Hebert’s work undone as new coach

Kristian Pope

It began as an accident. But in 20 years, the coaching career of Dr. Mike Hebert has shown purpose.
Just ask women’s athletics director Chris Voelz, who hired Hebert in December with hopes of resuscitating Minnesota’s volleyball program and bringing it the acclaim that he brought three other institutions in those 20 years.
“Most coaching hires are made knowing you’ll take a chance on that person,” Voelz said. “This wasn’t a chance. With Mike, success is a predictable guarantee.”
After 13-year coach Stephanie Schleuder was fired after the 1994 season, Voelz initiated a national search.
Minnesota hired Hebert a year later, but it’s clear that Voelz’ interest began a day after the Schleuder firing.
When Schleuder was fired, Illinois athletics director Karol Kahrs spoke with Hebert regarding the opening at Minnesota. Although no official job offer was made, Voelz told Hebert the job was his if he wanted it, Kahrs said. At that time, Hebert gave no indication that he wanted to come to Minnesota.
Now that Voelz and the University have the man they wanted, it is without question that Minnesota is banking on Hebert to put its volleyball program among the nation’s elite.
In hiring Hebert, they expect nothing less. And why should they? Just take a look at Hebert’s track record.
Hebert’s coaching career began in 1976 at Pittsburgh, a place where Hebert recalls making $2,500 a year. With no previous coaching experience, he said he took the job as a favor to the athletics director.
“It never occurred to me coaching was an option,” said Hebert, who figured he would be a philosophy professor and writer. Hebert did play volleyball at Santa Barbara in college, but he never took the sport further. Over four seasons at Pitt, Hebert’s teams never won less than 27 games.
In 1980 his coaching took the next step. His daughter’s asthma forced his family to relocate to a warmer climate. They wound up in New Mexico. In three seasons there, Hebert made the team a winner.
At a 1979 volleyball tournament in Carbondale, Ill., Kahrs saw Hebert coach for the first time.
“I was certainly surprised by his performance,” Kahrs said. Kahrs was so impressed with Hebert, she kept track of him at New Mexico and in 1983, when Illinois needed a volleyball coach, Kahrs came looking for Hebert.
“Back then, very few coaches knew about building a champion from the ground up,” said Kahrs who remains director of athletics in Champaign, Ill. “But Mike did. He is a visionary in my opinion.”
Hebert as a reputation builder:
Tara Baynes, a Gophers sophomore from Belle Plain, Minn., was recruited by Hebert three years ago. Baynes said she wanted to play for Hebert, but the situation at Minnesota was more to her liking.
When Minnesota announced it had snatched Hebert from Illinois, Baynes’ mother was first to know.
“I was coming home one afternoon and my mom was standing in the driveway,” Baynes said. “She said. `I know who you’re new coach is.’ When she said it was Mike, I just dropped my stuff and thought~, `Wow.'”
Like the entire volleyball community, Baynes knew of Hebert and what he had done at Illinois. He began in Champaign in 1983, a year when it was tough to know which was worse: the facilities or the players. In his first season for the Illini, Hebert had a 5-25 record.
“Illinois was desperate back then to make a move,” Hebert said. “I didn’t inherit any talent. But there are tools here at Minnesota.”
In 1983 the entire feel around women’s athletics was unlike 1996. Sports like women’s volleyball have gone from afterthoughts to revenue generators.
For 13 years, Hebert was synonymous with Illinois volleyball. Eleven straight appearances at the NCAA’s, two final four trips and four Big Ten titles had made him and his family celebrities in the town with a population of 100,000.
But Hebert said the last five years were tough. Things at Illinois were becoming stale but the pressure of his job was increasing. Fans, which frequently numbered more than 10,000, demanded a winner. The media crush sometimes bittered Hebert.
As his dilemma grew, Minnesota came calling. But still, Hebert had no inclination to leave for the North Star State.
“I talked with Mike a year before he took the Minnesota job and he said `No,'” Kahrs said. “As far as I was concerned, Minnesota was a dead issue.”
It was anything but that. Minnesota struggled through the ’95 season under interim coach Pam Miller-Dombeck. It was no secret Voelz was searching for another coach. The only real secret was who she wanted to fill that spot.
Hebert moving on:
During the week of Thanksgiving, 1995, the Hebert’s received a registered letter. “We were just getting back from a road trip,” said Sherry Hebert, Mike’s wife. “The letterhead said Minnesota on it. Well, we knew what the letter was about.”
Voelz made the offer to Mike Hebert again. And on Christmas Night, Kahrs said she received a call from Hebert notifying her of his decision.
Hebert contends his choice to move on and rebuild Minnesota was personal. “My wife and I just realized it was time for a change,” he said. “All of us have a need for renewal. It’s like going to the same parking place day after day. Unless you’re a master of renewal within you’re own environment, you need to change.”
So Hebert, Ph.D. and author of two books, has found a new setting at Minnesota. In part because of the challenge of new surroundings, Hebert said this move was no accident.
“I’m a peak-climber,” he said. “I’m not a pharmacist who stays in the family profession for generations. I thought the resources were here and that there were enough positive indicators to make the move.”