Shatel: Save a spot at the table for John Cook when preparing Nebraska's list of best coaches

John Cook coached an undefeated national champion in his first year, but for the longest time, he had two hands tight on the wheel, eyes straight ahead, trying his best not to crash Terry Pettit’s wonderful creation.

I’m here today to discuss whether John Cook is the greatest coach in any sport at Nebraska. But first, here’s another one of Cook’s famous stories:

“When we redesigned Devaney (Center), Paul Meyers (former NU assistant athletic director) told me, ‘We’re going to make this trophy case bigger and we’re going to leave you plenty of room for banners up there.’ ”

“I said to myself, ‘Yeah, right. Do you guys realize how hard it is?’ But that’s the mindset around here.

“I knew we had to go after it.”

This was the Tuesday of final four week, Cook’s ninth trip to the national semifinals, and the coach is driving around Lincoln. He’s got me on speaker phone and I do my best not to distract him into crashing, like asking if he should be ranked higher than Tom Osborne or Bob Devaney.

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But I do like talking big picture with the coach, a guy with a broad vision. A couple years ago, the topic was reinventing himself and the program. Last year, it was how long will he coach.

Old Man River keeps rolling along, gaining momentum with age, producing four straight final fours and a chance at three national titles in four years. And recruiting players like Mikaela Foecke, who might be the greatest in the program’s history, in his 19th year as coach.

So where does Cook rank among Husker coaches, any sport, all time? Is he on the Mount Rushmore of Nebraska coaches? With four national titles and going for a fifth this weekend, can he catch Penn State’s Russ Rose in the all-time lead at seven?

Cook has no time for these topics. His mind is lost in last-minute details and beating Illinois in Thursday’s semifinal. These are topics for the sports writer — and his audience. If you have any opinions, send them to tom.shatel@owh.com or visit me at Grandstand@owh.com.

My take: Ranking coaches from different sports and eras is a crazy but fun task. You have to consider degree of difficulty, consistency, longevity, etc. Being quotable is a bonus. Kidding.

For instance, Bill Straub has won 12 national titles in bowling — 10 with the women’s team. But how does that compare to recruiting a team to beat Miami or Oklahoma in football? Francis Allen in gymastics. Rhonda Ravelle in softball. Gary Pepin’s track dynasty.

So many greats have come through Lincoln. It’s all apples and oranges but what a tasty treat.

Here’s what I know: Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Cook are on the list. Pepin would be my fourth, but some would find that debatable. The first three are not.

Why Cook? Sure, the national titles and final fours. But he also took something great, something historic, and made it better, more historic. Volleyball is a revenue producer. It’s the No. 2 sport at NU and arguably in the state. On Cook’s watch.

Coaches don’t have time for legacy — that’s for the chroniclers and fans of history. Coaches are too busy making the history to count it.

What I find interesting is Cook’s place in the sport of volleyball.

Ten years ago, he was on his way to being a great coach but not one of historic proportions. Certainly, not above the great Terry Pettit.

This is so familiar.

Osborne kept grinding and experimenting and deciphering the code, year after year, and eventually not only escaped Devaney’s shadow but cast his own. So it is happening with Cook.

Don’t ask him how it happened. Cook coached an undefeated national champion in his first year, but for the longest time, he had two hands tight on the wheel, eyes straight ahead, trying his best not to crash Pettit’s wonderful creation.

Just as he drove around Lincoln while talking to a columnist, Cook has proven to be an excellent, focused driver.

“I know I enjoy it a lot more now,” Cook said. “Back then you’re trying to prove yourself, and you’re trying not to screw it up. Everybody thought I was crazy to take the job after Pettit because how are you ever going to do a better job than what Pettit did?

“But that was the challenge. I always felt that, this is the only way I’m going to find out … this is going to bring out the best in us. Can we get to another level?

“That’s how we’ve approached every year. How are you going to impact this program? How are you going to make it better?”

Keep reaching. Keep grinding. This year was a great example: The defending national champs had eight newcomers and started four freshmen at times. There were lumps. But under the guidance of Cook and captains Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, a great team blossomed at the right time.

And, yes, going to the Big Ten has forced him to up his game. It’s become the perfect storm.

Suddenly, a coach with two national titles has four. And suddenly, he’s three behind Rose’s seven. At the clip Cook is going, it’s not crazy to think Cook could one day be king of the hill.

That seven also represents the most national titles by a school, held by Penn State and Stanford. Nebraska has five and gaining steam.

“I don’t go there,” Cook said. “I just know that Penn State has set the bar really high. That’s kind of been our measuring stick. They showed that it can be done.

“I don’t think about that. I own the moment. Enjoy it, compete, work, try to get these kids to play hard. Make them better.”

The humble, hard-working approach keeps working. But Cook must be the envy of many of his colleagues.

How many college volleyball coaches are considered celebs in the state? How many would be ranked on a school’s athletic Mount Rushmore? How many fans know who their volleyball coach is?

“It is a different place,” Cook said. “Last year I got to go to the State of the Union (as Sen. Deb Fischer’s guest). Scott Frost is coming into our locker room on Senior Night. I got to fly with the Blue Angels. Volleyball is a state treasure here.

“At one point this year, seven Nebraska high school teams were ranked in the top 100 in the country. Look at Creighton, two teams in the top 10 all year long. Kearney, Midland, Hastings, Wayne State.

“When did anyone dream that that would happen?”

Cook had a lot to do with it, not just by making the program accessible to the state, but by winning bigger and bigger. The Devaney Center. Donors seats at volleyball.

Pettit created this program and taught it to walk, taught Midwest girls to compete with the West Coast. Cook took Pettit’s vision and expanded it, to a place where it ranks just behind football in Nebraska.

For those of us who think about legacy, Cook’s will be the slogan he came up with a couple of years ago: Dream bigger.

“That was the goal,” Cook said. “Pettit built a great foundation. He’s the one who planted the seed that we can do great things here. We can sell out the Coliseum, host final fours in Omaha, compete with the best in the country.

“Pettit showed what was possible. I’ve just been inspired to try to do more and better and higher.”

Keep making history, John. We’ll keep counting it.

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