A Living Legend
Nov. 20, 2006
Nearly 15 years ago, a dark-haired, mustache-donning Mike Hebert posed for the cover of the Illinois volleyball media guide as the teacher of a crop of "new students," a young but talented Illini lineup poised to ring in the second decade of Big Ten women's athletics. Already hailed as one of the sport's greatest teachers, the young sideline tutor held a yard stick as wide as his smile and a trademark sense of humor that continues to measure the growths of volleyball across the conference and the nation.
In the 25th anniversary season of Big Ten women's championships, Hebert - albeit now gray-haired and decked out in maroon and gold - still commands the Big Ten sidelines with the same personality and brilliant approach.
Now Minnesota's head coach, Hebert will spend this Thanksgiving weekend like he has so many of the past three decades, preparing his team for the game's grandest stage, a run at the Big Ten title and the NCAA Tournament. As the legendary mentor nears the end of his 31st season, he knows that much has changed since he stepped on the collegiate sidelines for the first time in 1976, but the Golden Gophers are thankful their coach isn't showing any signs of slowing down.
"I've always had the desire to compete at the highest level," he said. "Some of us are lucky enough to enjoy the heck out of what we're getting paid for, and I'm one of those. I love the challenge of continuing to build a program that can compete at the highest level, and you can't sit and relax for a second. The minute you sit and relax, someone is about to pass you by."
Hebert's countless accomplishments came full circle this year when he was inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Merely a week before his election into the class of 2006, the former president of the organization notched his program-leading 264th victory.
Hebert fell in love with volleyball during his undergraduate years at the University of California-Santa Barbara where "volleyball wasn't just a sport it was a religion," he said. Hebert soaked up volleyball with the California rays, playing on several teams including the UCSB varsity indoor squad. When he left, the Long Beach, Calif., native didn't know just how far his love affair with the sport would take him.
He spent the next couple of years in the Peace Corps in Nigeria and volleyball remained an integral part of his life. He assembled a team of ex-patriots and an assortment of people from around the world. When he returned to the United States, Hebert received his PhD in philosophy of education at Indiana and started teaching at the University of Pittsburgh where a call in 1975 changed his life and eventually the face of Big Ten volleyball as we know it.
"I was playing with a weekend warrior team in the club volleyball days, and I was called by the University of Pittsburgh to coach their women's team," he explained. "When I was first offered the job, I thought it was for the men's team. I said, `I've never seen women play volleyball - I'd have no clue what to do,' so I declined."
The university called back about a month later saying they couldn't find anyone and asked Hebert to reconsider.
"Well, I'll give it a shot," said Hebert. He accepted the job for the grand total of $1,500 and started in the fall of 1976. The team's first uniforms were hand-me-downs from the men's basketball team, and the players had to buy their own shoes. Hebert also had to devise his own drills from scratch.
Without many team sports for women in the mid-1970s, Hebert and his team were pioneers. He was faced with questions that seemed archaic even then: Should women train as hard as guys? Will women get hurt or injured?
"It was just completely different than it is now. There was no model, no guidebook that gave us instructions," he said. "We invented things as we went along, and for that reason, it was exciting.
"I think all of us felt that we were doing something that would eventually have a real point to it. We all knew that we were doing something historical. And believe me, there was an awful lot of fun had by all."
He continued coaching there for four years with his part-time position turning full-time in his final season, and for the last two years of his stay in Pittsburgh, Hebert also coached the men's team. Hebert's next stop took him to the University of New Mexico for three years, where he led the Lobos to the West Regional Championship in the NCAA Tournament's inaugural season.
In 1983, the So-Cal-bred coach was ready for a new challenge and change of scenery. Building a winning program where the year-round average temperature was 75-degrees and the sun-soaked talent wades into the area's traditional powerhouses was not what Hebert had in mind. Instead, he moved to Champaign, Ill., where he would shake the world of collegiate volleyball from its foundation.
After finishing 5-25 and dead last in the conference in his first season at Illinois, Hebert got the athletic department invested in his purpose and found the support he needed to be successful. Two years later, Hebert was named National Volleyball Coach of the Year after leading the Illini to a nation's best record of 39-3 and a runners-up finish in the conference title race during the 1985 season. Within the next season, Illinois garnered its first Big Ten crown with a perfect 18-0 record in conference play.
The success kept rolling, and while Hebert's team defended its title for two more seasons, the Illini turned their focus toward conquering the nation. Hebert led the Illini to back-to-back national semifinals in 1987 and 1988 with the three-time Big Ten Player of the Year Mary Eggers leading the way.
