With a headseat on and SEC Network announcers speaking in his ear, Craig Skinner was distracted.
It was the perfect time to take him by surprise.
So while Skinner spoke last Friday afternoon inside Memorial Coliseum, complimenting his team’s effort in a straight-sets win over Florida that secured at least a share of the Southeastern Conference championship for Kentucky — which eventually became an outright title — the Wildcats set about turning the attention back on him.
Skinner was recognized on the Memorial Coliseum videoboard for his 400th career win as a head coach, and his UK team soon mobbed him in a massive group hug.
— Kentucky Volleyball (@KentuckyVB) November 26, 2021
Since arriving in Lexington in December 2004, Skinner has spent nearly two decades molding the Kentucky volleyball program into a national power, culminating in the program’s first national championship in April.
It was the second NCAA championship won by Skinner, who also won a national title as an assistant coach at Nebraska in 2000.
“We never went away from celebrating the national championship. It was too big of an accomplishment for our program and players to just, ‘We’re going to ignore that and move on,’” Skinner said of UK’s mentality this season, which began less than four months after the national championship match.
“We created and wanted every opportunity to celebrate.”
Before Skinner arrived at UK, the Wildcats hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1993. That changed in Skinner’s first season in 2005.
“You can just look at the trajectory of where this program has gone since he got here. I think that kind of speaks in and of itself,” said senior outside hitter Alli Stumler, just minutes after embracing Skinner in that group hug. “Any person that asks, the best coach I’ve ever had. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
In recent times, the idealized version of Skinner’s plan has been realized.
Kentucky has won at least a share of five straight SEC championships, with three outright titles coming in 2018, last season and this season. The most recent SEC crown propelled Kentucky, owners of a 24-4 overall record, into this season’s NCAA Tournament as the No. 7 seed.
Tournament action for UK begins Friday night in Memorial Coliseum with a first-round match against Southeast Missouri State.
This remarkable run of consistency at the top of the conference has been attributed by Skinner to the dedication of his players.
“Are you getting ready to compete at the highest level or are you getting ready to just go play volleyball? There’s a difference, and (when) we recruit players at this program we expect them to want to compete for championships,” Skinner said. “That’s not easy. It’s a choice that we need to make each and every day. ‘Are we willing to put the time and energy in when it’s tough? When it’s hard? When you’re on the road? When you’re tired? (With) all the distractions that go on in these guys’ lives being a student athlete?’”
But at the same time, Kentucky’s players — in particular the 2021 senior class, which has gone 99-17 overall and 70-4 in SEC matches, won four SEC titles and a national championship playing for Skinner — credit the connection their coach forms with them on and off the court as being vital to the Kentucky volleyball experience.
“Being coached by Craig, his charisma is so calming, but it’s got like a, ‘Let’s go. We’re doing this,’ kind of attitude at the same time. You can’t really get that from another coach,” senior libero Lauren Tharp said.
“It’s an honor to play for somebody like that,” added senior setter Cameron Scheitzach. “Just being able to be coached by him and led by him, he invests in you as a person and as a player.”
Stumler said that while Skinner challenges players on the court to be the best version of themselves each day, he also puts time into investing in them as people.
“He’s somebody who cares so much about us and how we perform in school and how our character is and that’s something that coaches most times don’t care about; if you’re playing really well on the court that’s all that matters and that’s definitely not the case (with Skinner),” Stumler said.
How did Skinner react to these compliments?
“I think life is about relationships. It’s been on my computer for the last few years: ‘It’s not about volleyball,’” Skinner said. “I think if we invest time and energy into people we have a better chance to get the best out of them and they get the chance to get the best out of me. We’ve never promised any player anything, but we do promise them that we’ll be fair and we will challenge them in every aspect of their life, because if we don’t then we’re shortchanging them.”
The unparalleled success enjoyed by the UK volleyball program since Skinner’s arrival has also made an impression on other UK coaches, like women’s basketball’s Kyra Elzy, who sent Skinner a congratulatory text message after the volleyball team secured its latest SEC title over the weekend.
“Everyone comes to Kentucky to compete and we want to compete at the highest level, and winning championships is the ultimate goal, so obviously we aspire to be where they are,” Elzy said.
When Skinner arrived at Kentucky, the Wildcats were a world away from their current reputation.
Earlier this season, Skinner recalled his first season at UK in 2005. He asked his neighbors and other people he met at his children’s school to come and watch UK volleyball play, everyone from the mailman to the FedEx man.
He said his first match at Kentucky in 2005 against Wright State had about 75 people in the stands.
On Thursday afternoon, in front of a room full of reporters in the bowels of Memorial Coliseum to preview Kentucky’s 17th straight NCAA Tournament appearance under his leadership, Skinner thought back to the days where he would beg people to come to his team’s matches.
“I just honestly think that in this sport we’re just getting started. It’s the women’s sport that I feel has a chance to blow the roof off and I continue to say that and it will take more than just me saying that,” Skinner said about the future of volleyball. “It will take others to recognize that and fans and generations of moms that have played this sport to say volleyball deserves the attention that basketball and football are getting and the investment all across the board to take this thing to the next level.
“Why can’t volleyball generate revenue for the university? I’ve always said that, I want that to happen, I think it’s possible and I’m not going to stop until it happens. Our players deserve that. Our players work their a-- off to get to this point. … I can’t wait to see it go to the next level.”
NCAA Volleyball Tournament in Memorial Coliseum
5 p.m.: Illinois (20-11) vs. West Virginia (19-9), ESPN Plus
7:30 p.m.: Kentucky (24-4) vs. Southeast Missouri State (26-7), ESPN Plus
5 p.m.: First-round winners meet in NCAA Tournament second-round match (TV TBA)