Mike Hebert was recruiting one of his first classes with Gophers volleyball team in 1996 and wanted Olinda, Calif., outside hitter Nicole Branagh to come check out Minneapolis.
But she canceled her official visit, thinking she didn’t want to travel all the way to the Midwest for college.
In an era before email or Twitter messages, Hebert then wrote Branagh a hand-written letter. It made the difference.
“There is just something about this coach,” Branagh reminisced Tuesday. “I just had this feeling that I needed to go there. Even though it was farther away. … I’m thankful I did.”
Hebert, the Gophers’ hall of fame volleyball coach who lifted the program to national prominence, passed away Monday in San Diego. He was 75.
Hebert coached the Gophers for 15 seasons, from 1996 to 2010, and led them to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, including eight regionals, three Final Fours and one national title-game appearance, in 2004. He won 73.5 percent of his matches at Minnesota (381-137), including a Big Ten championship in 2002.
Branagh and fellow former player Cassie (Busse) Kimes remembered Hebert for being a “mastermind” on the court and a “mentor” off it, both during their time on campus and for decades afterward.
Current Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, who has continued to have success with the U’s program, mentioned Hebert’s “sphere of influence in our sport,” including his preceding success at Illinois and with USA volleyball.
“He was a great man, a great coach, and he will be missed by the entire volleyball community,” McCutcheon said.
Kimes said she was surprised Hebert recruited her out of Prior Lake because she “was definitely rough around the edges.”
As a freshman, Kimes recalled being plugged into a game at Penn State, one of the best teams in the conference.
“I just had a terrible time with it,” she said. “I don’t think I moved an inch the whole time. He eventually took me out, but on the plane ride back home, I remember him saying, ‘You are going to be a great player, Cassie. You are going to be a leader. You have it in you, and I’m going to help you find it.’ ”
Hebert brought out success in his players without yelling or showing anger; instead, he would sit down to talk it though with players. He also delivered a “hard talk” when necessary and reminded them they were playing for each other.
“He always knew the right things to say and the right moment,” Kimes said.
Hebert did visualization exercises with his team and could show a lighter side.
“Sometimes it was laughing and dancing with us in the team room after a huge win,” Kimes said. “He wasn’t afraid to get goofy and celebrate with us.”
Branagh and (Busse) Kimes were each named Big Ten players of the year, and Hebert stayed in touch with both of them once they left the U in the early 2000s. He watched Kimes play at the next level in Puerto Rico and would go out to lunch with her when they both lived in California.
Hebert was persistent in his desire to have Branagh finish her college degree after she left school early to play for USA volleyball. When Branagh finally finished her degree 13 years after leaving school, graduating in 2013, her first telephone call was to Hebert.
“It was, ‘Coach! I graduated!’ ” Branagh recalled.
She added, “He cared about all the parts of a person’s life.”
Hebert, who made two Final Fours appearances at Illinois, was inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006 and went into the University of Minnesota M Club Hall of Fame in 2011. He had a combined 952-392 record from 1976 to 2010.
“Mike was a tremendous coach and educator and left a lasting impact on the sport of volleyball,” Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle said in a statement. “We mourn his loss and extend our deepest sympathies to his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”