Building Blocks
Disappointed after a championship loss, the Nebraska Cornhuskers decided to rebuild their team by forming a pyramid
By Susie Magill

"What determines success is whether or not we can walk out of the gym satisfied knowing that we gave the best of our hearts, our minds, our attitudes and our efforts."                           - Tracy Stalls
Through the eyes of the world, athletic success is easily defined. It’s a simple pass-fail test that asks only one question: did you win it all? But the University of  Nebraska volleyball team sees things differently. Despite its tremendous on-court success, the Cornhuskers remain a team that has learned to go deeper than wins and losses in order to define greatness. But the lesson didn’t come at an easy price.

Last December the Cornhuskers, the NCAA tournament’s top seed, faced third-seeded University of Washington in the 2005 national championship match. On paper, Nebraska was the favorite, but on the court, the team couldn’t connect. They were swept in three games by the Huskies.

With the hopes of a national title destoyed at the hands of a lower-ranked team, Nebraska knew something other than talent was missing from their side of the court.

“I remember sitting on the bleachers when we lost and looking around, everyone was hanging their heads,” said 6-3 junior middle blocker Tracy Stalls. “I, too, was very disappointed. We were unsuccessful, not because we lost, but because we played afraid. There were a lot of things we just didn’t max out on.”

Head coach John Cook also noticed that his team was lacking something when their performance didn’t equal their potential.

After returning to Lincoln, Cook decided that change was necessary for the next season. It wasn’t enough to have talented players. The ladies needed more than that.

Inspired by a custom of the Husker football program, Cook approached his team about establishing a list of character qualities that when applied, would serve as their foundation for a successful season.

“Like a lot of coaches, I seek out ideas from other teams, businesses and people,” said Cook, whose team also entered the 2006 season ranked number one in the country. “I saw that the football team did a pyramid of success, and I decided to get our team together and consider one for us.”

Name: Tracy Stalls
Number: 11
Position: Middle Blocker, Co-captain
Height: 6-3
Year: Junior
Ranked third in the Big 12 conference in blocks per game in 2005
The original Pyramid of Success, designed by coaching legend John Wooden, was presented by Cook to the Lady Huskers. He then showed them examples from the football team’s adapted version and commissioned the team to develop their own. The result was a pyramid built on nine qualities: effort, love, selflessness, passion, confidence, communication, integrity, faith, fight and success.

The purpose of the pyramid was to serve as more than a pre-game or post-practice inspirational reference. Cook wanted the girls to truly understand and create an agreed-upon meaning for each word. In order to convey the importance, the coach asked for assistance from friend and Nebraska FCA Area Director Chris Bubak.

 “[After losing the championship game] both the team and Coach Cook felt like it was in some of these areas of the pyramid that they lost the game,” said Bubak. “It wasn’t on the court – that wasn’t where the game was played. The game was lost way before they hit the court.”

 Before even playing one game in the 2006 season, the Lady Huskers began crafting a new team definition for success. Cook invited Bubak to speak to the team every other week to address one of the pyramid’s characteristics. The meetings have allowed the team to understand the significance of each block. The result: a common sense of unity.

“Chris’ coming in helped us understand not only what the words meant, but also how we were to put them into action,” said team co-captain Stalls, who also serves on the Nebraska FCA Huddle leadership team. “It makes us think about the words more. Chris is challenging us to go deeper.”

Before they began the group study of the pyramid, each player wrote individual interpretations of the nine blocks. Then, through the sessions, Chris helped them to create a team definition.

“I point the team back to a standard for defining what these qualities are, and for me and FCA that is the Bible – more specifically, Jesus Christ,” commented Bubak. “Who better to model these words than Christ? Even if they aren’t Christians, they can still look at Christ and say He would be a great model to follow.”

Stalls agreed. “Because we are, as a team, clarifying what these words mean, we’re all getting on the same page. The idea of giving your best effort can mean something very different to two different people. The same goes with integrity and communication – what exactly do we want to communicate? Those are the types of things Chris clarifies, and that allows for better performance and better interaction as a team.”

Having a reformed idea of success has allowed the girls to get back to the basics, to create a strong foundation and to work together. They’re no longer out just to win games, but to be the best athletes and teammates possible.

“We can’t measure our success by our record – whether we win or lose. Those are just our outcome goals,” said Stalls. “What determines success is whether or not we can walk out of the gym satisfied knowing that we gave the best of our hearts, our minds, our attitudes and our efforts. All these things we say on the pyramid are things we can control. And if we walk out having done everything we can to maximize these things, then we are successful, win or lose.”

With the Final Four being hosted in Omaha, Neb., this year, there is pressure on the Huskers to win big. But their focus will remain fixed not on success according to their winning percentage or the chance to win it all in their home state, but on working hard every day to live out nine qualities of the pyramid.

Want more information on the original Pyramid of Success? Read the book of the same title by the man who originated the concept, Coach John Wooden. Get your copy at

“We don’t focus on a match two weeks from now or on the Final Four,” said Cook. “We are just staying in the moment and enjoying it. At the bottom of the pyramid is the word ‘journey.’ Nebraska volleyball is a journey, and we are trying to enjoy and make the most of every day.”

Click here to view a special profile for Tracy Stalls.

Photos courtesy University of Nebraska