Washington’s Keegan Cook fell hard for mathematics and volleyball, and his love for analytics in the sport helped him become the head coach of one of the nation’s premier college programs.
When Jim McLaughlin left his office for the final time last January, he quietly removed his nameplate and replaced it with that of his assistant, Keegan Cook, who dwelled down the hall.
That symbolic transition became official a few days later when Cook was hired to replace McLaughlin as Washington’s volleyball coach. No pressure there. Cook is merely following one of the most successful Huskies coaches of modern times, one who made their volleyball program a perennial national power, including an NCAA title in 2005.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about following Jim,’’ said Cook with a smile, sitting in his new office. “The job’s hard enough as it is.”
Keegan Cook file
Hometown: Pleasanton, Calif. Age: 30
College: St. Mary’s (2007 graduation with a major in mathematics and minor in religious studies)
Before UW: Worked at Saint Mary’s for eight seasons, working his way up from student volunteer to top assistant coach.
UW experience: Coached under Jim McLaughlin for two seasons … Named head coach of sand volleyball program in 2014
Fast fact: Eighth head coach in UW volleyball history.
UW sports information
It was a surprising choice to some, given Cook’s youth (29 at the time of his hire, now 30), and the fact he had never been a head coach. But within the Husky program, where McLaughlin’s unexpected departure to become Notre Dame’s coach was a major jolt, the continuity was welcome.
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“We were all shocked (with McLaughlin leaving), but Keegan stepping in was the best outcome we could have hoped,’’ said junior Melanie Wade. “Our values, and how we play volleyball, haven’t had major changes, which has been really good.”
McLaughlin, in fact, said that the presence of Cook was a main reason he felt comfortable leaving Washington after 14 seasons, which he said was for family reasons.
“Keegan is way further along than I was at that age,” said McLaughlin, who landed his first head-coaching job at age 27.
He had no hesitation in making a strong pitch for Cook with athletic director Scott Woodward. Many returning players did so too.
“He was the guy I wanted,’’ McLaughlin said by phone from South Bend, Ind. “I just thought it was the right thing. You become part of those kids’ lives, and you want someone who is going to take care of them.”
Cook is most definitely a people person, with an easy manner and quick laugh.
“It doesn’t feel like a job,’’ he said. “It feels like I’m just coming to help people.”
But Cook is also highly regarded as a volleyball technician, one who uses statistical analysis to guide his strategy.
“I think he’s emotional like all coaches,’’ McLaughlin said, “but he’s going to make good decisions based on facts.”
Cook, who assisted McLaughlin for two years after leaving a similar position at St. Mary’s, jokes that his nine months on the job has been “like drinking through a fire hose.”
But the results so far have been consistent with Husky standards. They’re 14-1 after Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Arizona and rank sixth nationally, having suffered their first defeat last week at USC, now top-ranked in the country. Undefeated and fifth-ranked Arizona State comes to town Friday.
Will volleyball aficionados notice any change in style or philosophy?
“They shouldn’t,” Cook said. “It should still look like Washington volleyball in a lot of ways. It’s a unique situation. I didn’t take over a floundering program, which is how it normally works. There was no need to come in and make all these radical changes.”
The only changes made, Cook said, involved things he didn’t fully understand, or didn’t fully believe in.
The presence of associate head coach Leslie Gabriel (formerly Tuiasosopo), in her 15th season on the staff after a standout volleyball career with the Huskies, has helped immensely with the transition. Gabriel didn’t pursue the head job, but Cook made her continued presence a prerequisite for him doing so.
“She was the first person I talked to,’’ Cook said. “I said, ‘I’m not even going to think about applying for this job if you won’t want to stay here with this team.’ We went at it together. It was kind of a joint bid.”
Cook savors Gabriel’s institutional knowledge, and appreciates her ability to keep him honest.
“She challenges me, which I love,’’ he said. “Any time I’m ready to make a change in something, she says, ‘Are you sure? That’s been working pretty well for the last 10 years.’ ”
Cook’s statistical bent comes naturally. He attended St. Mary’s as a math major, with the intention of teaching it in high school and coaching volleyball.
He had become enamored with the sport while following the career of his sister, Meg, and was a strong amateur player himself, until his size precluded playing at the highest level. The love of volleyball remained constant, but about three years into college, Cook’s affection for math waned.
He recalls one of his teachers telling him, “Keegan, you don’t love math, you love arithmetic,’’ he said.
Translation: Cook loved the tangible side of math, especially sports analytics, which was just starting with volleyball around that time.
Cook began dabbling with coaching at his sister’s volleyball club and caught the attention of St. Mary’s coach Rob Browning, who put him to work in his program as a sophomore. Cook coached under Browning for eight seasons, honing his use of metrics, a skill he took with him to Washington.
“I like to see what people don’t see, and find value in what people don’t really have a lot of value in,’’ Cook said.
An example, he said, are nonscoring plays that don’t necessarily have a statistic attached to them, and can appear insignificant to fans and even some coaches, but can be quantified.
“When you add up all those little touches that seem meaningless, you can make a big impact on your team,’’ he said.
As with baseball analytics, however, more coaches are catching on. The advantage of being on the cutting edge is narrowing.
“The margin of error to be great seems like it’s shrinking, because people are starting to know what some of the right choices are,’’ he said.
The Huskies believe they made the right choice in Cook, who sometimes can’t quite believe how quickly he ascended to one of the most prestigious positions in college volleyball.
“Probably two weeks before training camp, I had this huge feeling of gratefulness,’’ he said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”
The big office is his now, and the future of UW volleyball looks as bright as ever.