A summertime visit on the recruiting trails with John Cook let us know that:
Nebraska volleyball is more than ready to pounce on the NIL and all that goes with it;
He’s still mad about the Texas Tweet;
Lexi Sun might make more money in college than had she gone pro;
Lauren Stivrins will be back, but that’s a double entrende;
“Listen, this is like Pablo Escobar going in with the DEA,” Cook said with a laugh.
Start with the NIL with NCAA approving that athletes can make money off their name, image, and likeness. The details are still being worked out, many colleges are taking a wait-and-see approach, but not Nebraska and not Husker volleyball.
“I’d say we two years ago we had our first meeting with Opendorse and Opendorse is based in Lincoln,” Cook said.
(From the Opendorse website: “Opendorse provides technology to the athlete endorsement industry. We serve the full lifecycle of supporting athletes: educating, assessing, planning, sharing, creating, measuring, tracking, disclosing, regulating, listing, browsing, booking, and more.”)
As Cook noted, the company works with a lot of colleges, “but we were the first school to commit to them over a year ago.”
Before that, however, Cook worked with the company to help his daughter, Lauren, the former Husker who this past November had a baby, Madden. Cook turns to mush talking about her, but back to the subject at hand.
“Lauren was doing Dorothy Lynch salad dressing. It’s a tradition in Nebraska. Dorothy Lynch is in every restaurant. They would tell they were going to send something out (on social media), you OK it, hit the button on her phone and sends it out, 500 bucks. That’s how easy it is.
“Opendorse has LeBron, they’ve got Federer, they’ve got the top of the top, all the way to college volleyball players and beyond that.”
Two of them are returning Nebraska seniors Stivrins and Sun, who, for example, has 75.3 thousand Instagram followers.
“A year ago I had Lexi and Lauren meet with them and they laid it out for them. Because of COVID they were going to get a year back and it was something to think about if they wanted to work on their brand. If you follow Lexi, she’s all over it, Lauren’s not, but Lexi’s also a marketing major getting her master’s.
“So that’s where we’re at and we’re ready to go.”
A handful of states already have NIL laws set to go into place July 1 (Thursday). Nebraska passed a law in July 2020 to going into effect not later than July 1, 2023, but schools can implement a new policy at any time. Tuesday, this is what the NCAA announced: “The Division I Council voted to recommend the Division I Board of Directors adopt an interim policy that would suspend amateurism rules related to name, image and likeness. The board meets Wednesday. While opening NIL activities to student-athletes, the policy leaves in place the commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school. Those prohibitions would remain in effect.”
Cook: “We’re ready to go as soon as they (the NCAA) decide they’re going to do it. But it looks to me that each university is going to be left to how they want to handle it.”
“We’re going to be all in. All the chips are going in.”
It won’t be a hard sell in Lincoln, where volleyball is strong on all levels and the Huskers sell out their matches. For that matter Nebraska is using the hashtag #NILbraska on social media.
“We’re using Lexi as an example,” Cook said. “When she came to Nebraska, when she transferred from Texas she had 22,000 followers. She’s now up to 77,000 since she’s been at Nebraska. I think she has more than our quarterback. That’s just an example of how big volleyball is in Nebraska.
“And they just put out something the other day that Nicklin (Hames) is the No. 1 setter in the country with (24.7 thousand Instagram) followers.”
For clarification, Nebraska volleyball, which has 120,000 Instagram followers, put out an Instagram post last week that ranked the Power 5 Conference leaders in assists per set by social-media followers (Instagram + Twitter + TikTok) and Hames was No. 1 with 36,465. Texas setter Jhenna Gabriel was second with 32,172.
Which is a good time to recall the Texas Tweet from the NCAA Tournament when the Longhorns beat Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament round of eight. It said, “Today’s forecast: All sky, no sun.”
Call it volleyball tit-for-tat.
“I think there’s some bad blood going on between us and Texas because Texas put out after they beat us a pretty nasty tweet about Lexi. It was bad. I’ve got their volunteer coach, Jamie Morrison, apologizing to us and I never heard a word from Jerritt (Elliott) or Erik (Sullivan). That was a pretty low blow, I thought. That was one of the ways of getting back, I guess.”
Speaking of Sun, the 6-foot-2 product of Encinitas, California, who has 13,000-plus Twitter followers, led Nebraska in kills and was third in blocks this past spring. She certainly could turn pro, but because of COVID, the NCAA gave every volleyball player an extra season if they choose.
Sun is coming back for her fifth year, which, of course, she announced on social media.
