Prominent on my very short list of coaches and managers, pro and college, with whom I personally can say I have had a close relationship during my four decades of sports journalism is Mike Hebert. Sadly, that list now is a little shorter, as the former Gopher volleyball coach passed away October 21 at age 75.
A video tribute and a moment of silence were held Oct. 30 before and during the Minnesota-Ohio State match at Maturi Pavilion, where Hebert coached during his Gopher career (1996-2010).
Hebert coached at four schools: Pittsburgh (men and women, 1976-1979), New Mexico (men and women, 1980-82), Illinois (women, 1983-1995) and Minnesota. When he was hired here to coach the Gophers, Hebert became the second-ever volleyball coach who I covered as a beat reporter.
From then on until he stepped down at the end of the 2010 season, the head coach and I shared many good times on and off the record, both at home and on an occasional road trip when I was able to tag along.
He replaced the popular Stephanie Schleuder, who was in charge when I came on board in the mid-1980s. Hebert was very successful at Illinois, and it was unheard of for an already Big Ten head coach to take over another conference program.
A few years after he came here, Hebert told a room full of boosters at an off-season dinner he invited me to attend that I was probably one of the few local media types who truly gave him a fair shake in the early years of his Gopher tenure. I never forgot that gesture.
We talked about anything and everything. Hebert never seemed tired of my questioning, my wanting to learn as much as possible about the sport he loved both as a player and then as a coach.
He once gladly agreed to my George Plimpton-inspired idea to participate with his team in a full day of pre-season training camp. Through that experience, we developed a players-coaches-reporter bond that still exists today.
Hebert moved the Gophers program from being a very competitive intra-conference program to national prominence. He won over 75 percent of his matches, leading Minnesota to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, eight NCAA Regional berths, three Final Fours, the 2002 Big Ten championship, and the 2004 national runners-up.
He overall coached teams in the NCAAs 26 times. His 892 wins rank 14th all-time, and he also coached USA teams in international competition. His professorial demeanor during games belied his fiery competitiveness.
Hebert was a 2006 AVCA Hall of Fame inductee, he joined the Minnesota M Club Hall of Fame in 2011, and he won coach-of-the-year honors many times. He also was an innovator and forward thinker, recognizing that the libero position (a designated defensive position) was coming soon to U.S. college volleyball (in 1999) and recruiting accordingly.
Brazilian-born Paula Gentil was the Gophers’ first libero, who broke the NCAA record for most digs in a single season in 2004, the team’s first National Championship appearance. Gentil was signed by Hebert, who convinced many international-born players to attend Minnesota.
We kept in touch as best we could after Hebert moved out West following his retirement as a head coach. He did, however, stay active as a USA Volleyball consultant.
The last time we saw each other in person was at the Convention Center during a USA youth summer tournament a few years ago. And, as always, we talked about everything and updated each other on what was happening in our lives.
Minnesota Athletics was saddened upon the news of Hebert’s passing last month. But not as saddened as this reporter.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.