Volleyball is not a sport that lends itself well to brawling. Though matches get heated, players often exchange words and bad blood is not unheard of, the fact that teams are separated by a net saves us from some of the hand-to-hand combat that sports like hockey, basketball and football inspire. If there was to be fighting, you'd expect it to be between the players on the court whose adrenaline is pumping and whose dreams are on the line.
But this past weekend the near-brawl happened not on the court, but on the sidelines. Seconds after the UW-Nebraska Regional semi-final match in Seattle, the coaches met at the net as they always do. They were supposed to shake hands and congratulate each other. Instead, words were exchanged and they had to be separated.
So what happened? We may not have the whole story but there was a call that the Nebraska team disagreed with late in the fourth and ultimately final set. A ball was hit by UW that the Nebraska players thought was out. The linesman thought otherwise.
There was the usual uproar from the players and the coaching staff, but the call was upheld and the game went on. It might have been just another controversial call, but it just so happened to be set point for Nebraska and it would have sent the match into a fifth set. Instead, UW won the set 29-27 and the Cornhuskers were eliminated.
Tough break to be sure. But this is where it gets weird. Veteran Head Coach John Cook of Nebraska met veteran Head Coach Jim McLaughlin of UW at the net and allegedly said something like, "The ball was out. Nice match." McLaughlin then started to yell at Cook and get in his face. There may have been a shove and then the two were separated. Here's the best video I can find of the incident and a photo to go with it.
We all know how hard it can be not to get caught up in the madness of a hotly contested match. But for Cook to say the ball was out when he should have been conceding a loss, he was basically saying that UW didn't earn the right to move on. At the very least, that is a tacky response to a great win by Washington.
No match is lost on one point. Nebraska had chances to score even after the call. They didn't get it done. It would've behooved Cook to acknowledge the great play of the Huskies at that moment instead of making excuses. I get that he didn't have a lot of time to cool off before he approached McLaughlin, but Cook should've just sucked it up and moved on. The game was over. He lost. End of story.
That said, McLaughlin's response was also over the top. He could've chosen to take the high road, take comfort in his win and move on. But instead he chose to escalate the situation in a way we have never seen in volleyball. It made for some riveting television, but it also marred what was an amazing match played at a very high level.
Get it together, coaches. You're supposed to be the adults out there.