“Here’s the choice, do I go pro or stay here and see what this can do,” Cook said, “because I might be able to make more money than if I turn pro and I get to play another year at Nebraska and be here and get a master’s. So for her it was a pretty easy decision.
“For Lauren, it was a little different. She ended up having back surgery so she can’t go right now. Her best option was to stay with us and rehab.”
Stivrins — second in kills and the blocks leader — will try to play for Nebraska this season, back willing, Cook confirmed, noting that she played injured this past season.
For that matter, every Husker but pin hitter Jazz Sweet, who has turned pro, and defensive-specialist Hayley Densberger, will be back, and Nebraska’s incoming group of six freshmen is among the nation’s best.
The group includes three players in the VolleyballMag.com Fab 50’s top five, No. 1 Lindsay Krause, No. 3 Kennedi Orr, and No. 4 Ally Batenhorst, and three others on the list, Rylee Gray, Lexi Rodriguez, and Whitney Lauenstein.
“With that class our team will be improved,” Cook said. “I think we learned a lot this year about what it takes to win. What I’m talking to our team about is that college volleyball is going to be great this year. There are going to be a lot of great teams. A lot of teams, not just four or five, because so many teams are returning everybody.
“It’s going to be a really interesting year and fun and you’d better get after it.”
In the fall of 2021, Nebraska opens at home August 27 with Tulsa, Colgate, and Kansas State. The next weekend, the Huskers are home again, this time for Omaha, Georgia, and Arizona State. Before the Big Ten season begins, Nebraska plays Creighton, Utah, Stanford, and Louisville.
And, unlike the spring, there will be a full Big Ten schedule, and, hopefully, a back-to-business NCAA Tournament.
This past season?
“I’m just glad it’s over,” Cook said. “It wasn’t a lot of fun and I think the whole NCAA (Tournament) thing in a convention center was a disaster. But everybody had to go through it. I would have done things different if I was in charge and done more of the basketball model. I feel like the seniors got their seasons cheated. I think we only played like 12 or 14 matches (actually 16 regular season, three in the NCAA Tournament) and some schools didn’t even play. So it makes me appreciate all that we have.”
One part of it played into something Cook’s been espousing for years: “I do think we showed that volleyball can be really popular in the spring. TV said we had really good ratings and they were televising a lot of matches, a lot of matches they wouldn’t normally televise.”
Speaking of TV, it’s a big part of the replay system in NCAA matches. And no one is more of a master of the challenge than Cook, who seems to have sixth sense about it.
“It’s not me, it’s my assistants,” Cook said. “Jaylen (Reyes) is a hawk.”
Perhaps, but Cook has the knack. And now the NCAA “approved an experimental rule allowing women’s volleyball teams to begin a match with two video coach’s challenges in conference matches only for the 2021 season. If the challenge results in the reversal of the original call, the team would retain the challenge.”
Cook: “One of the things we saw in the pandemic year in the Big Ten, there was one match we had when I went through all three challenges in the first game. And now you’re like, what do you do? You’re out.
“So if you’re in a situation where you get a whole lot of bad calls early, this way if you’re confident (and you win the challenge) you get to keep them. You won’t run out and have to wait until the fifth game. You may not get to a fifth game. It happened a couple of times to teams, it happened to us. It’s going to be experimental, but all the Big Ten coaches were all over it, we love it, and we actually proposed it last year and it didn’t get anywhere. Somebody else joined it.”
Remember the Pablo Escobar reference?
“I want eight subs, I want to get rid of the setter over if the ball is 50-50. You pass it tight, deal with it.”
OK, how about the double?
“I still think it shouldn’t be picnic volleyball.”
“Same thing as in Rio, we had three Huskers, so it validates everything that we’re doing. We’ve got kids who have those dreams and again, it validates that we can get them and help them get there.
“Justine to me is a great story. It’s funny how things happen. Lara Dykstra was our libero. Right before the semester ends in the spring she walks in and says, ‘I’m gonna transfer to Pepperdine, they’re starting beach.’ She was on the junior beach team at the time.
“So great, we don’t have a libero going into that year. So I go to JOs and we find Justine setting for (Mizuno Long) Beach. Everyone was recruiting her as a backup setter or a walk-on … I did a home visit. She didn’t even know where Nebraska is but we get her out there and she commits, she gets a full ride, and what a great story.”
He also had praise for Jordyn Poulter, the former Illinois setter who is a first-time Olympian.
“When Poulter was a senior, we beat them in the final four, but when they came to Lincoln, I told Chris (Tamas, the Illinois coach and former Cook assistant), that might be as good as I’ve ever seen any player play against us in my entire coaching career. She was at just another level. She was amazing.”