FORT COLLINS — A hard nut to the end, Tom Hilbert didn’t want Win No. 636 to be about him. So, like sneaky parents at the crack of a Christmas dawn, CSU athletic department staffers waited until the paint was almost dry on a four-set win over Air Force at Moby Arena on Saturday before they got to work.
While little green elves quietly passed out several thousand white placards with the word “TOM” printed on them in honor of their departing volleyball coach, Hilbert sat with his usual game face on the home bench, grinching away a Falcons comeback.
“I did not know that was gonna happen,” Hilbert told me of the post-match celebration just a few days after the winningest coach in any sport in CSU history had formally announced his retirement. “And I was moved by it, obviously.
“I don’t know those things are gonna happen, because I’m too locked into what I’m doing. And, you know, it brought me back.”
As fans waved those little white placards and Hilbert waved back, it brought Paul Van Liefde back, too.
Paul’s daughter, Jacqi, is an outside hitter with the 18-9 Rams, one of the program’s stalwart seniors. But in 2018, she was a true freshman who’d been shoved into the deep end of the metaphorical pool. On a day that involved more sinking than swimming, she’d also gotten an earful from her new coach — always nagging, always correcting, always pushing.
About four hours later, the younger Van Liefde was walking on campus when she happened to see Hilbert approach from the other direction. She winced and expected a second helping of grief as they passed.
Instead, Hilbert offered up a giant hug.
“He told her, ‘We love you. You know I love you. I love you like a daughter,’” Paul recalled. “’I’m just trying to make you better. Keep it up. You’re going to get better. And you’re going to be great.’ That’s what she needed to hear.
“He was like, ‘Look, we’re going to fix you, you’re going to get through this. I’m sorry that I bark once in a while. But I just do it because I care and because I see the talent in you. And we’re going to develop it and you’re going to get there.’ And she did.”
Greatness is not always easy to play for. The kind of cat who got up at 4 in the morning to watch film, Hilbert set the bar and then raised it, repeatedly. After 25 consecutive postseason appearances and 24 NCAA tournament berths, the coach preferred to outrun and outwork each past success rather than bask in it. Or worse, let himself become a victim of it.
But at 63, Hilbert in recent years noticed something that had never bothered him much before: the grind. He remarried in May 2020. He contracted COVID last fall. Daughter Myles is in her senior season of track at Western Colorado. Real life started tugging harder on his shirt sleeve.
“(Last) spring, I think I said, ‘I’m gonna go one more year,’” Hilbert recalled. “Then it was right in the middle of August (when) I said, ‘This has got to be it’. Because as that stress builds up, and the anxiety builds up, you start to look at what your workload is going to be. That’s when you start feeling like, ‘I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.’”
Jacqi’s mom Diane remembered Saturday something Hilbert told her on their official visit. Several Power 5 schools had called, including CU, only for him to turn them down. Undeterred, mom asked if the coach would be there for the entirety of her daughter’s eligibility.
“The day I sell out Moby,” Diane recalled him saying or words to that effect, “is the day I retire.’”
Sure enough, on Sept. 15, CSU sold Moby out for volleyball during a win over the Buffs. A short while after that, Hilbert met with athletic director Joe Parker to make his departure official and start a transition plan.
“(Parker) gave me the timeline, and then I walked out of the office,” the coach recalled. “I’m like, ‘Is this happening?’ It was a very emotional moment for me. I went into the stairwell back here (at Moby) and started crying.”
After 39 years, 26 at CSU, it’s not just a job. It’s a part of your identity. Your DNA. If I’m not that guy, who the heck am I?
“I think the first year (away) is hard,” offered former longtime Nebraska volleyball coach Terry Pettit, a friend and confidante who watched from a courtside seat Saturday. “When you’ve been somewhere this long, you grieve. It’s like you’re on a horse, and then all of a sudden, you aren’t.”
Pettit has ridden more than a few miles himself, piloting the Big Red to 694 volleyball wins from 1977-99 before retiring to greater Fort Collins.
“I needed to move on and I wanted to give the (next) coach space,” Pettit explained. “(That feeling was) so strong for me that one of the reasons we moved to Fort Collins was, I wanted to be able to go to the grocery store and not have to talk about the volleyball team, because I have moved on to other things.”
Hilbert wants to learn to cook. He wants to travel. The bucket list can wait, though. The Rams visit Wyoming on Tuesday and UNLV next weekend before hosting the Mountain West conference tournament Nov. 23-25.
“You watch (the players) grow up,” Hilbert reflected. “You impact these people’s lives like crazy.”
And vice versa. As the placards fluttered and flew, Hilbert managed to unlock himself from game mode just in time to hear the students rise as one and chant his name:
After a few fist pumps, Hilbert acquiesced. He walked slowly to the scorer’s table and raised the public-address microphone to his lips.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told the crowd, “because I love it here. Thank you, Fort Collins.”
As the students screamed his name again, Hilbert fought to sniffle back a few tears. It’s not every day you see a hard nut crack.