Craig Skinner, ’93 with the University of Kentucky women’s volleyball team (Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Athletics) and Kelly Sheffield, ’01 with the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team (Photo courtesy of Tom Lynn/University of Wisconsin Athletics)
The last two NCAA Division I women’s volleyball champion head coaches are Ball State graduates whose coaching foundations, both on and off the court, were built as cardinals.
Mention the names Kelly Sheffield and Craig Skinner today, and those who follow the sport of volleyball will tell you they’re two of the very best coaches the game has to offer.
But in 1990, Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Skinner were two young guns just cutting their teeth in coaching while leading a junior varsity team at Muncie Burris High School that hadn’t lost a match in nearly a decade.
More than 30 years later, those early coaching experiences in volleyball-crazy Muncie, while students at Ball State University, have never been lost on coaches Sheffield and Skinner. In fact, thanks to these gentlemen, Ball State can boast being the alma mater of the last two NCAA Division I women’s volleyball national champion head coaches in Mr. Skinner (2020; Kentucky) and Mr. Sheffield (2021; Wisconsin).
(That 1990 Burris JV team, by the way, would also go on to finish the season with an unblemished record.)
“We were having a blast just learning,” Coach Sheffield said of those early experiences coaching at Burris with Coach Skinner while studying at Ball State. “The funny thing is, I don’t think at the time we thought we were ever going to make a career out of coaching.”
Coach Sheffield attended Burris—founded in 1929 by Ball State’s Teachers College and now operated and managed by the University as a laboratory school—but he never actually played volleyball. He said it wasn’t until his sophomore year in college that he really caught the bug for the sport. His timing couldn’t have been better, though, as Muncie and East Central Indiana by that time was just starting to earn its reputation as the nation’s hotbed of volleyball talent and coaching.
Mr. Sheffield moved up the coaching ladder, spending a few years in the Burris program—which was led by the legendary Steve Shondell, winner of 21 Indiana state championships—before moving on to assist Steve’s brother, John, at New Castle High School and coaching in the Munciana club volleyball program. The college ranks came calling next, as Mr. Sheffield would serve as an assistant at the University of Houston (1997), the University of Virginia (1998-99), and Clemson University (2000), before earning his first head-coaching opportunity at the University of Albany.
A two-time America East Coach of the Year, Sheffield would then take over the program at the University of Dayton—leading the Flyers to four straight Atlantic 10 Conference championships and five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances—before he was named Wisconsin’s head coach in 2012. His influence was felt almost immediately; in 2013, the Badgers were NCAA runners-up, a feat they repeated in 2019. And this past season, Coach Sheffield led Wisconsin to its first-ever NCAA national championship.
Despite taking a few years off from pursuing his college education to focus on coaching in the 1990s, Coach Sheffield never forgot about Ball State. During his first season as Albany’s head coach in 2001, he completed his final two classes online to earn his bachelor’s degree in General Studies.
Coach Sheffield said his time as a student at Burris, with its unique relationship with Ball State, set him up for success in the years to come—on and off the court.
“Every one of my lunch hours, I’m walking on campus, going to the Flying Tomato or the Student Center or whatever,” he said. “Just how Burris is set up, there’s a lot of freedom. It’s a laboratory school, and the interaction with Ball State Teachers College students who would come in and observe or assist with class, you’ve got to think being in that environment goes hand-in-hand with your development as a coach.”
Coach Skinner, meanwhile, was a self-described “jack of all trades, master of none” as an athletic kid growing up in the Muncie school system with the likes of John and Steve Shondell and their brother, Dave. The Shondells’ father, Don, by that point was already a pioneer in the sport of volleyball, having founded the men’s program at Ball State in the 1960s, so growing up, it was a sport to which kids like Skinner and the Shondells naturally gravitated.
In the years to come, Mr. Skinner would find his approach to teaching and coaching volleyball was rooted in many of the same lessons he learned growing up around Dr. Don Shondell and the Ball State volleyball program.
Dr. Shondell passed away in November at the age of 92, already having left his coaching legacy in great hands. After a prolific coaching career at the high school level, Steve Shondell, ’77 MA ’80, would enjoy a successful six-year stint as the women’s volleyball coach at Ball State from 2010-15. Dave Shondell, ’81 MA ’85, has spent almost two decades as the head women’s coach at Purdue University, where John, ’94, is his associate head coach.
Then there are a countless number of other coaches and players Dr. Shondell influenced throughout his long, prolific life in the sport of volleyball.
“(Dr. Shondell) knew that to get from A to Z, it took a lot of detail and a lot of fundamentals, and he was very fundamental in his style of teaching,” Coach Skinner said. “I think he’s the epitome of, ‘There’s no difference between teaching and coaching, except the scoreboard.’ He was insistent on the fundamentals, and I think that there’s no question that all of us who played for him understood that to a T.”
Coach Skinner initially attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a spot on the football team as a walk-on. He eventually transferred back home to Muncie and Ball State and joined the men’s volleyball team, which, at that point, was still led by Dr. Shondell. Mr. Skinner by that time was completely immersed in the game; an outside hitter for the Cardinals from 1990-93, he had also started his coaching career at Burris and in Munciana.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in Accounting in 1993, Coach Skinner moved into the college coaching ranks as an assistant with Wisconsin (1994-96) and Nebraska (2000-04)—with a brief return to Ball State in 1999-2000 as an assistant with the men’s team—before being hired as Kentucky’s head coach in 2004.
Since that time, Mr. Skinner has propelled the Wildcats into national prominence, becoming the program’s all-time leader in wins (401) and, in the 2020 season, leading Kentucky to its first-ever national championship.
Between coaches Sheffield and Skinner, they’ve collected more than 900 wins, two NCAA championships, have been NCAA runners-up twice, and have appeared in five NCAA Final Fours as head coaches.
Not bad for a couple of guys who got their start leading the junior varsity team at Burris, learning the ropes as Ball State students.
“Just the passion, the sense of pride, you have from being at a school like Ball State, it carries on with you for the rest of your life,” Coach Skinner said. “Ball State started as a teachers college, and there’s a reason why people who graduate from there and teach and coach from there understand that concept, because it’s been ingrained in that University for a long time.”