By Mike Pearson
It is the answer to a trivial Illini question. Who was the first coach to lead a University of Illinois women’s sports team to an official Big Ten championship?
And the way his Illini career began unceremoniously in 1983, no one – including Mike Hebert himself – could have accurately predicted the success that would ultimately follow.
The shy youngster grew up in San Bernardino, Calif., but lost his father, Air Force Captain Robert Hebert, in 1952 during a fatal combat mission in the Korean conflict.
Mike wrote in his 1993 biography, “The fire is still burning“I must have heard a thousand times from well-meaning relatives and acquaintances ‘Now that your father is gone, you must be the man of the house.’ I didn’t want to be the man of the house. I was a kid, eight years old; I just wanted my dad.”
Hebert said his “obligation to be emotionally responsible” was the first in a series of watershed moments.
“I began to develop a strong urge to compete,” he writes, “a will to succeed.”
Hébert’s first passion was water sports, typical for a youngster who grew up 50 minutes from the Pacific Ocean. He tried his hand at other sports, and mostly unsuccessful tries in baseball and football were followed by moderate success in athletics as a jumper, and then more lofty achievements as a basketball player. As a teenager, he was employed at a burger joint owned by brothers named McDonald’s – yes, those McDonald’s.
After a stint at BYU for college, he transferred to Cal-Santa Barbara and discovered the sport of volleyball. Sand courts were everywhere and, Hebert said, “In no time I fell in love with the game. I had a 36-inch vertical jump, I was fast, I could hit the ball pretty hard and I was a good defensive player.”
As a senior at UCSB, Hebert applied for the Peace Corps.
“The idea of helping people and at the same time broadening my horizons was appealing,” he writes. “Next thing I knew I was getting off a plane in Lagos, Nigeria. That’s it, beach boy. This isn’t a vacation, this is life. (Jump from ) Isla Vista in Nigeria was like jumping out of a hot tub into a pool of freezing water.”
Hebert was supposed to spend two full years in Nigeria, but the deteriorating political atmosphere necessitated a quick exit for him and the other Peace Corps volunteers. Shortly after returning to America, he left for Indiana University to study for his master’s degree in university administration. In Bloomington, Hebert’s life underwent further dramatic changes, marrying and having two daughters. In his spare time, he took his volleyball game up a notch, playing for Jerry Yeagley, a man best known as IU’s successful football coach.
In 1972 Hebert and his young family moved to Pittsburgh to teach secondary education at Chatham College. Three years later, he was teaching ninth-grade social studies at Peabody High School in Pittsburgh. Hebert remained active with volleyball playing in a YMCA league. There he was discovered by the University of Pittsburgh and hired as the Panthers’ first female varsity coach for $2,500 a year.
“My main reason for taking this job was extra income for my family,” Hebert wrote. “The more I coached, the more I loved coaching. A Pitt win put me on top of the world, although I rarely had a clue why we won. A loss sent me to – y a Is it a lower level than the cart?”
In the late 70s, Hebert began to explore other coaching positions. He moved to the University of New Mexico in 1980 and then hooked up with Chuck Erbe’s World University Games staff in the United States.
Erbe was ultimately instrumental in getting Hebert his job at the University of Illinois, suggesting Hebert’s name when he turned down Karol Kahrs’ offer in 1983.
“I saw that Illinois, with its location and academic reputation, provided a better opportunity for the big players I needed to build an elite program,” Hebert wrote in his book. “It was clear to me that Illinois represented a step towards stronger ground in all aspects of my profession. I had really wanted to ask questions during my interview and Karol was tireless in answering them. Yet even with all my questions, I was not quite prepared for what I found when I arrived in Champaign in early August, just two days before the team was due to report for practice.”
When Hebert and his assistant coach, Don Hardin, went to check out UI’s facilities, the Kenney Gym, he realized he hadn’t bothered to fully examine the building where his team would be playing.
“It was 1983,” Hebert wrote, “but there must have been some trash at Kenney that had been there since the place was built in 1900. When I asked about the equipment, I was told said it was in “the volleyball box”, a padlocked plywood crate on wheels. One problem: the crate had been broken into over the summer and the contents had been stolen. Welcome to your new job…your professional ascent. We had no ball, no net, no place to store anything safely if we really had had a ball and a net. It sounds funny now, but at the time, Don and I were seriously questioning whether we had made the right choice in coming to Illinois.”
Hebert and Hardin held their first practices at the intramural and physical education building, where they could at least check out a net and a ball.
“We kept pushing for the bare minimum,” Hebert wrote. “We were making a point and our players loved it. ‘God,’ they said, ‘we never had anyone to defend us.’ It was a big problem for them. They knew their coaches respected them and believed in them and were ready to fight for them. Finally, one Sunday night, Don and I met at the gym and dragged every bric-a-brac down a hallway. The next day we went to practice and the battery was gone. It must have taken several hours for the maintenance staff to load the material into a truck and transport it. Don and I exchanged secret smiles.
Upon arriving in Illinois, Hebert and Hardin mapped out where the program was going, establishing a set of principles that would govern the program. Wins and losses weren’t even on their list at the time. They were quick to talk to as many community groups as possible to get people talking about Illini volleyball. Equally enthusiastic, they began visiting high school coaches across the state.
“When I agreed to take the job in Illinois,” Hebert wrote, “I explained to Karol Kahrs that for the first three years of the program, I would work on everything. I would coach the team, recruit players, promote the team, sell tickets and build PR… whatever needs to be done to put a better product on the floor and sell that product, I’ll be responsible. But I also said that ‘after three years, the team will be good enough that I can’t carry all this burden anymore. I will have to devote my full attention to the team and you will have to develop a staff to take care of publicity, marketing and Illinois Volleyball Promotion. And that’s exactly what evolved.”
REMARK: This is part one of a two-part story detailing the impact of former Illinois volleyball head coach Mike Hebert. In Part 2, we’ll describe how her program slowly took shape, growing from a 5-25 record in the first season to a unit that would earn Illini Women’s Athletics its first three Big Ten Championships.