Hebert’s plan: build

Sarah Mitchell

Mike Hebert accepted the head coaching position with Minnesota’s volleyball program in hopes of building a powerhouse. Now, in his third season at Minnesota and 23rd season at the collegiate level, Hebert faces a different challenge — altering the sport’s stereotypes.
Hebert wants to put to rest the idea that volleyball is about yelling “Rotate!” and batting the ball back and forth over a droopy net.
“I think when people think of volleyball they think of the company picnic or 20 people on each side of the net, in the backyard with a barrel of beer,” Hebert said. “That’s what people think, but this is a very different, highly dynamic, fast-paced game. In my opinion, if the student body or the community discovers this sport, they’ll come.”
Since Minnesota’s volleyball attendance has been in the top 10 in the nation for several years, Hebert has a solid start in his bid to make volleyball a main sport on campus.
“I think the Twin Cities has the capacity to average between 3,000 and 4,000 people per match,” Hebert said. “If we can create a team that is just one or two levels higher than what we have right now, then I think we are going to generate some attention.”
For the southern California native, the concept of volleyball as a competitive sport was realized as a youngster. But Hebert didn’t play competitively until he attended California-Santa Barbara, a school with a rich volleyball history.
“I went to college and learned the sport on the beach,” Hebert said. “I joined a fraternity, and in the side yard they had a sand volleyball court. I found out quickly that everyone there played beach volleyball. I kind of fell in love with the sport.”
Hebert learned the game so well that he joined the team in 1961 and played all four years. But after his eligibility expired, Hebert continued on with school and eventually earned his Ph.D in philosophy at Indiana University.
The volleyball drought lasted six years after graduation. Hebert taught at the college level for three years at Chatham in Pittsburgh before he realized he “just didn’t really care for college teaching.”
Before beginning his expansive coaching career at the collegiate level, Hebert spent three years teaching social studies at the high school level. There, in 1976, he was approached about coaching at the University of Pittsburgh.
He accepted, and he never stopped.
Hebert spent four years at Pittsburgh, three years with New Mexico and 13 seasons with Illinois before finding himself at Minnesota. Along the way Hebert’s list of accomplishments grew to include four Big Ten titles, two perfect 18-0 conference records, two appearances in the Final Four and becoming one of just eight active NCAA Division I coaches to reach the 600-win milestone.
Coaching is more demanding than teaching, Hebert said, and he finds it much more rewarding.
“There’s no job that requires more energy and time than coaching at the college level,” Hebert said. “It’s just a draining 16-hour-a-day experience.”
Through all of the practice and hours spent recruiting and studying videos, there is one thing Hebert hasn’t experienced — the feeling of being a national champion.
“For me the dream has always been to win a national championship,” Hebert said. “My dream was to come here and try to build a team that would be of that caliber, just to be in the hunt for a national championship.”
While Hebert has had to deal with frustrations — like losing in the Final Four to Hawaii twice while at Illinois — his intensity has never slipped.
“I’ve never been a real wild man. I think I am probably known as a practical, common sense, figure-out-how-to-win kind of coach,” Hebert said. “I don’t think I’m a jerk in the gym. I don’t think I’m easy, but I don’t think I beat people up unnecessarily.”
Hebert’s wife Sherry, who has been with him since his coaching days at New Mexico, agrees.
“He’s always been really steady,” she said. I don’t see him as a rah-rah coach. He’s a thinker. He’s a real student of the game.”
Like any other student, Hebert puts his knowledge in writing. Hebert has published various articles and two books — “Insights and Strategies For Winning Volleyball” and “The Fire Still Burns”. The former was published in 1991 and offers ideas on how to create a champion. It remains one of the most popular books in the sport. The latter is an autobiography, published in 1993.
And although Hebert sounds like he is at the top of his field, the coach said he is still learning — especially from his players.
“They’ve taught me that it’s very important to listen to people and seek their input on a number of different things, all the way from technical, tactical areas of team play to how they’re getting along as a group,” Hebert said. “I’ve learned from all of them to keep my ear on the ground because they have intelligent things to say.”
Hebert’s willingness to listen has landed him some top recruits. Freshman setter Lindsey Berg was highly recruited as one of the best players in the nation, but the Hawaii native chose to overlook the cold Minnesota winters because of Hebert.
“The coach played a huge role,” said Berg, who leads the Big Ten with 25 service aces. “His reputation, his solid coaching, his positive attitude and his will to win brought me here. It’s been very easy for me to communicate with him. He makes me feel very comfortable.”
One of Hebert’s favorite players might have been his own daughter, Hillary, who was a member of the 1996 team.
“It was heaven. It was absolutely wonderful,” Hebert said. “We both enjoyed it tremendously.”
Besides searching the world for quality players, Hebert keeps busy by helping coach at the national level, coaching Pan-Am teams and World University Games teams. Hebert has been a candidate to coach Team USA in the past, but said he wouldn’t be eager to accept the position if it were ever offered.
“I have a stable situation here,” Hebert said. “I don’t have to be on the road 200 days of the year.”
From the looks of it, Hebert’s coaching days might end in Minnesota.
“The only project I’d like to start building is maybe a log cabin in Colorado.”