John Cook, fan of “Yellowstone” and renaissance cowboy, starred in his own drama this week.
Call it “No Country for Old Coaches.”
That’s what I thought of when I read John Cook’s comments the other day from the first Big Ten volleyball media days.
I usually come away learning something whenever the iconic Husker coach speaks. And that was doubly true this time.
First: Cook isn’t perfect. Far from it.
The Coach is always the most-prepared person in any room. He’s smart, thoughtful and nothing is ever said off-the-cuff or by accident.
Which made it more surprising when Cook made a mess of the Kayla Caffey saga. It was all very confusing. It was all very un-Cook-like.
But it made a little more sense when Cook started a rant about Name, Image and Likeness.
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He began with “I think NIL poisons people’s minds I’ve seen.”
He said NIL is all about “where I can get the best deal.”
And that it’s “sad” that the attitude has “infiltrated” college sports. He pointed to the movie about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team and playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back.
He added, “All I know is at Nebraska volleyball we’re going to recruit kids who want to play for Nebraska and that’s what they’re here for and that’s what they want ...
“If there’s things that come along with that, with NIL and other opportunities, great. But that’s the most important thing. I hope I’ve got a group of kids — we start next Tuesday — that they’re playing for the name on the front of the jersey.”
You could hear the gasps all over social media.
How could Cook say this? Doesn’t he know how important NIL is to the players? To recruiting?
Heavens, does he want to be labeled as a coach who doesn’t want his players to benefit?
Well, no. And he’s not that guy.
Cook is the same old-school coach who embraced NIL last year as a challenge in the game, and his profession. His players were some of the first college volleyball players to dip into the NIL pool.
It certainly didn’t “poison” the competitive spirit of Nicklin Hames or Lauren Stivrins, who fought tooth-and-nail to bring NU to the brink of a national title.
And having a deal with Borsheim’s didn’t “poison” the mind of Lexi Sun, whose maturity and team-first attitude played a huge role in last year’s Husker run.
In the case of Caffey, Cook ultimately said she would not have been on scholarship and was working on an NIL deal to cover expenses.
Apparently there was a better deal to be had somewhere else. Hey, that’s the NIL world.
This was the rarest of dilemmas, an All-American allowed to return for a seventh year and trying to fit into a roster full of big-time talent waiting to play.
With the COVID-19 make-up seasons going away, it likely won’t come up again.
But NIL, and all the trimmings and trappings, is here to stay.
And so Cook let it out.
And he spoke for so many college coaches. Most of them, if not all.
College coaches are scared to death of NIL. Because it has no guard rails, no apparent ceiling. And the NCAA, afraid of lawsuits, lets it happen.
They also detest the lack of control. All coaches want control — of their programs, teams and the message they hear.
Coaches can’t control NIL. They can’t control how much money players get. They can’t control the NIL collectives and boosters who contact and offer the athletes hundreds thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And they all worry about what it might do to the competitive fight in their players, and to the chemistry in the locker room.
Mostly, they’re all afraid to say it.
Well, almost all.
Cook, with his four national titles and multiple Final Fours and program that has its “A” game going in recruiting, can say what he thinks. He’s also in his mid-60’s.
There's some truth in that saying that the older you get, the more established you are, the less you care about what people say or think.
That’s why Cook’s NIL rant makes so much sense to me.
It was also very instructive about NIL, though I’m not sure that’s why Cook spoke out.
For one, the idea of NIL supplanting scholarship money for an athlete. That wasn’t the intention of NIL.
But coaches and administrators and boosters all know how to make a rule work for them. Especially one with few rules.
Also: this idea that coaches are afraid to speak out against NIL because athletes will see them as being against them getting paid.
It doesn’t matter what the coaches say or think. The athletes will listen to, and follow, the people who have the money.
And that’s the collectives and boosters at each school. That wasn't NIL's intent, either. But it's happening.
Add it all up, and it’s the craziest beginning to a Nebraska volleyball season in a long time. Maybe ever.
It shined a light on the elite Husker volleyball program and the presence of NIL. They do it well.
The old cowboy in charge knows and understands. That doesn't mean it can't be a burr in his saddle.