‘There was one direction to go. And it was up.’ How Craig Skinner built Kentucky volleyball into a national powerhouse.

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‘There was one direction to go. And it was up.’ How Craig Skinner built Kentucky volleyball into a national powerhouse.

UK head coach Craig Skinner yells to his team from the sideline during the match against Missouri on Wednesday, November 20, 2019. Kentucky defeated Missouri 3-0. Photo by Hunter Mitchell

Over the past decade, Kentucky volleyball has completely rejuvenated the dated halls of Memorial Coliseum. From the jeers of the pep band when opponents prepare to serve, the exhilaration of the athletes after a scored point or the crowd joining together to sing the words of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, the historic building has become one of the most hostile road environments in the Southeastern Conference.

And as is often the case come mid-November, the program is always full of buzz with the SEC title race quickly coming to a head and the NCAA Tournament looming in the visible distance.

This year especially, the halls got a little louder after the No. 17 Wildcats traveled to Gainesville and knocked off No. 11 Florida for the fourth-consecutive time on the road.

But UK coach Craig Skinner wasn’t focused on the Cats’ big victory over the Gators or the potential SEC championship that was within Kentucky’s reach. His only priority was preparing his team for its upcoming match against Missouri. As far as he was concerned, it was just another quiet day in the Joe Craft Center.

But a volleyball office was the last place he thought he’d be when he was a kid. In fact, most of his energy was spent dribbling a basketball or swinging a baseball bat.

It wasn’t until the sixth grade when a friend mentioned the idea of playing for his father, at the time the head coach of Ball State, in the 13 and under team the next summer that Skinner even considered playing volleyball at all.

That invitation stirred something inside of him, though, and he spent the majority of his time in high school playing off and on in club teams throughout his junior and senior year. Turns out, it was a failed football career that actually kickstarted Skinner’s collegiate volleyball career and a passion that grew into a profession.

“I went to Michigan to kick and punt on the football team and that didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Skinner said. “So I was walking across the rec center and saw the club team practicing and said ‘Hey can I join?’ So I joined and came back to Ball State to play varsity the next year.”

A 6’1” outside hitter from Muncie, Ind., Skinner registered 567 kills throughout his time with the Cardinals and ranks 20th in school history in averaged service aces per game. And while some athletes look overseas to continue playing once their collegiate career is over, Skinner elected to pursue an occupation in coaching.

Learning to lead

After serving as an assistant coach for the women’s team under Hall of Famer John Cook at the University of Wisconsin in the mid 1990s, Skinner actually left his coaching gig to finish his degree in accounting. But it wasn’t long before he was back on the court coaching, this time leading the Ball State men’s team to wins over three nationally-ranked opponents before leaving for Nebraska midseason in 2000.

A familiar face awaited Skinner inside the Bob Devaney Sports Center at Nebraska, as Cook was named the head coach for the Cornhuskers in the same year. Collectively, the pair led Nebraska to a national title that first season and a perfect 34-0 record. Skinner was named head assistant coach in 2003 and finished his time as a Husker having been a part of a national championship and Final Four run, along with four Big-12 Championships. While he was there, Nebraska lost just 11 games while winning 154.

According to Skinner, none of that, nor his eventual achievements at the University of Kentucky, would have been possible without the guidance of Cook.

“I learned, over the course of eight years of working with him, a lot about the whole broad, bigger picture perspective of running a program. Not just teaching the game of volleyball.”

Resurrecting a program

While Skinner was helping push schools like Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ball State back into the national spotlight, Kentucky was struggling. A once regular Top 25 and NCAA Tournament team in the late 1980s, the Cats couldn’t keep up after head coach Kathy DeBoer left in 1993.

Under DeBoer’s leadership, the Wildcats won two SEC championships and reached the school’s highest poll ranking ever at No. 5 in 1993. Prior to Skinner’s arrival at Kentucky, she was the only coach to have reached 200 wins and was awarded with SEC and NCAA Coach of the Year in 1987.

After Jona Braden retired at the completion of the 2004 season, Skinner was officially named the head coach at Kentucky. And while Cook certainly prepared him to lead his own team, Skinner acknowledged that one of the hardest parts about transitioning from assistant coach to head coach was the decision making.

“The biggest thing is as an assistant you don’t have to make a whole lot of decisions,” Skinner said. “You have a lot of opinions and you want your assistants to not just be yes-people and agree with you all the time, but everything you do as a head coach is a final decision. And so you have to spend a lot of time weighing, going through the different perspectives of what can be the right decision.”

And while the challenge of rebuilding a struggling program may not appeal to some, Skinner relished the opportunity.

“There was one direction to go. And it was up.”

Up Kentucky went quickly under Skinner, with the Cats posting a winning record for the first time in five years and returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.

So what was the key to all of that success in his first year? For Skinner it was simple: Belief.

“I wanted the players that we had at the current time to know that we believed in them,” he said. “I didn’t want them to feel like ‘Oh this guy’s coming from Nebraska he’s gonna think we suck.’”

That theme stuck, as Skinner led Kentucky to four-straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament before becoming the fastest coach in school history to reach 100 career wins in 2009. That year, the Cats were ranked in the polls every week of the season before reaching the first Sweet Sixteen of Skinner’s career as a Wildcat.

Since his arrival, Kentucky has reached the NCAA Tournament 14 consecutive times, a number that is only going to increase at the end of this season. Only nine other schools in the country have achieved the same feat.

Failures and championships

It turns out his approach to coaching hasn’t changed much 15 years later, as belief and flexibility are still common themes in his locker room today.

“He acknowledges all of us as individuals with different playing styles and figures out a way to make them all Kentucky volleyball,” former middle blocker Kaz Brown said. “The coaching staff never tried to change the way I played, they just helped me to develop and fine-tune my skills. You can’t say that about every program in the country.”

