LINCOLN — There may be no clearer sign of how highly Tyler Hildebrand regarded the chance to become Nebraska’s newest volleyball assistant than to look at what he gave up to take it.
The 33-year-old Hildebrand was the associate head coach for the men’s team at his alma mater, Long Beach State, where he was a three-time All-American as a player. In addition, he had recently come to an agreement to be an assistant for the U.S. men’s Olympic indoor volleyball team under head coach John Speraw, the highly-decorated men’s coach at UCLA.
It was a lot to walk away from, but when the lifelong West Coaster saw a missed call from a familiar phone number, he was pretty sure it might be time for a change.
“In my opinion, there’s just a couple schools that are in Nebraska’s class on the women’s side,” Hildebrand said. “I think there’s more unique things and exciting things about Nebraska than any other program. For sure, there’s just a couple (like Nebraska), then it’s everybody else, in my opinion.”
It was a second chance Hildebrand wasn’t guaranteed. When NU assistant Dan Meske left to become the head coach at Augustana (South Dakota) in 2015, Nebraska coach John Cook began asking around for replacement candidates. He remembered a conversation with his brother, who raved about the coaching his two sons were receiving on a boys club program in Los Angeles from a former All-America setter from Long Beach State.
“He says, ‘You’ve got to watch this guy. This guy runs the best practices I’ve ever seen,’” Cook said. Hildebrand said at the time he was new to receiving big-time job offers. He had recently been approached with a couple of other overtures to leave Long Beach, so when he returned from a beach volleyball practice to see a missed call from the 402 area code, a wry thought popped into his head.
“I had never met John or talked to John ever,” Hildebrand said. “I totally, jokingly in my head, I’m like, ‘Oh, I bet that’s John Cook.’ And it actually was. It was so crazy. That was two years ago. That’s kind of how it started, out of nowhere.”
But in 2015, the timing didn’t work. Nebraska needed an assistant right away with the season beginning in a few months. Hildebrand had committed to coaching the U.S. beach volleyball team of Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson in the 2016 Olympics in Rio while helping coach setters on the men’s indoor team.
Keep me in mind if you have another opening, Hildebrand told Cook, who then hired Chris Tamas, an invaluable component of the Huskers’ back-to-back final four teams.
In college volleyball, the number of opportunities — and competitive salaries — are more plentiful on the women’s side, so Hildebrand knew he eventually wanted to switch over from coaching men. He kept in touch with Cook a couple of times — an email after Nebraska won the 2015 national title and a text wishing the Huskers luck before the 2016 NCAA tournament.
The wheel spun back around in February when Tamas called Cook and told him he was accepting the head coaching job at Illinois. Cook hung up and dialed a California number he’d saved for just such an occasion.
“I think he’s a home run. He’s going to make me a better coach,” Cook said. “I’m at a point in my career where I want someone who can make me better, and I think he’s got the confidence and experience.
“Can he come in and say, ‘Hey, we can do this better? Can we run this offense better? Can we do this defense better? Can we train this better? Can we recruit better?’ He’s going to have the experience and the confidence to give feedback on things we can do better. We’re always trying to get better.”
Cook is betting that Hildebrand can, and the hire bares some similarities to two years ago, when Cook brought Tamas to Lincoln from Cal Poly. Hildebrand will take over Tamas’ responsibilities of coaching the Huskers’ blocking and defensive schemes. Also like Tamas, whose wife, Jen, joined NU as a volunteer assistant and captained the U.S. women’s national team, Hildebrand also is married to a former U.S. women’s national team captain.
Kristin (Richards) Hildebrand, who recently retired from playing professionally, was a member of the 2006 Stanford team that lost to Jordan Larson and Sarah Pavan’s Nebraska club in the NCAA title match in Omaha. She also will join the Huskers in a yet-to-be determined volunteer role and is friends and former teammates with Nebraska’s other assistant Kayla Banwarth, another new hire who was the USA’s starting libero in the 2016 Olympics.
“My wife really doesn’t have a ton of experience coaching, but she has a ton of (volleyball) experience,” Hildebrand said. “Her biggest strengths are being a captain, being a team leader, really being tight with girls. She’s kind of got a gift when it comes to dealing with athletic teams, specifically with girls. Kind of being a big sister. I think she’s going to be in that mentor role.”
Now, Nebraska’s new assistant will have to juggle a spring of transition. Hildebrand will coach the Huskers in their beach season this week and be with NU for its spring exhibition match against Colorado State in April. He will also make a few trips back to the West Coast to help No. 1 Long Beach State finish its season, which for the men ends with the final four in May.
It didn’t leave Hildebrand much time for the usual formalities in a coaching search. His first interview was via Skype, and the next step was for Cook to bring the couple to Lincoln to show them around and make the hard sell.
But before the plane tickets were booked, Cook called Hildebrand back. By now, the two were familiar with one another and everyone’s cards were on the table. If I offered you the job right now, Cook asked, would you still need to come kick the tires first?
Hildebrand knew a good set when he saw one.
“To have this opportunity,” he said, “to want to get in the women’s game and have this school call, like I said, everything about this was a done deal.”