Cook spoke to in 1999, his first year. The coach said the crowd included several “older men, football fans.” When Cook talked about being the first volleyball team to visit China, one of the good old boys reminded him that Husker football was the reason they could go.
“Even the football coaches were asking how we were going to pay for that,” Cook said. 'That (making money) was one of the goals in coming over here.”
Cook pushes the elevator button on the first floor in the old hallway where basketball fans used to hang out. It takes us directly to the volleyball offices, a massive, open area with flat screens and modern office amenities.
There's a coach's meeting room, with the long tabletop painted to look like the volleyball court. The five suites are connected to the coach's offices, so boosters can walk around and hang out somewhere important. The suite holders also have their own TV/party room, where they can watch college football games before the match. The players' locker room has all of the cool stuff. And top recruits — including those in Chicago who wouldn't give Cook the time of day when he was in the Big 12 — are now looking to sign up.
The Devaney Center never looked or felt better.
“This place is buzzing,” Cook said. “People see this on the BTN (Big Ten Network) and they're like, 'Wow.' ”
Now Cook has a new problem: keep this place filled, keep the money coming in. But he's fired up. Retire? His current contract doesn't end until 2019. He and his wife are building a house at Firethorn Golf Club. And he wants to win at least one more national championship.
“I'm really proud,” Cook said. “I really didn't have the guts to do this. It was Coach Osborne and John Ingram (associate A.D.) and some other people who convinced me. I didn't have the vision or the confidence.”
Once upon a time, Cook saw himself as the head volleyball coach in the Olympics. But he can see a bigger picture from his office.
“That was always a dream,” Cook said. “But this dream is bigger.”