Mike Hebert Part 2: Back-to-back-file
By Mike Pearson
REMARK: This is part 2 of a two-part story detailing the impact of former Illinois volleyball head coach Mike Hebert. In Part 1, we reviewed Mike Hebert’s non-traditional journey to becoming Fighting Illini’s volleyball head coach.
To a large extent, Mike Hebert inherited a Fighting Illini volleyball program in 1983 that reflected second-class citizenship.
Without much support, he and assistant trainer Don Hardin took it upon themselves to improve the seedy atmosphere at Kenney Gym. Thanks to the efforts of the program’s new Networkers support group, colorful banners sponsored by community boosters have made the century-old facility look a little less lackluster.
His first team in 1983 was characterized by a group of mildly talented players who worked hard and performed well. Despite only producing five wins in 30 matches, Hebert’s crew never gave up.
“I loved these players,” he said. “They were good kids, but more than that, I respected them for their willingness to accept a new contract.”
In 1984, junior Denise Fracaro represented the transition from the old system to the new. With the addition of a freshman class that included Disa Johnson, Paula Douglass, Buff Binkley and Lori Anderson, Illinois’ overall record improved to 18-15 and a respectable 6-7 in the game. Big Ten.
“More than any other player,” Hebert wrote, “Denise embodied the Illini program’s transition from cave dweller to competitor.”
Fracaro and freshman sensation Mary Eggers were the two catalysts for UI’s success in 1985, Hebert’s third year at Champaign-Urbana.
“At the start of the season,” Hebert wrote, “we just wanted to be better than 1984. Neither of us had a clue what was going to happen. It became a pivotal season, marking the transition from a young and growing team to a national elite team.”
Sweeps from his own Illini Classic and tournaments at UNLV, BYU and SIU highlighted a stunning 30-0 start. Kenney’s attendance began to increase more and more, capped by a Big Ten record crowd against Iowa on October 4.
“That night people discovered how intense Kenney Gym could get if you yelled,” Hebert said. “Our team thrived on the chaos and a whole new era of Illini volleyball was born that night.”
Illini’s unbeaten streak remained intact until November 1st when they lost to Northwestern. A 38-2 overall record and 16-2 conference mark earned Illinois a No. 4 seed in the program’s first-ever foray into the NCAA Tournament. That meant they would face top-seeded Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. Hébert’s club won the first two sets, 15-9 and 15-11, then WMU won the third set, 15-12. Illinois bounced back enthusiastically in the fourth, winning 15-2.
“I will never forget this scene,” Hebert wrote. “Everything was deathly silent in the gym except us. We had screwed up every big Western plan. That’s how 1985 went for us, one tale match after another.”
Southern California ended UI’s glorious season a week later at 39-3, but the Illini had accomplished more than they could have hoped for.
“Suddenly we could go anywhere to recruit without having to convince people that we were a legit team,” Hebert said. “I no longer had any doubts about whether volleyball would work in Illinois. We had joined the elite.”
Hébert knew he had a good team in 1986; he just didn’t know How? ‘Or’ What good. The Illini went 11-2 in the first set of non-conference games and then began picking up Big Ten wins one after another. Wins at Michigan and Michigan State began the streak in late September, and conference sweeps continued for the Big Ten’s next seven weekends, leading to a Nov. 19 game against Purdue at Kenney Gym. After losing to the Boilermakers in the first set, Illinois won the next three, clinching its first conference crown.
“This was a big milestone for Illinois women’s sports,” Hebert wrote.
In December’s NCAA Tournament, Illinois eliminated northern Iowa and western Michigan, but lost to arch-nemesis host Nebraska.
Hebert’s 1987 Illini featured the best middle blocker tandem in women’s volleyball with Eggers and Nancy Brookhart. The now increasingly confident coach surrounded his superstars with other talented players, including Johnson, Laura Bush, Lisa Dillman and Barb Winsett.
Although a frustrating loss at home to Kentucky and a disappointing loss to highly ranked Nebraska proved to be shortcomings, Illinois went on to put on another standout performance against its Big Ten competition, posting a record of a nearly flawless 17-1 and a second straight conference title.
Illinois defeated a great Pittsburgh team in the first round of the 1987 NCAA Tournament. That set up another intense game against West Michigan. Trailing the Broncos 10-4 in the fifth set, Hebert feared the Illini’s bid for glory would evaporate.
“I sat on the bench, completely out of breath,” he wrote. “All I said was, ‘Look, no matter what, I’m really proud of you. I know you’re playing with all your heart. Let’s try to take it one step at a time, break in. in winning and losing the game, just stay in every point.’”
Miraculously, Illinois scored the final 11 points to win the game. Now Hébert faces another big problem. He had less than 24 hours to come up with a game plan against top-seeded Nebraska for a spot in the NCAA’s big dance. Fortuitously, Hebert’s team attacked the Cornhuskers like surgeons and midway through the third set, sensing a trip to Indianapolis, Illinois fans began chanting…”Final Four, Final Four,” over and over. .
The following weekend, Illini’s train unfortunately derailed against Hawaii.
“It ended in a 3-0 loss,” Hebert said, “but we had established ourselves as a legitimate program that could play anyone in the country.”
At the dawn of the 1988 season, Monthly volleyball The magazine picked Illinois as the No. 1 team in the nation. The pioneering Illini class of Johnson, Anderson, Douglass and Binkley had graduated, but a great team including Eggers, Brookhart and Bush returned. Hebert’s assistant, Don Hardin, had been granted a head coaching position at Louisville, so the team experienced a slight alteration in his chemistry.
Either way, Illini’s magic spell remained unbroken and they hit another perfect 18-0 Big Ten mark.
“We just had a lot more talent,” Hebert wrote. “The 1988 team lacked the emotion and inspiration of the 1986 and 1987 teams, but they just methodically went ahead and won with their rich pool of talent.”
Three straight NCAA game opener wins again allowed Illini’s volleyball to enter the Final Four, this time in Minneapolis, tying them for a second straight against Hawaii. A respectable four-set loss at the hands of the talented Rainbows resulted in a third consecutive season-ending disappointment.
Hebert would continue as head coach of the Illini for seven more seasons, highlighted by a fourth Big Ten championship in 1992. He left Illinois for the University of Minnesota after the 1995 season and successfully guided the Gophers for 15 year.
In 2009, a season before retiring, Hebert began a valiant 10-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. It ended with his passing on October 21, 2019 at the age of 75.