There will be c…

Kristian Pope

There will be cheers. Jeers, too, maybe. No one is totally sure what the reaction will be on Saturday when Mike Hebert enters Huff Hall.
In that University of Illinois arena, Hebert became a women’s college volleyball legend. Thirteen years. Four Big Ten titles. A couple of final fours, too. The Gophers volleyball coach knows the place all too well.
That was yesterday. Today, Hebert is enjoying a new beginning at Minnesota, where he’s trying to turn the Gophers into a winner. Just like he did in Champaign, Ill., where he’ll be this weekend. It’s the first time he’ll be in that city since taking the Minnesota job last December.
The return has been on Hebert’s mind all week.
“I’m sure there will be some of my supporters at the game,” he said. “But there will be that percentage who think I’m a traitor for leaving Illinois.
“I understand the reality (of leaving), but I don’t feel like a traitor.”
Those feelings do prevail, however. In departing Illinois for the same position within the conference, Hebert has taken criticism.
“As an administrator, I never thought that was appropriate,” Illinois Athletics Director Karol Kahrs said. “If you’re elevating from a position within the conference, I would never hold someone back. But a lateral move, like moving to another head coaching job, is unusual.
“I would never stand in Mike’s way. But I wouldn’t have encouraged him to go to another Big Ten school,” Kahrs said.
When he did, Illinois was left in shock. A few players, including All-American Erin Borske quit the program. Kahrs wound up hiring Louisville’s Don Hardin, a Hebert protege.
“This has been the biggest challenge in my life,” Hardin said. Hardin played for Hebert at Pittsburgh in 1979 and coached with him at Illinois for five years.
“Mike was my mentor,” Hardin said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”
Hardin said the job hasn’t been easy. “Ideally you want to take over for a coach who botched up,” he said. “That way you come in with automatic credibility because people think, well, you have to be better than the guy before.”
When you take over for an icon, the job takes on a different meaning.
“I’ve come into a situation where everyone is second-guessing what I do,” Hardin said. “I have to earn my credibility.”
Hardin said fans have rallied around his hiring. Attendance at Huff Hall has been steady.
While Hebert doesn’t know what to expect, Hardin has an idea. Illinois just returned from Hardin’s old digs, Louisville. He said he was surprised at the outcome.
“I thought Louisville would come out furious and want to beat me,” Hardin said. “But the opposite happened. My team wanted to show me I didn’t make a mistake by coming (to Illinois).”
The Cardinals succumbed to the excitement. And Hardin believes the same could happen to his bunch.
“(Minnesota) is very loyal to that new staff,” Hardin said. “They want to show the coach that they’re behind him. It could be a psychological disadvantage for us.”
Hebert doesn’t think so. “Hardin’s sandbagging it,” he said. “In that gym, Illinois can’t play badly. I know those players too well.”
There’s a lot that Hebert knows too well. He’s at Minnesota now, and all that talk about him taking a job at a rival school means little.
But Hebert knows there’s a part of him that will always remain in Champaign.
“I spent 13 years there building and sustaining that program,” Hebert said. “It remains a warm and special place for me.
“But I’m not going back there to greet old friends,” he said. “I’m going there as Minnesota’s coach.”