Brown played for the Wildcats from 2014-2017, and was a starter on Kentucky’s historic run to the Elite Eight in 2017. Behind the leadership of five seniors- four of whom saw significant playing time- the Cats captured their first SEC championship since 1988, tied the highest national ranking in program history and received the school’s first top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

As exciting as that championship was, Brown and Skinner both said the path to get there wasn’t always easy.

“It was really rewarding,” Skinner said of getting UK to those heights. “A lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of perseverance. Lot of failures. We had to learn how to fail and we had to learn how to get close and not get there.”

One of those failures came in the 2016 season, when No. 23 Kentucky traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to take on the Volunteers in the final game of the regular season. Heading into the match, the Cats sat in a three-way tie for first atop the SEC with Florida and Missouri. As long as they defeated Tennessee, a team that was sitting on a 16-13 record at the time of first serve, Kentucky would claim at least a share of the SEC Title for the first time in nearly three decades.

But after the Cats took the first set, the Volunteers stunned Kentucky, storming back to win the match 3-1 and shattering the Wildcats’ championship hopes.

And according to Brown, that result is what fueled UK’s historic run the next season.

“Once you feel disappointment like that, it’s motivation enough,” she said. “Craig used that to fuel us in a positive way. He reminded us of that when we needed it and I think that’s why we were so determined my senior season.”

After knocking off East Tennessee State in the First Round and Western Kentucky in the second, the Cats went the distance with No. 7 BYU in a thrilling five-set victory, defeating the Cougars to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in modern school history.

Next up was Nebraska, though, where Skinner would take on his former mentor in Cook. And as is often the case in sports, irony can be a cruel mistress, as the program that acted as the springboard for Skinner’s coaching career knocked off his most successful team to date in four sets en route to the program’s fifth national championship.

And just like that, the run was over and Skinner had to rebuild again as five seniors departed. But rather than dwell on what the Cats were losing to graduation, Skinner chose to focus on the talent he already had.

He had plenty returning, as Kentucky completed the 2018 regular season by rattling off 23-straight matches, the longest winning streak of Skinner’s career. Included in that run was a perfect 18-0 performance in the SEC to capture the conference title outright and back-to-back for the first time since 1988 and 1989.

But irony reared its ugly head once more, as the Cats were again matched up with the Cornhuskers in the postseason, this time in the Sweet Sixteen. And just like the previous year, Kentucky simply couldn’t overcome Nebraska’s serving game, this time falling in three sets.

As far as whether or not Skinner wants another crack at Nebraska this year?

“Oh yeah, I’ve already called the committee to see if we can,” he joked.

‘Model behaviors that you want your team to follow’

But in spite of the difficult losses in the postseason, Skinner tells his players to play for each other and the countless athletes that have poured themselves into a program that so desperately wanted to see a title return to the Bluegrass.

“Jay Wright at Villanova (the men’s basketball coach), one of his core philosophies as a program is ‘We play for the ones that came before us,’” Skinner said. “So that’s on the wall down right outside the locker room. And all the names of every player that’s ever played is on a big, posted wall mount. I don’t want them to ever forget that other people had blood, sweat and tears in that uniform in practice every day.”

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, repairing that Championship mindset takes time. And for Skinner, it started with leading by example.

“As a staff you have to model behaviors that you want your team to follow,” the coach said. “You have to try and be the best at everything you do. Be the best at designing practice. Be the best at how you travel. Be the best at how you try and eat. For me, I don’t ever not want to be in shape. I want to work out all the time because if I’m asking my players to be in shape and fit then I should model that.”

UK head coach Craig Skinner speaks with his team in a timeout during the match against Missouri on Wednesday, November 20, 2019. Kentucky defeated Missouri 3-0. Photo by Hunter Mitchell

His teams have adopted the same way of thinking, as the Wildcats look for a third potential SEC title in just as many years, currently tied for first with Florida atop the conference.

And as much success and recognition as his players have received over the last decade, Leah Edmond, arguably the greatest volleyball athlete to ever don the blue and white, said none of it is possible without Skinner’s leadership.

“They’re always pushing us to be our best,” Edmond said of the staff. “So definitely I think Craig has helped me become a better hitter and a better player and just a better person off and on the court. He’s constantly challenging me and he knows what I can do.”

That sentiment has echoed loudly throughout the entirety of the NCAA, even reaching Kentucky’s newest grad transfer Leah Meyer, a former All-ACC First-team middle blocker at Duke. In her one and only season with the Cats, Meyer leads the team in hitting percentage and blocks per set.

“People talk around the NCAA and I knew that Craig was really a well-known and loved coach around the NCAA,” Meyer said. “Then I came on my visit and he was just incredible. And I could tell that there was really a family atmosphere here and that was something that I desired to come to.”

That family atmosphere is a big part of what makes playing for Skinner such a privilege.

“Craig is the type of coach you want to play hard for and win for,” said Brown, his former All-American. “He’s a dad and you can definitely see that in his coaching style.”

Heading down the home stretch of his 15th season, Skinner has accumulated a program-best 350-124 record, been named the 2015, 2017 and 2018 SEC Coach of the Year, reached five Sweet Sixteens, an Elite Eight and won two SEC championships. Prior to the season, he received a contract extension that will keep him as the Cats coach through 2024.

Not bad for a guy whose football career didn’t pan out.

On Saturday against Ole Miss, Skinner and company will leave the locker room again and pass by the mural containing the names of every athlete to ever play for the Wildcats. And with that reminder and a boisterous crowd behind them, they’ll look to win an SEC championship for the third-straight year.

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