The women’s volleyball Final Four was held 30 years ago at Williams Arena, and it came and went with determined yet modest coverage in the Twin Cities media. The 1988 tournament was the NCAA’s eighth for Division I, and it had been basically an event for teams on the West Coast and the powerhouse then referred to as the University of Hawaii Wahines.
The first seven champions were from the West, and six of the first seven title games were between two such teams. Only Nebraska from the Big Eight sneaked into the final before being swept by Pacific in 1986.
Mike Hebert became the first coach in the Big Ten to bring a team — Illinois — to the Final Four in 1987. And Hebert and the Illini were back in Minneapolis in 1988, and meeting defending champion Hawaii in the second semifinal. The first semi had Texas vs. UCLA, the tournament’s unbeaten favorite.
Hebert offered the underlying story line before the semifinals: “Can somebody beat the West Coast? That means what will it take for us to beat Hawaii … we must play as if we think we can beat Hawaii.
“This is the best Final Four field. Our team and Texas are stronger than the non-West Coast teams in other years.’’
Illinois was able to win a set before losing to Hawaii. Texas upset UCLA, then defeated Hawaii to become the first non-West Coast champion. This appeared to be merely a crack in the volleyball universe as West Coast teams won the next six titles.
This time around in Minneapolis, with the 2018 Final Four at Target Center, that crack is an earthquake from Nebraska to Pennsylvania and points South.
Hebert is delighted over this, and justifiably proud. He was raised in San Bernardino, Calif., “on the edge of the desert,’’ and played volleyball at Cal-Santa Barbara. He started his coaching career at the University of Pittsburgh in 1976, coaching both the men’s and women’s teams.
He moved to New Mexico to coach the women’s team in 1980, and then in 1983, he was hired at Illinois.
“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 said. “We were 5-25 in my first year in 1983, and we were in the NCAA tournament two years later.’’
Hebert brought in Mary Eggers from the Chicago area in 1985, and the Illini had a 30-match winning streak. Eggers was also the star of those back-to-back Final Four teams.
“We lifted up the Big Ten in volleyball at Illinois,’’ Hebert said. “You need great players, and Mary was great for us.’’
Minnesota had a competitive volleyball team in the ’90s. Chris Voelz, the women’s athletic director, got in a feud with coach Stephanie Schleuder, fired her after the 1994 season, and a losing season followed with interim coach Pam Dombeck.
Voelz was the source of much derision, including in paragraphs authored by me. I don’t think anyone with access to the public prints in the Twin Cities used the word “visionary’’’ to describe Voelz when she gave Hebert a contract starting in the vicinity of $100,000 to leave Illinois in 1996.
Hebert, 74, is now retired in San Diego, living a couple of blocks from the Pacific Ocean with his wife, Sherry, and near his grandchildren. He makes no pretense as to what lured him from Illinois to Minnesota.
“My dad was killed in the Air Force when I was young,’’ he said. “We didn’t have a lot in our family. The idea of knowing I could take care of my family long-term was strong with me.’’
The litany of tremendous players Hebert brought to the Gophers — Lindsey Berg from Hawaii, Paula Gentil from Brazil, and Cassie Busse from Prior Lake, and Nicole Branagh from Orinda, Calif., and on and on — brought about this revelation:
A home match in the loaded Big Ten in “the Pav’’ was as much sports excitement as you could have on this campus.
Hebert coached the Gophers to Final Fours in 2003, 2004 and 2009. They reached the final in ’04, after upsetting defending champ Southern Cal. In 2006, Hebert announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he retired after the 2010 season.
“I’m doing OK, but not well enough to be there this week, ’’ Hebert said. “The Illini have reached out to me through the years; they still are in my heart. So are the Gophers. We watched that match last Friday. The Gophers lost that second set [41-39] and let down a little to start the next one.
“The margins are so close now that’s tough to overcome. It’s easy for me now, though. I’m pulling for the Illini to win a first one.’’
Hugh McCutcheon has built on the Hebert legacy, with a couple more Gophers’ Final Fours, and now this bulletin was offered to Hebert: The university is putting air conditioning in the Pavilion over the next few months.
“For real?’’ Hebert said. “My players might come back and storm the gates, remembering all those long, hot practices in August.’’