Disa Garner, formerly Disa Johnson in her heyday at Illinois, was a standout and Illini captain for the 1986 and 1987 Big Ten Champion teams. An All-Big Ten selection, Garner was so highly respected as an athlete that she was later named to the conference's all-decade team.
"Having the opportunity to win and then get to the final four as the first Big Ten school to do so was a dream come true for all of us," she said. "When they recruited us that was one of the things they talked about - completely turning Illinois around. Being able to go from where they were to having the opportunity to go to the final four in my class's senior year, was the neatest thing to be a part of, the dramatic change that took place under his direction."
During the 1988 season, Illinois became the first volleyball team east of the Mississippi River to be rated No. 1 in the nation, and the shift in the volleyball power structure followed in full force.
"When I first got into the Big Ten in 1983, there were only a couple of teams that really played volleyball at a serious level," said Hebert. "One of the things that Illinois did in the early-to-mid-80s was really put some support into the volleyball program, and we were able to build strong teams.
"I think that sort of acted as a catalyst for other schools to fire up their volleyball programs, and by the end of the 1980s, a lot of the schools had tremendous coaches in place and were providing an awful lot of financial support to their volleyball programs. The conference transformed very quickly into one that was very competitive, top to bottom, and it has just remained that way ever since."
It wasn't just the numbers that defined Hebert's success, it was the creativity and unique way of thinking that he used to build Illinois into a national powerhouse that sealed his reputation as one of the nation's top coaches and recruiters. At Illinois, Hebert developed the "Primary Hitter System," a scheme that was designed to relieve pressure from inexperienced setters.
Hebert had been thinking about sports and specialization when he decided to revamp the way his teams worked offensively. In football, the quarterback hands off to the running back when the team wants to run - he doesn't give it to the defensive tackle, explained Hebert. Likewise, in baseball they don't have someone who can't pitch on the mound.
"I had ideas about volleyball offense percolating in my mind for a few years, and it all kind of came together in the early 80s when I was thinking, `Why don't we develop a system that gets the ball to our best hitter as much as possible?'" Hebert said. "That seems like an obvious thing today, but it wasn't that obvious in the early 80s when setters were distributing the ball based on what - I don't know.
"I watched our team play and thought, `Why are we setting our worst hitter in this rotation? Because it's the setter's friend?'"
Hebert sat down and mapped out a system that in each rotation the team could get the ball to its top hitter. Since then, that approach has become common place, but in those days it wasn't a familiar practice in collegiate volleyball in the United States.
"When I started playing for Mike, one of the things that I really liked about him was - and I still believe he is this way now - that he's just a master of the game," Garner said. "His intellect on what he knows about volleyball and how he schemes things up and just his creativity. Being such a forerunner, really I think establishing what the game is today had a lot to do with Mike Hebert. He was such a great teacher of the game, and you just had such a great respect for him that you just knew there was a reason for what he wanted to do and why we were doing it."
His influence again resonated throughout college volleyball when he served as the president of the AVCA from 1985-88. When he first took office, the organization was called the CVCA - the Collegiate Association of Volleyball Coaches - but under Hebert's tenure, the group moved to include all coaches rather than just college. Hebert also spearheaded the effort to nationalize the sport that was long-perceived as a Southern California dynasty - a goal he held during his first years on the sidelines.
One of the mechanisms the AVCA used to do that was the regional championship. Rather than seeding the California teams across the four regions, the No. 1 seed was required to be based in its region. NCAA basketball used the same format in the 1960s until it was able to build up the playing level across the rest of the country to a point where there was parity without having to regionalize.
"That was a very unpopular decision with the California people, but the rest of the nation thought that would be the right thing to do at least for a while," Hebert explained. "So the tournament we see today is, in my opinion, its existence was accelerated by the regionalization of the tournament back in the 1980s."
After four Big Ten titles and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances at Illinois, Hebert again looked for a new challenge and found it on the other side of the conference at Minnesota in 1996. Despite moving to the frozen tundra of the Midwest, Hebert knew he could find the support and recruiting attractiveness in the Twin Cities' already-booming volleyball community.
"We knew if I could be successful on the court, we would get a strong showing at the gate," Hebert said.
When he left Champaign for Minneapolis after 13 years of success at Illinois, Hebert gave himself a deadline for reaching those same standards at Minnesota. He vowed to turn the Gophers into a Big Ten force within his first five seasons.
He only needed four.
In his first season, Hebert led Minnesota to a fourth-place finish in the conference and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three years. After dropping to eighth in the Big Ten two seasons later, the Gophers jumped to a strong runners-up finish behind eventual national champion Penn State in 1999. In 2002, Minnesota won its first conference title after putting together a 17-3 record in Big Ten play.
