Long after Mike Hebert retired as Gophers volleyball coach, former player Cassie Busse still kept in touch with him. Busse knew she always could count on Hebert, who died Monday at age 75, for advice, support or just a good conversation.
“I played pro volleyball for five or six years, and Mike was my go-to to just talk through things,” she said. “He was always available. He wasn’t just a coach. To everyone, he was a mentor, a friend and a teacher.”
Many in the volleyball world were mourning Tuesday, as word spread that Hebert had died in San Diego. In 15 seasons as coach, 1996-2010, he led the Gophers to three Final Four appearances and built it into a nationally respected power.
Hebert and his wife, Sherry, moved to California after he was found to have Parkinson’s disease, which led to his retirement from coaching in 2010.
During Hebert’s tenure, the Gophers went 381-137 and made the NCAA tournament 14 times. In 2002, he led the program to its first Big Ten title; two years later, the Gophers played in their first NCAA championship game, losing to Stanford. Hebert was inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006.
Nicole Branagh, a Gophers star who became a three-time Olympian, recalled canceling a recruiting trip to Minnesota because she was from California and didn’t want to travel that far for college.
“I’ll never forget a week later I got a handwritten letter from Mike,” Branagh said. “He was trying to get me to reconsider and just come one last time. I just said to my parents, ‘There’s something about this coach. I just really need to go there.’ … There was something I was feeling in my heart. … I ended up loving it.”
Lindsey Berg, a three-time Olympian, said she was an “undersized, volleyball-obsessed kid” when Hebert recruited her from Hawaii.
“I went to Minnesota because of Mike Hebert,” Berg said via text message. “A decision that ultimately ended up changing my life in many ways.”
Though Busse wasn’t a big-name recruit when she played at Prior Lake Christian School, Hebert molded her into a two-time All-America. Under his guidance, she said, his Gophers teams forged such tight bonds that she remains friends with many of her former teammates.
“He saw the potential in me, and I know a number of other girls have said that, too,” said Busse, who played for the Gophers from 2000 to ’03. “He knew he could make you into a great player. Mike was an amazing teacher of the game, not just of your physical skills, but also the mental aspect.”
Raised in San Bernardino, Calif., Hebert played volleyball at UC-Santa Barbara, where he earned a degree in sociology before later getting his Ph.D. in philosophy of education from Indiana. He coached at Pittsburgh and New Mexico before taking the Illinois job in 1983.
The Big Ten had never sent a team to the Final Four, but Hebert took the Illini there twice before taking the Minnesota job.
“I saw the Big Ten as a conference with a lot of resources — and the Midwest as a sprawling area that in time might be able to rival the West Coast,” Hebert told the Star Tribune last fall. “We were 5-25 in my first year in 1983, and we were in the NCAA tournament two years later.”
Hebert also coached the U.S. women’s national volleyball team to a bronze medal at the 2003 Pan American Games.
“We are all deeply saddened by Mike’s passing,” current Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said in a news release. “He had a profound impact on volleyball here at the University of Minnesota, but his sphere of influence in our sport was far greater than that.”
Staff writer Marcus Fuller contributed to this report.