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Updated Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 11:31 PM

Washington, Nebraska coaches almost came to blows last time they met

By Jack Hamann
Special to The Seattle Times

They should, you would think, be two mellow dudes.

Nebraska coach John Cook grew up playing volleyball on San Diego beaches. Up the coast in Santa Monica, future Washington coach Jim McLaughlin was rippin' waves and setting quicks.

Both married athletes. As acclaimed coaches, both won multiple championships. Neither has ever been terribly comfortable in the spotlight.

But on Dec. 10, 2010, the two former beach boys kicked sand in the face of the volleyball world by doing something totally gnarly.

They nearly came to blows.

It was the NCAA tournament. Before the season, Seattle had won a bid to host the Sweet 16. Powerful Nebraska, the tournament's second seed, had been reluctantly shipped to Seattle to face the unseeded underdog, Washington.

In front of 5,624 boisterous fans, the Huskies won two of the first three sets, and lost a controversial call at match point in the fourth. Two serves later, Nebraska thought it had won the set when Washington's Kindra Carlson launched a shot toward the back line.

Every Nebraska player and coach signaled the ball out. The line judge, just a few feet away, signaled the ball in.

Two more serves later, Washington was victorious. As players and fans celebrated, Cook and McLaughlin walked toward midcourt for the traditional post-match handshake. As he approached, Cook gestured with an upward thumb.

"I told him the ball was out," Cook said later that night. "Then I told him nice match."

After a brief handshake, McLaughlin strode another step to shake the hand of Cook's assistant. As he did, Cook and McLaughlin brushed shoulders, and Cook turned back toward his bench without acknowledging McLaughlin's assistants. McLaughlin pointed emphatically at Cook.

"He started going off," Cook told The Lincoln Journal-Star that night, "with language that would probably not be approved by the NCAA."

When Cook shot a response toward McLaughlin, the Washington coach grew agitated and stepped toward Cook. Team aides intervened as both men traded increasingly impassioned comments. Cook retreated toward the locker room as McLaughlin walked another eight feet before being turned around by an usher.

The next day, sports pages ran a memorable photo: two men, jaws thrust forward, a Nebraska team official in a pink sweater holding them perhaps a foot apart. The volleyball world was abuzz.

Then and now, neither man will elaborate on just what was said.

"That's between John and I," McLaughlin says. "Different team. Different time. Different place. I'm not going to let it be a distraction."

"That was two years ago," says Cook. "There's really nothing to bring up. I don't think Jim wants to rehash it, nor do I."

Even so, it may end up being the story line in the lead-up to a match between top-10 powerhouses as they meet Friday in Omaha, Neb., for the right, once again, to advance to the Elite Eight. That highly anticipated match will be the next chapter in a cross-conference rivalry that is as intense as any involving a Washington team.

It actually dates to 2000, Cook's first year at Nebraska and McLaughlin's last at Kansas State. The previous year, McLaughlin's team snapped the Huskers' 101 home-match winning streak, Nebraska's first home conference loss in the NU Coliseum. The next season, Cook's undefeated 2000 team won the national title, but its closest call was a five-set escape against McLaughlin's Wildcats. Twelve years on, Cook still remembers that match vividly, calling it a "barnburner."

Five years later, the coaches met again, this time for the 2005 national championship in San Antonio. Led by Courtney Thompson, the Huskies swept the Huskers, becoming the first team that season to outhit favored Nebraska.

In 2008, Nebraska made its first playoff trip to Seattle, for the right to advance to the Final Four. UW led the fifth set 9-3, but then melted, giving up nine consecutive points on the way to one of the most difficult losses of McLaughlin's 22-year career.

In the two years since their 2010 dust up, McLaughlin and Cook have not spoken. For Cook, that's not necessarily unusual. He admits that, except for fellow Big Ten coaches, he keeps most other coaches "kind of out of sight, out of mind."

"I heard a great analogy one time," Cook says. "Coaching is like being a gunfighter: You don't have many friends."

But McLaughlin is different. Some of his closest friends are coaches, including many outside the Pac-12, like Penn State's Russ Rose and Hawaii's Dave Shoji. And now, he admits, he regrets his angry exchange with Cook.

"Sure," he says. "I don't think it's good for the sport. The thing that was tough was, it took away from the job that the girls did. And that's the thing I regret most."

As his team advances deeper into this year's tournament, McLaughlin expects his players to focus on the present and to ignore the increasing distractions. One of the biggest distractions will be people asking about his history with Cook.

"I'm not gonna let that affect our girls," he says.

He hopes, however, that the way he handles the inevitable questions will offer larger lessons for his players.

"We're around these people that are highly driven," McLaughlin says. "It's highly competitive. There's a score. There's a tension to it. But at the end of the day, we're people. We should get along."

For more about the NCAA Volleyball Tournament, visit Seattle Times News Partner Volleyblog Seattle at http://volleyblogseattle.blogspot.com/

The McLaughlin years
Jim McLaughlin's teams usually go deep into the NCAA tournament. Here is his year-by-year record at UW.
Year Overall Pac-12 (place) NCAA tournament: seed, finish (teams remaining)
2012 25-6 14-6 (tie-4th) 13, TBD
2011 24-8 15-7 (tie-4th) None, second round (32)
2010 24-9 10-8 (5th) None, regional final (8)
2009 24-6 13-5 (tie-2nd) 6, second round (32)
2008 27-5 15-3 (2nd) 5, regional final (8)
2007 27-4 15-3 (2nd) 6, second round (32)
2006 29-5 15-3 (tie-2nd) 6, national semifinal (4)
2005 32-1 16-1 (1st) 3, national champion (1)
2004 28-3 16-2 (1st) 7, national semifinal (4)
2003 23-9 10-8 (tie-5th) 12, regional final (8)
2002 20-11 9-9 (tie-5th) None, second round (32)
2001 11-16 4-14 (8th) Did not qualify
Friday

UW vs. Nebraska in Omaha, 4 p.m.


MATT MILLER / OMAHA WORLD-HERALD
Nebraska coach John Cook, left, and UW coach Jim McLaughlin needed to be separated by Lindsay Peterson, Nebraska director of volleyball operations, two years ago.




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