The following year, the Gophers returned most of those starters and were expected to have a solid squad. Instead, the team dropped its first four matches. At the start of Big Ten play, Minnesota went on the road and lost back-to-back games to Indiana and Purdue - two teams the Gophers were supposed to beat. A lot of people were beginning to doubt that Hebert and Minnesota would be able to right the ship, but the team's seniors took over in the locker room and reversed the course of their final season.
"We were just awful at the beginning of the year. All I can remember is that we were just terrible," said Hebert. "I remember that season as being one of the maturation of our senior class. This is about players making decision and not me demanding something that they don't want to do. Our seniors stood up and said, `We're not going down. We're going to take a stand here and turn this around.' And they did."
It turned around with a vengeance.
The Gophers finished the year tied for second in the conference, and then they earned a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The squad knocked off three top-16 teams - including top-seeded Pepperdine - in the postseason event to become the lowest seeded team to ever win its way into the semifinal round. The resilient group also finished with 11 losses - the most ever of any team that has ever played in the "final four."
"What I remember most of that is the reluctance of anyone - players or staff - to accept that we were going to have a terrible season," said Hebert. "That the season wasn't going to end on a sour note. That was a fun team."
Hebert became the third coach to have ever led two different teams to the NCAA Championship semifinal round, making two trips at both Illinois and Minnesota. He is also the only coach to pilot two programs from the same conference to the tournament's national semifinals.
The Gophers had officially arrived, and Hebert followed through on the second part of his promise. After setting then-NCAA attendance records at Illinois, the support enveloped Minnesota in its success.
Always having felt a need to connect with the volleyball community and the community at large, Hebert spent countless hours attending public meetings, speaking and doing promotional work - a side of the program that a lot of coaches don't get involved with, opting to spend that time in the gym.
All of the work paid off for Hebert. In October 2004, the Gophers hosted Illinois at their own Williams Arena, drawing 10,927 fans - the eighth-highest attendance in NCAA history. Minnesota consistently ranks at the top of the Big Ten and the nation in fan support, tallying the third-best figures in the country last year with an average just below 4,000 per match.
"I've always thought that the success of a program lies beyond just wins and losses," Hebert said. "The environment you practice and compete in can provide the kind of motivation that lifts you to build a program and not just a good team every once in a while."
The innovative coach who revolutionized play-making at the beginning of his career again molded his approach to the game in 2004. Hebert was flexible enough to adjust his attack around two outstanding setters, running a 6-2 offense for the first time since his first season in 1976.
The tactic reaped dividends as the Gophers climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time in program history that September. By tournament time, Minnesota was the only team in the country to hold a top-5 rating all season, and the Gophers fed off of that unprecedented momentum.
After taking out two top-10 opponents, including Big Ten foe Ohio State to advance to their second-straight semifinal, the Gophers rocked reigning national champion USC to advance to the program's first ever NCAA Championship match. Despite falling to Stanford in the final, the Gophers' success re-emphasized Hebert's brilliance at the helm.
"It has been a confirmation that I still have the passion to build a program at a highly successful level," Hebert said. "Going from Illinois to Minnesota that was the question that a lot of people had about me - one I may even have had of myself. It's not easy to take a program and force the program into the elite competitive level."
Over the years, Hebert's primary coaching philosophy has remained the same. The key to his coaching success has been empowering players to make great decisions about how they practice and how they interact with one another on and off the court. Hebert calls himself more of an environment-creator than a demander.
"I think it's important that the players understand, that they know there are things demanded of them, but they choose to accept those demands and accept the accountability for what it is that they have to do rather than me beating them over the head with it," he said.
One of the truest signs of Hebert's success is not found in statistics or a trophy case but rather in the way his philosophy has been able to inspire future leaders in the game. Hebert has seen 14 of his former players and assistants become college head coaches while so many more serve as assistants.
Now in her seventh season as head coach at James Madison, Garner had the opportunity to serve as an assistant and director of recruiting under Hebert from 1991-93 while she got her masters in sports administration at Illinois.
"I think the mark of a really great coach is that you have a lot of former players who still love the game and want to be a part of it," Garner said. "Not many athletes get to go back to their alma mater, and coach for the person who they actually played for. To be in an environment where as a player you so dearly loved, it was an easy transition for me.
"However, Mike is a very challenging boss and you have to know what you're doing. You're accountable, and you want to work hard for him because you respect so much what he is able to do. You want to make sure that you're a very positive contributor to the big picture."
