Tom Hilbert began his coaching career as an assistant at the University of Oklahoma in 1984, and he didn’t plan on his career lasting more than a couple of years.
Now, Hilbert has cemented himself as one of the most successful college volleyball coaches in the country.
In testament to his success, Hilbert picked up the 300th win of his CSU career on Oct. 12 over New Mexico.
“When I started out coaching, I didn’t think that I would end up coaching very long at all. Then I got my first head coaching job at Idaho, and it has been about 25 years, and I have never done anything else,” Hilbert said.
Not that he would rather find another career, but he didn’t fully come to realize how much he enjoyed his profession until five years ago, while talking with the other fathers in his neighborhood.
“I was hanging out with all the other dads in my cul-de-sac, guys who have very successful jobs, and we were talking about what career we would want, if we could do something other than our current job, for one year. Every one of those guys said they wanted to coach,” said Hilbert.
“At that point, you realize that you have a dream job.”
“Every time I start to bellyache about something going wrong, or that recruiting isn’t going well, I step back and tell myself, ‘You are doing something that people just dream about doing, and I have been doing it for 25 years.’ That is pretty special.”
The 300th win didn’t seem very important before the match, as Hilbert never mentioned it and his players said they only knew the importance of the game because of the media, it certainly was emotional for Hilbert once the match was over.
“I started talking to my team afterwards, and started hearing the P.A. announcements, and then my wife and daughter came down to the court. I literally didn’t prepare any differently, or feel any different during the match, than I did during the 299th match, but when it is over, and this arena was filled with people showing their support for me, that is a pretty special feeling,” said Hilbert.
A Moby Maniac
Hilbert is always quick to mention the impact the Moby Arena crowd and the Fort Collins community has on the volleyball program’s success, but what he doesn’t point out while mentioning the size and passion, is that the crowd was instrumental in recruiting him to come to CSU.
“When I was an assistant at Oklahoma, we played here in 1987, and Colorado State was leading the nation in attendance at that time. It was right here at Moby Arena, the fans were very into it, the team was good, I loved the town and I thought this would be a great place to coach some time,” Hilbert said.
As luck would have it for both Hilbert and CSU, it would only take 10 years for that idea to come fruition. Hilbert had spent eight successful seasons at the University of Idaho, while CSU was anxious to find a coach to replace Rich Feller, the man who put CSU volleyball on the map and was leaving to help coach the USA National Team.
Though comfortable with his position at Idaho, Hilbert jumped at the opportunity to take his dream job.
Feller had been at CSU since 1983 and had almost immediately turned CSU into a national force, so there was some trepidation about whether a new coach would be successful.
Hilbert alleviated fears immediately by leading the Rams to heights even Feller hadn’t taken them.
In his third season, Hilbert led the Rams to a 30-3 record and to their first of three straight Regional Semifinals (Sweet Sixteen) appearances in the NCAA Tournament from 1999-2001.
The Rams have only been back to the Sweet Sixteen once since then, but this season Hilbert’s squad is loaded with talent and expectations to take the next step, especially with the road to the Final Four coming through Fort Collins.
“I want to see us win a Mountain West championship and have a good year. I would like to see our team in the Regionals here in Moby. If we are in (the Regional) we have a chance to win,” Hilbert said.
in the Rough
CSU does not have the reputation of some of the big name teams in the country, and the Mountain West Conference doesn’t have the same level of prestige as the Big Ten or Pac-10 (though Hilbert points out the MWC had the No. 4 RPI in the country last season), which makes what Hilbert has accomplished even more impressive.
“The player that is touching over 10 feet, and is a really skilled player, is not coming here. They are going to Nebraska, or they are going to UCLA,” Hilbert said.
“We need to be patient. What we need to find is the player that touches over 10 feet that still needs a little work. We can get those players, and we have had success with those kids.”
CSU senior Mekana Barnes is a perfect example of this philosophy, as she came to the Rams as a very athletic, but raw, talent.
After a few years of Hilbert’s tutelage, she was named an all-American last season.
She credits her improvement on the way Hilbert strives to get the best out of each player every practice.
“I was interested in the coaching style and the way he motivated the players to be really competitive. I remember coming to watch a practice as a junior in high school and being impressed with how they control the competitive energy on the court,” Barnes said.
CSU players claim that Hilbert is a great motivator who knows exactly what buttons to push to get his players going.
“He knows a lot in general about coaching. He knows how to switch in and out of different coaching styles for different players. Some players need to be yelled at, while some players need constant encouragement. He knows how to switch in and out of those roles,” said senior setter Ashley Fornstrom, who set the MWC record for career assists this season.
In addition to motivating the team, Hilbert also is able to get his teams to buy into the same team idea.
“Ultimately the goals come from him, but then he has the seniors and other upperclassmen reinforce them to the rest of the team. It is a trickledown effect,” Barnes said.
“He does a good job of taking a group of people and orienting them on the same goals, which can be tough to do with a bunch of girls.”
Hilbert modeled his coaching style after legendary Nebraska coach Terry Pettit, and he was fortunate to have Pettit’s daughter, Katherine, play for him from his first four years at CSU.
Pettit moved to Fort Collins after retiring from coaching, and he has become a mentor for Hilbert.
“I think CSU was certainly a good program before he got there, but they have become more consistent, either winning a conference championship or competing for it every season,” said Pettit.
“I think that CSU has their best years in front of them. Tom is a great coach, and CSU is fortunate to have a coach of that caliber.”
Volleyball beat writer Matthew Pucak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.