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Skinner's contract gives volleyball program stability, support to take next step

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UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart announced a six-year contract extension Wednesday for head volleyball coach Craig Skinner. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced a six-year contract extension Wednesday for head volleyball coach Craig Skinner on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner was the third head coaching hire made by Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. Skinner came in after former football head coach Rich Brooks and former women's basketball coach Mickie DeMoss. Hired in 2004, Skinner is not only still the head coach of the women's volleyball program at UK, but Barnhart announced Wednesday that Skinner would be staying around even longer with a six-year contract extension.

Skinner has essentially rebuilt the volleyball program at Kentucky, one that had struggled since the early 1990s, and has restored it to national prominence with three appearances in the Sweet 16 in the last four seasons. It's been the dedication of both Skinner and his staff as well Barnhart and his administration that has allowed the volleyball program to not only rebuild but to reach new heights in program history.

Wednesday's announcement signified the unified efforts and dedication to try and take the Kentucky volleyball program to the next level.

"We are doing some special things," said Skinner. "We have done some great things and we want to continually compete for championships each and every year. We want to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament each year and be nationally recognized as the landscape of volleyball changes with the conferences changing."

The goal is to win championships at this point. Skinner has come close multiple times to winning an SEC championship, but has fallen just short. Those efforts will continue at an even stronger pace with a renewed vote of confidence from the administration.

His extension has Skinner fired up about next season and beyond as he looks to the future of the Kentucky volleyball program.

"To me, it's unbelievably exciting because in our sport, it doesn't happen very often that you get a contract of this length," said Skinner. "If it's exciting to me, I need to parlay that into our recruits, our current players, and I'm excited to take the next step and get better and never see a day that we aren't trying to improve ourselves. That the people we are trying to recruit understand that this is a long-term deal and something that we don't want to be OK, we want to be great."

The contract extension serves multiple purposes. First and foremost, it keeps one of the most highly esteemed volleyball minds at Kentucky to continue to build his program. The extension serves as a sign of stability to allow recruits and their families to know that Skinner will be coaching the Wildcats for the foreseeable future. It also allows Skinner to continue to raise his family in the only place that his children have ever called home.

"Megan (Skinner's wife) and I came here to Lexington wanting to raise our kids and come to a great place and we are grateful to have the opportunity to do that," said Skinner.

But now it's time to get to work.

Skinner isn't complacent. He never has been. And he's looking for ways to get over the hump. Reaching the Sweet 16 was a great first step, but this program, in his eyes and the eyes of the administration, is about setting their sights on winning those championships at both the conference and national levels.

This extension, along with some additional perks of the contract, should theoretically, and at some point realistically, allow Kentucky to not just compete for, but win those championships. Primarily, Skinner hopes that the new contract will help him be able to tell parents of recruits, "Yes, I'm going to be here if your daughter comes to Kentucky." He also hopes that it will allow him to go after and land some of the top volleyball talent in the country to help get him where he wants his program to be. That's why Barnhart felt it was necessary to keep his man, the guy he hired and is now the longest tenured Kentucky coach to be hired under Barnhart, to remain a Wildcat.

"Have people pursued Craig?" asked Barnhart. "I have no idea what all those conversations look like but we're foolish to think he's not on a lot of people's radar screen. We want to prevent that from happening. We don't want to give him any reason to go out there and pursue that.

"We want him here at Kentucky. He's an important part of us."

And because of that dynamic, the relationship has flourished and grown deeper, not only professionally but also personally.

"You get in the trenches with people and you're in with them, it gets personal," said Barnhart. "When you're standing in the hallway outside the locker room when you lose in the NCAAs and you see how hard they poured themselves into this deal and what it means. I think that slips away from us sometimes."

Barnhart was there with Skinner after his most recent loss, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of No. 1 seed and eventual Final Four participant Penn State. It's more than just words. It's more than just money. Both of these men are deeply invested in the growth of this program at all levels.

The next step for Skinner is to figure out exactly how to do it. That itself is a daily process.

"I think we try and learn every day," said Skinner. "We try and learn, 'Did we do this correctly? Are we attacking this system the right way?' I think as you get longer into the process, you learn quicker what works and what doesn't work."

What always helps that process is a strong roster full of talent. Not just talented athletes, but athletically gifted volleyball players who go about their business the right way. As important as Skinner might be to the structure of the program, the players he is coaching are the ones out of the floor, winning or losing games.

Thus far in Skinner's career, he's brought in several top-25 recruiting classes nationally. While he's been able to coach those players up, develop their skills, and teach them how to win in, he now seeks difference makers that possess unteachable skill and ability.

That's how you get to the next level.

"We all become a lot better coaches when we have great players," said Skinner. "Recruiting is everything. You need difference makers to get through the regionals, you need difference makers to win championships and we're continually seeking those players."

Those difference makes will not only affect the outcome of games, but will make huge differences in whether or not this program can reach those new heights.

"Going to the next level is big jump and I want our current players, our future recruits, our incoming players to understand, we've done great things but if we're satisfied with that then I don't want you to be part of this program," said Skinner. "I want people to be part of this program to compete with (national champion) Texas, to compete with the best teams in our league, to compete with teams going to the Final Four and it takes a heavy investment from myself, our players and a joint relationship with our administration to make that next pitch."

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