There’s a popular saying around Lincoln, Nebraska: “Once a Husker, always a Husker.”
As much as longtime Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook loves to espouse that mantra, Tyler Hildebrand wasn’t so sure about it. He’d coached college plenty, beginning at his alma mater, Long Beach State, as a volunteer men’s assistant from 2008-2010. He rejoined Long Beach in 2013 as a full-time assistant, and the team advanced to the MPSF final, something it hadn’t done since Hildebrand was a senior in 2006.
In 2017, Nebraska hired him away, and in his one season in Lincoln the Huskers won an NCAA indoors championship.
But then USA Volleyball created a position exclusively for Hildebrand, “Director of Coaching for the USA Volleyball Beach National Program,” a title so ambiguous that Hildebrand can’t really explain what it means.
Essentially, it boiled down to this: USA Volleyball gave Hildebrand the keys to the car. Build it up. Make the United States the unquestioned power it once was in the ’90s.
What more could he want? He left Lincoln, returning to Southern California. Returning to the beach.
“I didn’t think I’d ever want to coach college again,” Hildebrand said. “I thought we were done with that.”
Once a Husker, however …
Cook didn’t necessarily expect to have Hildebrand back on staff so soon. In December of 2019, after a 28-5 season that was brought to an end by Wisconsin in the NCAA regional final, former Husker and Cook’s assistant Kayla Banwarth was hired by Ole Miss as its head coach.
Hildebrand, Cook said, “was the one I wanted to go after.”
And Nebraska did, going so far as to create the new position of associate head coach specifically for Hildebrand, which presented more responsibilities but also a bigger salary. Before accepting, Hildebrand told Cook and the administration that coaching the United States beach teams in the 2020 Olympics was a non-negotiable. He wouldn’t come to Lincoln before the Games. Which was fine — until the Olympics, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were moved to 2021.
It begged the question: What now?
For Hildebrand, the question is a non-starter.
“I will be going there in August,” he said of Nebraska. “I have a contract with them, and I think Nebraska, not only coach Cook and the staff and the program, but the administration have all been patient and willing to allow me to stay here for the Olympics.
“I said it was a non-negotiable, that if I couldn’t stay for the Olympics then I wasn’t coming back. That was clearly meant to be Tokyo 2020, not Tokyo 2021. Point is that they made some adjustments for me to stay, which was cool and it really wasn’t a problem. But I will be leaving for sure to go to Nebraska.”
Hildebrand can work, to a certain extent, in a remote capacity for USA Volleyball. The quarantine has been a trial period of sorts for working with teams through Zoom. Before the interview for this story, he had just finished a film session with Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
It helps, too, that the beach and indoor seasons aren’t entirely conflicting. Nebraska’s busiest months — August through late December — are, for the most part, opposite of the pro beach season, which runs roughly from February through October. The Olympic Games, which have been rescheduled for July 23-August 8 of 2021, are without conflict to Nebraska’s main season.
“If we have a traditional season, there’ll be some times when we’re off recruiting that he’ll be able to do some work with USA Volleyball and of course he’ll be free to go to the Olympics in the summer,” Cook said. “He’ll be able to have some interaction and he’ll be able to go to the Olympics.”
Hildebrand will coach beach volleyball at Nebraska along with Jaylen Reyes, the other indoors assistant. During this year’s abbreviated beach season, Reyes had former Husker All-American setter Kelly Hunter as his assistant. In the fall, she will move back to the indoors team as a volunteer assistant.
It remains a matter of curiosity when or how USA Volleyball fills Hildebrand’s position. When asked whether he had any candidates in mind who could take his place, Hildebrand laughed.
“Boom,” he said. “There it is. I plead the Fifth. We need to find the system first before we fill in my position because that’s going to be dependent upon what we’re trying to do (at USA Volleyball).”
Could USA hire a coach by, say, early spring of 2021, and expect them to build a system and rapport by the Olympics? Unlikely. But can USA afford to keep Hildebrand in a remote role and wait to hire a replacement until after the Games?
“Everyone’s trying to find out how can we disrupt things the least right now, with the world in full disruption,” he said. “We’ve talked to most of our top teams and floated the idea of me being able to stay on from a remote standpoint and some pockets here and there where I’ll be able to come back and stay in person and still be able to go to the Olympics in the capacity that I’m in.
“I think from USAV’s perspective, that’s the least amount of change. I’d love to follow through and go to the Olympics with the teams we’ve been working with.”