Nebraska and Wisconsin play this weekend for the top Big Ten spot at the Devaney Center, yet the two schools are easily confused for each other. Similar colors, similar Midwest vibes and one other part that does not help — John Cook has coached at both schools.
On Dec. 16, 1998 Nebraska beat Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament 3-2, securing another NCAA Tournament semifinals appearance for the Huskers. For Wisconsin, it was another heartbreaking loss that would have a much bigger ripple effect.
Cook was San Diego’s head assistant coach during the 1980s before leaving in 1988 to become an assistant coach at Nebraska. His first stint at Nebraska lasted three years under Nebraska volleyball legend, head coach Terry Pettit.
In 1992, Cook left became a head coach in Division I volleyball for the first time. Cook took his last 11 years of coaching experience to Madison, Wisconsin and began coaching in the Big Ten.
The conference scheduling between the Big Ten and Big 12 was much different back then. Big 12 schools played Wednesday and Saturday, while Big Ten schools only played back-to-backs in conference play.
“When I was in the Big Ten, it was even worse because it was all Friday and Saturday. There was no Wednesdays.” Cook said.
A new schedule format, combined with Cook’s first season as a Division I coach saw Wisconsin go 14-17 in 1992, Cook’s only losing season as a head coach ever.
Rebuilds take time and building up the Badgers was no different. Wisconsin’s last full-time head coach was Steve Lowe, who passed away at 35 after Wisconsin’s best-ever volleyball season. An interim coach led the team in 1991 before Cook arrived to build upon the seeds.
The poor 1992 season was a bump in the road as Cook made his first NCAA Tournament in 1993. From there, the sky was the limit for Wisconsin. Cook made the NCAA Tournament in five of his next six seasons.
Cook’s last two seasons with Wisconsin were 30-plus win seasons and the Badgers began to compete for conference and national titles. The success came with increased national scrutiny as Wisconsin lost 3-2 to Florida in the 1997 regional finals.
The 1998 season’s ending stung even worse despite the Badgers going 19-1 in the Big Ten. Wisconsin came to Lincoln and played against Nebraska in a grueling five-set match where the Badgers lost again in the regional finals. In a cruel twist, Cook left Wisconsin for Nebraska a few months later.
Cook rejoined Nebraska in 1999 as associate head coach while Pettit remained head coach. Rumors flew about Pettit’s future and those rumors were answered in the new millennium as Pettit stepped down in 2000.
Cook was chosen to be Nebraska’s second-ever head coach. Pettit built the program from scratch, but how would Cook continue the program’s dominance?
Those doubts were answered quickly in his first season without Pettit. Nebraska went undefeated in the regular season and dominated almost everyone on its way to the national championship game. There, Nebraska played none other than Wisconsin.
Once again the programs crossed paths but this time it was one of the biggest matches in both programs’ history. Wisconsin jumped to a 2-1 lead before Nebraska came back to win in five sets to win its second-ever national title.
That was the last match between the two schools until Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011. Cook continued Nebraska’s upward trajectory with a 2006 national championship and eight 30-win seasons. For Wisconsin, the 2000s were full of ups and downs with coach Pete Waite before the Badgers fizzled out by the end of the decade.
Waite was still at Wisconsin when Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 and Cook traveled to Madison for the first time since 1998. Nebraska swept Wisconsin 3-0 in Madison and Waite left soon after in 2012.
Cook’s days in Wisconsin seemed so long ago, as its best coach in team history was now terrorizing the Badgers in their own conference. Wisconsin could not escape Cook, and his past experience in the Big Ten let Nebraska transition smoothly into the new conference.
“I studied Penn State,” he said. “Penn State figured that out a long time ago, how they manage their front row, back row and how they recruit. That’s the biggest thing.”
Penn State was the top team in the 1990s and still is a top team today. Cook learned from the past on what to do differently in the conference. Meanwhile, the Badgers were stumbling and looking for a new coach, and they found Kelly Sheffield. Sheffield’s first season in 2013 was an unexpected run to the national championship match.
The Badgers returned to national prominence in a snap and finally beat Cook. The series is tied at 4-4 since 2013 with Sheffield and Cook. The Badgers swept the Huskers in 2014 for their first win against Nebraska since 1978.
The rivalry has gained steam off the court as well through Wisconsin snagging Nebraska great Meghan Haggerty’s sister, junior outside hitter Molly Haggerty.
Unlike Nebraska football, there was no dark age after the old guard left. Wisconsin has risen after Cook left, but every match against Nebraska is a reminder of what could have been.
No. 2 Nebraska plays No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Devaney Center. The match is a classic Big Ten pairing of two volleyball titans, as both are connected to each other 20 years later.