Our special coach-reporter relationship
will be hard to duplicate
by Charles Hallman
Many years ago, Mike Hebert stood up at a school function and publicly told the audience that I was one of the few local reporters that didn’t unfairly judge him after he was hired as Gopher volleyball coach in 1996. To paraphrase Rick’s closing line in Casablanca, that was just part of a beautiful 15-year coach-reporter relationship.
A few years after that, Hebert allowed this curmudgeon to spend a day practicing with his squad, an occasion that took me several days afterwards to recover from. He once took time out during a brief stopover at the Metro Detroit airport in 1999 to speak to me — the Gophers were on their way to the NCAA regionals, and I was in the area taking care of my late uncle, who then was hospitalized. Thereafter, the coach always made sure to ask about my uncle’s well-being.
We talked both on the record and off about volleyball, as well as life in general.
“He’s a pretty special guy,” said Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi when I asked him about Hebert, who announced last weekend that he is retiring. “He wanted to leave on his own terms.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for the last two or three years,” admitted Hebert during a phone interview Monday night. “Each year I come back and say, ‘I have one more year in me.’ But this time it actually started back in June, when [he and his wife Sherry] were in San Diego with our kids. Then I got back in August and said, ‘Man, I think it’s time.’
“Then I changed my mind and decided to stay another year,” Hebert continued, “and then I changed my mind back. I would say about the last six weeks or so is when I really confirmed my decision.”
Hebert leaves the Gophers with a 952-392 career record, 381-125 at Minnesota. Inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006, he is the only Division I coach to record 300 wins and Final Four appearances at two different programs from the same conference — Illinois (1983-1995) and at Minnesota — during a 35-year coaching career that began at the University of Pittsburgh in 1976.
This column has called the Gopher volleyball program the school’s best-kept secret, consistently overlooked by local scribes:
• 14 NCAA appearances in 15 years
• 12 Big Ten first division finishes, including tying for 2nd place this fall
• Eight regional trips
• Four regional finals
• Three Final Fours, including last season
• One national championship runners-up (2004)
• A Big Ten title in 2002
“What Mike has done over his 15 years here is an athletic director’s dream,” says Maturi.
“He has been a great mentor to me. I learned a lot from him,” says U of M Women’s Basketball Coach Pam Borton of Hebert.
I asked Hebert perhaps my toughest question Monday: What is a highlight among highlights during his decade and a half at Minnesota? “What stands out to me,” he softly replied, “are the number of kids that I was able to help grow up a little bit, to help gain some maturity. I’ve enjoyed the whole journey and not just the winning moments. It’s not much of a glamorous answer, but it’s the truth.”
Said Hebert of his final squad that finished 26-9 and reached the Sweet Sixteen before losing in three sets last Friday to California in Seattle, “I felt this team accomplished more than I thought they would, especially in not being able to put the same lineup out there on a regular basis.”
They went 11-2 in their last 13 matches. “I thought that was a pretty good run,” added Hebert.
Maturi says that he has no timetable on hiring Hebert’s successor. “He’s leaving the program in outstanding shape.”
Hebert said of a Minnesota squad that returns next season with all but one player, “I really enjoyed working with the Minnesota program, and I am really happy to be leaving it in good shape.”
I don’t know if I will have the same relationship with whoever is named the next Gopher volleyball coach. Perhaps that’s best, because it would be very hard to duplicate the 15-year relationship this reporter had with Hebert.
“I always appreciated our talks as well,” concluded the former U of M coach.
We wish him as much success in his retirement life as he achieved in his coaching life.
Diversity days long gone in Gopher FB
During his tenure, former U of M coach Tim Brewster had the most Black assistant coaches among the 11 Big Ten schools.
New Gopher Coach Jerry Kill said last week that he intends to bring several of his former Northern Illinois assistants, most of whom are White, along with him. Thus far he has hired, or retained, two of them.
<i>Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.</i>