No wigging out: Final 4 NCAA coaches — Sheffield, Elliott, Skinner, Cook — have paid their dues

NCAA Final Four coaches 4/21/2021-Jerritt Elliott-Texas volleyball
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott has the Longhorns in the NCAA semfinals again/Texas photo

They didn’t just show up at the pinnacle of NCAA volleyball success, these three bald guys and one with hair.

No, Wisconsin’s Kelly Sheffield, Jerritt Elliott of Texas, and Kentucky’s Craig Skinner — the ones with the shiny heads — and Washington’s Keegan Cook — he of the full head of hair — have grinded, made life-changing professional decisions, paid their dues, learned, recruited their respective asses off, and, now, here they are, in Omaha and in the NCAA semifinals, two victories away from a national championship. 

“Are we considered three wise men because we’re bald?” Elliott wondered.

“I’ll leave Omaha grayer than I entered it,” said Cook, whose Huskies have won three five-set matches in a row. “And it will have been worth it.”

First the matchups, and both will be shown on ESPN, a wise move by the Worldwide Leader.

At 7 p.m. Eastern Thursday in the CHI Health Center, SEC-champion Kentucky (22-1) plays Washington (20-3), which won the Pac-12. 

Then — and it’s scheduled for 9:30 but the second match never starts on time — Big 12-champion Texas (26-1) plays Big-Ten champion Wisconsin (18-0).

Four semifinalists, four Power Five conference champions. Two have to lose, of course, so hair today, gone tomorrow, so to speak.

Kentucky is here for the first time. 

Washington, which won it all in 2005, went to the 2013 semifinals and lost to eventual champion Penn State. 

Wisconsin has never won it all. The Badgers lost in the 2000 national final (to Nebraska when Skinner was a Huskers assistant) and then again in 2013, Sheffield’s first year, and lost to Stanford in last year’s national-title match. 

And Texas has won it twice, in 1988 and the second in 2012.

And let’s start there, with Texas and Elliott. I remember so vividly when his team won in 2012 and was taken aback by how drained he was in the post-match news conference. The man was spent.

This is what I wrote then in Volleyball magazine:

The gigantic volleyball power from a volleyball-rich state and a university with lofty expectations in everything it does finally walked away with the 2012 NCAA championship trophy, giving Texas its first title since 1988.

“It takes time and it takes the right situation to be able to happen,” said Jerritt Elliott, the 12th-year Texas coach, whose third-seeded Longhorns (29-4) swept fifth-seeded Oregon (30-5) 25-11, 26-24, 25-19. “I’m so proud of our program. To me, getting to the final four  is one of the hardest things to do in sports, and to get there four out of five (years) says a lot about what our program is.”

Not a lot has changed.

“Basically you’re working 340 days out of the year for to make something happen in 14 days,” Elliott said Tuesday. “That window is so small. You need so many pieces to be right.

“I was thinking about this (Monday) night when we made it. God, the last time we made it was 2016. It’s so hard to make a final four.

“And the expectations. Everybody thinks their program should be good enough to get there. Just like football programs, right? Everybody should be No. 1.”

But they can’t be. This is a well-worn NCAA Division I volleyball fact, but only Stanford, Nebraska, Penn State, Texas, UCLA, USC, Washington, Long Beach State, Pacific, and Hawai’i have won national titles. No one but Stanford, Penn State and Nebraska have worn the crown since that night in Louisville when Texas won in 2012.

“There’s so much work behind the scenes,” Elliott said. “It’s not only the X’s and O’s, but the training, the weightlifting, it’s the emotional side of that, it’s experience, it’s development and what they (the players) have sacrificed over this period of time. And that all feeds into a very narrow scope of pressure for these young kids and coaches to be able to make this happen. 

“I was telling my son this morning that I think the last five to seven years the game has really advanced. There’s so much more parity. The sweet 16 was almost a foregone conclusion for the most part (for Texas) and now it’s a real deal. The matches are really good.”

And there’s every reason to think Thursday’s will be, too. Unbeaten Wisconsin, the favorite all year, against a Texas team that bangs the ball like few teams have. Talent-laded Kentucky, playing so well, against a Washington team that just wins.

Kentucky coach Craig Skinner/Britney Howard photo

It’s a long way from Muncie, Indiana, for example, where Sheffield and Skinner, both Ball State grads, once coached together.

