As legendary Colorado State volleyball coach Tom Hilbert closes out his career and heads into retirement whenever this year’s team plays its final match, former players and others shared their thoughts on the impact he has had on the university, the community and the sport.
Here’s what they had to say:
Two-time All-American and Mountain West Player of the Year (2000-01)
“I think the most impressive thing to me is the fact that he has created not only a culture but a movement of CSU volleyball in the community. A lot of schools I went on recruiting trips for and even when I was playing out on the AVP (pro tour), I’d go to UCLA or USC games, and there’s nothing compared to the community that Fort Collins brings to volleyball.
“And I think that really has a lot to do with Tom. He created that at the beginning of his tenure at CSU. He was so involved in getting the community involved. We handed out schedule cards at NewWestFest, tutored and read at elementary schools. Some of my fondest memories are of what we did in the community. I don’t think my experience would have been quite the same without the involvement of the community and the fans and the kids. I think that just pushed us to a whole 'nother level.
“Moby Madness just became a thing where we would beat top-ranked teams when they came to Moby. ... That’s something that’s really unique and something special that I think really makes a difference.
“He did a really good job of creating experiences for the student athlete. I remember going down to Texas, and we went and saw where JFK was shot, went to different museums, explored the culture of different places we went to instead of just staying in the hotel. He gave us an opportunity to experience things that not many athletes would experience instead of just going on trips, and I think those are really fond memories we had.”
Katelin (Batten) Opitz
MW Player of the Year (2011), Defensive Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American (2009) and associate head coach at Denver (2012-2021)
She praised “the CSU volleyball program and Tom’s ability to, year after year, put out a real quality product on the floor. He is a model of success, and he’s helped grow this sport as much as anyone else in the NCAA. He has turned CSU volleyball into one of the most-desirable places to play volleyball in the country. The environment in Moby Arena is top five in place I ever played or coached.
“He’s just a magician to be able to put out great teams year after year. He’s put his heart and soul into the program. When you think of CSU volleyball, you think of Tom Hilbert.
“You also think about his coaching tree. He made such an impact on his assistants, his players who are now coaching. When I saw he was retiring, I put a post out about how he would tell every team, every player, it’s not about what you get, it’s about what you give. You continue to carry that throughout your life. What I was taught in CSU volleyball is so invaluable.”
Tessa (Nelson) Kubiak
Two-time All-MW (2008-09)
“He had a belief in me personally, a small-town kid, and he never faltered in that, even when I showed up out of shape and underprepared. ... And I think having that maybe changed the course of my life a little bit, having someone who believed in you and your abilities when you maybe didn’t even believe it yourself."
She noted the atmosphere he created: "Going to Old Town and getting people to care about our sport and to come and support us just to make you feel special and important. I think I was spoiled, because I didn’t realize how special that atmosphere was. Now, looking around and being around other programs, you see that was a labor of love. We had it pretty good.
“When we would go places, Tom made an effort to let us experience the city, experience the food. If we went to California, we went to the beach. For a lot of us, that was the first time to do a lot of those things. As I’ve gotten older, I have more of an appreciation of that, especially now, traveling with kids. Tom was traveling with 15 or so kids and it would have been easier to just sit around at the hotel until our matches, but he wanted us to be able to experience the places we went.”
Dana (Cranston) Hallisey
Third-team All-American (2012), two time All-MW (2011-12) and assistant/associate head coach at Montana (2019-22):
“To me, Tom was like a dad away from home. He really made me feel comfortable being at a school really far away. A huge value of our program was the family-like atmosphere, and he was a big part of that.
“I also think he has a really analytical mind. He had the ability to see specific things in the game, player-wise and in actuality, that really helped me incredibly as a younger player. He gave me a ton of specific feedback and specific skills to work on and also gave me a lot of overarching concepts and spaces to work that allowed me to get better. I would not be where I am today without playing for Tom. He held you to such a high standard while making you believe you could get there. I think that’s the hardest thing to do, and he mastered it.”
“Ultimately, I think that’s what he brought the game of volleyball: that consistency and that ability to win over really, really long periods of time, but also to hold culture (over) really long periods of time. I loved playing for a program where you really understood the culture and traditions. He could tell stories about players who were there when we were little kids, and that gives you so much more depth to pour into things as a current athlete ... That has been so incredible and such a gift to Colorado State to have that for so long.
“And then there’s the community. He’s such an includer. You want to be around Tom and what he’s part of, and I think he’s done an incredible job of inviting people into the program. You are so connected to the fans because Tom is so connected. He’s so intentional, and he’s given so much back to the community. It’s so incredible to see, and I hope that continues on. It was such a sweet gift to play in front of our fans at Moby Arena.
“The thing Tom said the most to me is that experience is not about what you get from it; it’s about what you give into it. I think that has stuck with me, not just in my playing career, but in my life in general. He made such an impact, because he lived those words out in everything he did in his daily life and career.”
Honorable mention All-American and two-time MW Player of the Year (2009-10)
“I always talk about Moby Magic when I talk about my experience at Colorado State. He was a major factor in building one of the greatest fan bases in D1 volleyball, and I’m really happy to have been a part of that.
“He sent me my first, if not my only, handwritten recruitment letter. Coming from small-town Sterling, that meant a lot to us. It really helped me gain confidence on the court and off.
“He cared about us as young women and helped us grow on and off the volleyball court, and he let us know that was just as important, if not more important, than winning games to him.”
CU head coach (2016-present), CSU assistant/associate coach (2005-11)
“Obviously, he’s had a huge impact on Colorado State. To be there a quarter century and to have had so many great players come through there and the crowds that filled up that place, the wins, all those type of things I think are obviously pretty impressive and impactful, certainly to me.
“Being there for seven years was a special time, and I credit a lot of what I’ve been able to do since then (to) those seven years.
“More than 800 wins, that’s amazing. And to do the lion’s share at one place these days, I think, is pretty special, too. I know a lot of people feel indebted to him for their time playing at Colorado State or their time coaching at Colorado State. I know I certainly do.”
Nebraska head coach (1977-99, won national championship in 1995)
“He’s obviously had a wonderful career here (Pettit lives in Fort Collins). The hardest thing to do in any sport is to consistently win. You’ll see a lot of coaches maybe have three or four years where they have a good run, but it’s highly unusual for a coach to go 20-plus years and have that type of success, so I have tremendous respect for that.
“He also has gone the extra mile in terms of developing support for the program in the community and trying to build up a consistent fan base. Some coaches say, ‘Well that’s marketing’s responsibility,’ or ‘That’s the athletic department’s responsibility.’ I don’t think Tom has approached it that way. He’s been very intentional in building a strong fan base. His values fit the community. To me, Fort Collins has the values that I see in the Midwest; people appreciate hard work, they appreciate teams that play hard, and so I think he’s always been a good fit here.
“I have a Facebook page that a lot of coaches comment on, and when I posted stories about his retirement, to a person they all recognized how difficult it is to do what he’s done here.”
Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: As CSU volleyball coach Tom Hilbert retires, Rams reflect on his career