When Garner took over as the head coach of Missouri in the early 1990s, she was focused on turning around the dismal Tigers' program, and Hebert was her No. 1 supporter.
"He was a great sounding board. He was someone who I think really set a great foundation for me just in observing," she said. "I was fortunate to have gone through the rebuilding process as a player at Illinois. Certainly I didn't see all of this stuff going on behind the scenes, but I was certainly a product of that. That was a lot of the experience that went into what I was able to do at Missouri, but he was really able to set down some guidelines and give me some perimeters to work with."
One of the greatest lessons Garner said Hebert ever taught her was how to choose your battles wisely and knowing how to earn the administrators' support.
"He's the master of getting people to believe in his message and to get them to want to be a part of what your message is and what you're trying to accomplish," she said. "I think that's one of the greatest tricks as a successful coach is to be able to have a clear vision and be able to communicate that to your administrators because ultimately they are making the decisions on who's really going to be successful or not."
Garner achieved her goals at Missouri, taking a downtrodden program from the bottom of one of the nation's leading conferences. Her recruiting class made its first-ever Top 25 ranking and NCAA appearance in 2000. She was again ready for the feat at James Madison, where Garner was recently recognized as the Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year this season.
Just as Hebert has been able to inspire countless others in the volleyball world, the teacher has never stopped learning from others. Having participated in international assignments with the AVCA and as the U.S. Women's team coach, Hebert credits dozens of conversations with coaches from around the world - Cuba, Yugoslavia, England, Japan and more - for his continuing passion for learning about the game.
"I've had the opportunity to stay up late at night with the Japanese coaches, just staying up until the wee hours of the morning talking volleyball," he said. "That whole aggregate experience that I've been able to talk with coaches from around the world and the opportunity that I've been able to get to know them."
His teams have only missed the NCAA Tournament four times in his career, and Hebert has coached in more than 1,200 collegiate matches, but there are four so memorable the coach recalls each point, each pre-game bus ride and every point with feels-like-yesterday enthusiasm.
"There's a distinct euphoria attached to being able to coach at the final four," said Hebert. "You know that every one of your colleagues is competing to be able to do the same thing, and to get there and function in that environment - not just playing in the matches - I'm talking about practice sessions, the honorary dinners, all of the hoopla. You can't let one second of it go by without your full attention because if you don't pay attention, it will fly by."
The 2004 postseason was even more special for Hebert, who had powered through the season after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease a month after the Gophers' historic and improbable NCAA run in 2003.
"Your fate is your fate," Hebert said. "I would prefer not to have to deal with it, but I think I have the wisdom to know that it's the card I got dealt and it's one I have to play. I think everyone has to play one at some point in their life, and this is mine."
After experiencing troubling reactions - both physically and emotionally - to everyday situations, such as walking out onto the court, Hebert went to a doctor and discovered he had trouble with three disks in his neck. The doctors expanded their examination and were concerned by Hebert's gait.
Once diagnosed, the ever-curious Hebert immediately read every piece of related literature he could get his hands on. He discovered that Parkinson's is a slowly progressive and incurable disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement. Other than "walking goofy," Hebert says the disease has not changed his lifestyle, and he continues to keep treating it with medication while holding up his contract that runs through the 2010 season.
After keeping the disease between him and his family for two and a half years, Hebert decided to announce his condition publicly to lay all others' suspicions to rest. Garner and her teammates were relieved.
"A lot of us had been concerned for him the last few years because we didn't think that he was quite feeling the same as he normally had, but he wasn't really vocalizing that to anyone," she said. "When that came to, I think it was partly an `OK, now there's an explanation why he has been how he has been.' Our prayers are with him and [his wife] Sherry, but he's a very strong man and he's handling things so professionally. We're just so proud of who he is and what he stands for."
A lifetime supporter of women's athletics, Hebert could not be more proud to be a part of the path the Big Ten has taken in its support. Hebert hopes for another opportunity to see his program - and women's volleyball across the country - reach another milestone season and pull even closer to the growth that women's basketball has seen.
"The Big Ten has always championed the effort on the women's side to professionalize, to market, to promote," he said. "It has been clear that the Big Ten is in this for the long haul.
"A coach never considers a program complete. You're always thinking of something new to do something additional to put in place to make it better. I think the minute you think you're finished, that's probably when you want to get out of coaching."
Before he decides to walk away from the sideline in search of an under-90 golf game and a chance to give his wife a break from the hectic travel, the long-time teacher still believes he has several years of lessons left in him. As his Gophers prepare to close out the 2006 Big Ten season with a chance at the conference title and another NCAA Tournament in their future, Hebert is giving thanks this year for another opportunity to keep building.