“Muncie is a 75,000 (population) blue-collar, industrial city with a cross culture of Ball State University and industry, and it’s fascinating, to be honest with you,” Skinner said. “In 1989-90 we’re sitting in a thousand-square-foot gym coaching JV volleyball together and eighth-grade volleyball and being an assistant to the most legendary volleyball coach in the state of Indiana (Steve Shondell). 

“Fast forward to now and it’s a great story.”

Ya think?

Wisconsin’s Kelly Sheffield during the 2021 NCAA regional semifinals/Mark Kuhlmann, NCAA Photos

Sheffield took a long time off after that to coach before he finally graduated from Ball State in 2001. That was long after coaching at Houston Juniors, and well after serving as a high school assistant and coaching for the Munciana club from 1989-97. He had jobs as a college assistant at Houston, Virginia, and Clemson. Finally Sheffield got hired as the head coach at Albany in upstate New York, going 4-20 his first year before winning the America East three years in a row. In 2008, he got the job at Dayton and the Flyers dominated, finishing second in the Atlantic 10 his first year and winning the league and going to the NCAA Tournament the next four seasons.

Which got him the Wisconsin job in 2013.

Skinner made his jump to the big time when John Cook hired him at Wisconsin. After three seasons, he went back to Ball State and served as an assistant on the men’s team. Cook hired him again, when he took over at Nebraska in 2000 and the Huskers won it all that year. Skinner became head coach at Kentucky in 2004 and has built the program into Florida’s rival in what basically is a two-team SEC race every year.

Paying dues?

Elliott was settling in as a high school coach.

“I was an elementary school teacher for four years and everybody expected me to become a club coach, so I started my own club and built that up to 16 teams in two years and at that point I kind of realized that I really liked it more than teaching because I was seeing growth,” Elliott recalled.

“I volunteered at Cal State Northridge (his alma mater) with the men’s team while I was teaching full time and running a club. So I was going basically all morning and all night and all weekends with club. I had found the passion.”

In 1994 he went to the NCAA final four and coaches convention in Austin and made a point to meet the Texas coach, Mick Haley, but Haley had already filled his volunteer-assistant position. So Elliott ended up at USC, hired by Lisa Love, who was replaced by — what goes around comes around — Haley in 1999. Haley, however, didn’t coach USC at first, because he took the job as the USA Olympic coach. So Elliott, the interim head coach keeping the seat warm, took the Trojans to the 1999 NCAA second round and in 2000 the Trojans lost in the NCAA semifinals to Wisconsin, that same team that lost in the title match to Nebraska with Skinner as assistant coach.

In 2001, Haley took over and Elliott got the Texas job, where he’s taken the Longhorns to the program’s 17th NCAA Tournament in a row, which includes its ninth national semifinals.

One more thing about hair. Elliott may not have any, but his wife, Italian beach player Andrea Nucete-Elliott, has a hair-tie business, tiyproducts.com. Make your own joke, but we dug hard to find this photo of Elliott at USC in 2000:

Jerritt Elliott at USC in 2000

And then there’s Cook.

“He’s gotta spend a lot more money on shampoo, that’s for sure,” Elliott cracked.

Cook, too, learned from the bottom up. He started coaching when he got to college.

“For four years while the rest of my peers were going to music festivals or traveling abroad, I was spending all my free time coaching,” Keegan said in a University of Washington story. “When you’re 18 years old and coaching 17-year-olds, you have to carry yourself in a manner that’s very professional. You have to take your job very seriously. Everyone’s expecting you to be mature. I was very conscious of those things early on.”

Washington’s Keegan Cook coaching against Louisville in the NCAA regional semifinals/Mark Kuhlmann, NCAA Photos

Cook, who went to Saint Mary’s, started as coach for the NorCal club. He got his start in college coaching as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater. Eventually they started paying him. After eight years, he left in 2013, hired at Washington by Jim McLaughlin. Two years later, McLaughlin stunned the sport by leaving to coach at Notre Dame.

Cook was promoted and has extended the level of success: This is Washington’s 19th NCAA appearance in a row and the Huskies won the Pac-12 under Cook for the third time.

And he has all that hair.

“There’s gotta be something to that,” Sheffield said. 

“Jerritt, Skinner, myself, all of us were texting earlier how jealous we are of his hair. He’s got a fantastic thing on top of his dome.”

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