Dr. Coach: Hebert supplies wisdom, wins

Mike Hebert’s style and pedigree don’t quite set him apart as much as his success.

Kent Erdahl

If three letters could be used to describe Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert, it probably wouldn’t take a Gophers fan long to come up with “Ph.D.”

After all, Hebert is one of the few coaches whose name booms over the Sports Pavilion’s sound system bearing the title of “doctor” instead of “coach.”

But Minnesota senior Trisha Bratford has three different letters earmarked for her long-time coach.

“I see (Hebert) as a person that’s always three ‘C’s – cool, calm and collected,” Bratford said. “You’ll never see him out of that personality. He’s just always going to do things that way.”

Whatever the case, throughout his 29 years of coaching,Hebert’s name has carried with it another three-letter word familiar to every sports fan – “win.”

During his career, which includes nine seasons at Minnesota, Hebert has accumulated a record of 793-338. This season, Hebert has led the Gophers to a 22-4 record and a No. 5 ranking.

And all of this from a man that sits barely audible at the edge of his chair during tightly contested matches full of screaming people and red faces.

“Earlier in my career, I was pretty feisty,” Hebert said. “In the old days, I did everything. I put the tape in the little box for the national anthem, swept the floor and put up the net.”

Today, Hebert prefaces his role as coach by explaining that the game has changed, allowing him to rely on his associate coach David Boos, who acts as a serve, block and defensive coordinator, and assistant coach Jill Pearson, who works with the setters and calls the offensive plays.

Boos said he values his level of responsibility. But he said it came slowly over his three years with the program.

“You have to earn his trust,” Boos said. “But once you get it from him and he knows you know what you’re doing, he definitely lets you spread your wings and fly.”

Because of Boos and Pearson’s valuable contributions, Hebert said, he can concentrate on the ebb and flow of energy and emotion throughout the match.

That was something he said the team needed last weekend against No. 4 Penn State and No. 8 Ohio State.

“During the Penn State match, I think (Gophers players) forgot what allowed them to play so well,” Hebert said. “When you start thinking about outcomes, there’s an automatic constriction that occurs in the muscles in the brain. The free flow of energy and confidence just stops right there.”

Although the observation might have been more technical when Hebert presented the team with his analysis in a meeting before the Ohio State match on Saturday, Minnesota responded with a 3-1 win.

Hebert’s explanation also goes a long way in describing the relationship he sees between coaching and the experience he gained while pursuing his doctorate in philosophy of education from Indiana.

He said he uses the same critical-thinking skills all the time in volleyball – especially because he has more freedom to analyze the bigger picture during a match.

But Hebert is quick to point out the different challenges coaching presents as well.

“You just don’t have time to sit and ponder like, ‘Let’s see, we’re going down the tubes. In another hour here I might have a response,’ ” Hebert said.

Although he never said how he accomplishes his analysis so quickly, Hebert’s ability to be a quick study isn’t hard to see.

Last year, Hebert was named Volleyball Magazine national coach of the year for leading Minnesota to its first NCAA Final Four in program history.

In doing so, he also became the first coach to lead two teams from the same conference to a Final Four – he brought Illinois there in 1987 and 1988.

But the impression he makes isn’t only found in the numbers. Bratford said Hebert goes beyond being a great coach, even if she needs to stay on her toes because of his education.

“He’s the type of person you want to have as a friend, not only as a coach, because he has a lot of wisdom in both aspects,” she said. “But you have to watch how you word things, because he can turn it on you at the last minute, and you’re not really sure where it’s coming from. That’s coming from his Ph.D.”