Kentucky Volleyball head coach Craig Skinner is one of the game’s biggest ambassadors (UK Athletics Photo).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — I’ve been preaching for several years that Kentucky Volleyball is the most exciting sport on campus. It’s fast paced, team oriented, and features uber-talented athletes with size, agility, quickness, power, and grace. Everybody on the roster seems long, lithe, and lean. Match after match, these gifted student-athletes battle their opponents on a court the size of your living room. If diving, laying out, and hitting the floor on nearly every contested point isn’t enough to win you over, then jaw-dropping kills, lightning-quick momentum changes, and down-to-the-wire finishes will certainly put you over the edge.
Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner is one of the biggest volleyball ambassadors around. During his eighteen years at the helm, he’s worked tirelessly to promote, publicize, and popularize the sport at all different levels. Coming off a recent national championship and five straight SEC titles, you’d think he’d be content to rest on his laurels and bask in the glow of the sport’s elite. After all, volleyball has finally arrived with a bang in the SEC and Skinner sits as king of the hill. It just means more, right?
WRONG! Compared to football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, and softball, volleyball remains the black sheep of the Southeastern Conference family. As the current Rodney Dangerfield of the sporting world, they’re not getting nearly the respect they have earned and deserve.
“It’s grown so much, and I don’t want to say that we’re not there yet, but we’re not quite there yet,” Skinner acknowledged at UK Volleyball Media Day. “Because there are so many people playing, we need more good quality coaches coaching high school, coaching the clubs, and all that type of stuff. And it’s happening, but that’s a slow process.”
The frustration in Skinner’s voice is totally understandable. In his mind, the sport needs to do much more to maximize exposure. Internationally, and on the high-school and club levels, volleyball is exploding everywhere. At the collegiate level, it also seems to be expanding rapidly through multiple hotbed pockets throughout the country. Only in the South, however, does the momentum seem to be lagging.
“We have a challenge,” Skinner said. “We have the great sport of football that’s during our season. We have to find ways to get recognized…Being more on television. [Having] more high-level matches like we’re playing against Nebraska [and] Wisconsin. Maybe the SEC considers having an SEC [tournament] championship to garner interest at the end of the season.”
All those suggestions have merit. It’s obvious that SEC football fans will never forsake first downs and touchdowns in lieu of back sets and side outs. Coaches can promote until they’re blue in the face, but it’s up to the executives at the top of the food chain to find creative ways to convince fans that they can enjoy both sports. Until we see more network TV exposure, more talking heads hyping up volleyball, more NIL-type promotion by volleyball student-athletes, growth in the South will continue at a snail’s pace. Increased exposure has done wonders for other sports—even women’s basketball and softball. There’s no reason it can’t do the same for volleyball.
Give Skinner credit, though—he didn’t shy away from addressing the elephant in the room. Although he knows he plays third fiddle to both John Calipari and Mark Stoops, Skinner still feels plenty of love from the current administration. As far as UK Volleyball is concerned, no one’s throwing friendly fire his way.
“We have everything we could ask for in terms of how we travel, how we dress, how we perform,” Skinner said. “As we’ve witnessed, every coach is going to fight like crazy for themselves and for their players. That’s the nature of competitors. Do I say it’s a perfect world? No, it’s not.”
“But I say we’re given a lot, and we’re going to take care of everything we have and strive for more at the same time. Looking forward to the future of Memorial Coliseum. Looking forward to the future of SEC Volleyball with more great coaches coming in. With that, I think you’ll see the growth continue.”
Perhaps senior middle blocker Azhani Tealer said it best. In a writing assignment requested by her coach, she addressed how volleyball has impacted her life and why it’s important to share it with the rest of the world.
“I’ve done the most incredible things from volleyball,” said the Grand Prairie, Texas, native. “I’ve traveled across the world, I’ve met my best friends, I’m getting my education paid for, and I’ve done all these crazy things thanks to the sport. So, I really feel a responsibility that because I’ve gotten so much, to give back to the sport, to put it on the highest pedestal that sports can be on.”
The path to that pedestal depends ultimately on media exposure. If you show it, people will come.
“Hopefully [we can] be on ESPN,” Tealer continued. “Our championship game was on ESPN 2. So for me, just everything that’s given me, I just want to give it all back and help propel the sport for all the younger people.”
See what I mean? With the most exciting sport on campus peppered with such high-character individuals, the best—however slowly—is sure to come. The game sells itself. We just need to see more of it on the major networks.
No. 11- ranked Kentucky opens its season versus Marquette at 7 pm on Friday, August 26 in Memorial Coliseum. If you can’t make it in, the game will be broadcast on SEC Network +.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He is the author of three books, CUT TO THE CHASE, KENTUCKY PASSION, and FROM THE RAFTERS OF RUPP. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.