**This is post #1 in a 4 part series by ALLY TUCKER based on the interviews with the coaches mentioned below. Stay tuned for more specifics on each program individually and more similar work on KSRCollege.com
I had the pleasure of interviewing the head coaches of three of the women’s programs on the rise at the University of Kentucky. I spoke with women’s soccer coach Jon Lipsitz, women’s volleyball coach Craig Skinner and women’s softball coach Rachel Lawson. All three coaches spoke proudly about their own programs and players. The most common and intriguing thread linking all three interviews though was the way in which each coach paid tribute to the unique culture surrounding the University of Kentucky Athletics Department.
“This is abnormal in a great way, an exciting way.”
Women’s soccer coach Jon Lipsitz’s quote lingered with me long after I walked out of his office. He was able to put perfectly into words exactly what the other two coaches had alluded to in their interviews as well. The women’s volleyball, soccer and softball teams at Kentucky have experienced unprecedented success as of late, with all three programs reaching and hosting post-season play in the 2010-2011 seasons. Each coach had various reasons for the success, varying from sport to sport in most cases. The one common link? All three were quick to bring up the culture of support and family that resonates throughout the athletic department. No matter which words the coaches used to describe the culture, the deeper message was clearly the same: the culture is unique, abnormal even. But above all, special.
Softball coach Rachel Lawson had a similar message. “The overall culture of the athletic department, it’s a really cool place to be right now.” The genuine support between the different athletic teams at Kentucky was acknowledged by each coach. From coaches to players to administrators, the collective goal is that of success by all. When one team succeeds, another team celebrates. When one team achieves, another team is motivated to do more.
Coach Skinner: “It’s exciting to see our players become friends with other players in the department. They can feed off each other’s success and create a pretty neat culture. The enthusiasm these players have for each other is a very unique deal countrywide.”
Coach Lawson: “When you see other teams do well, players on our team want to do equally well. There’s probably a healthy competition and support amongst all the sports teams. It’s a really healthy place to be right now. As much as we are softball players and the softball team, we are Kentucky fans too. The girls go to all of the games”
Coach Lipsitz: “It’s so cool to see other coaches that are such great coaches doing great. It increases the energy in all of the programs. ‘We need to do this. We can host too. We can bring excellence not just for ourselves but for our department.’ It’s good for all of us to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”
While each of the three teams (softball, soccer, volleyball) has their own unique identity and style of play, each coach admitted that they embrace the brand of Kentucky. Each coach mentioned the feeling of being part of something much bigger than their programs alone, something much bigger than themselves. “If you look at our team, most of the things we wear say Kentucky. Not Kentucky Softball, but Kentucky. One of the first things our kids learn when they come on campus is the fight song. When you watch our kids walk around campus, the only clothes they wear are Kentucky clothes. There’s this sense of being part of something much greater than you are, which is the Big Blue Nation.”
Coach Lipsitz echoed Coach Lawson’s sentiments, but went even further discussing the Kentucky brand and how it is so much greater than any one team or one program. “There is absolutely no doubt that the brand, which here at the University of Kentucky is led by basketball, exists. It’s a cool, young, hip brand. That’s exactly how we want it. We embrace that.” The brand stretches across all programs, uniting them together under one name. There is no animosity or resentment between any of the programs. They are fully supportive of one another.
“The camaraderie is amazing. It starts with Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart. Mitch is all about every program being important. We all know football and basketball bring in the most money. It’s totally understandable how many resources go there. But if you don’t have an athletic director who makes every program, every player, feel important– that can breed resentment. We don’t have that here. We have camaraderie. Quite the opposite. We want more. We want better. What can we do? How can we help make everyone better? Look, this is a cheerleading and a rifle school. Right? They are our two most recent national champions. I am so proud of them. It’s not an afterthought. It’s amazing.”
The word camaraderie continually came up in all three interviews. The support for one another was not only spoken in words, but revealed in moments such as Coach Lipsitz’s eyes lighting up every time he got the opportunity to speak about another program’s success. All three teams hosted incredible post-season games in the past year, yet all the coaches could talk about was how their own players attended, supported, Tweeted and cheered for the other teams in their big moments. “Every sport’s special moments are cheered and talked about,” Lipsitz glowingly proclaimed. “People, and I mean players, coaches, administrators, who aren’t ‘about’ other programs couldn’t do well here. They just wouldn’t be happy.”
I spoke with three very happy coaches this past week. To say that these coaches are “about other programs succeeding” would be an enormous understatement. I was blown away by their adoration for their fellow colleagues and other Kentucky teams. Coach Skinner admitted that he had “never been at a place where the support, energy and excitement for each other’s teams is at the level it is here at Kentucky.” I believe him.
“Someone like Coach Cal tweeting to go to our games. C’mon. I’ve gotten texts from John Wall wishing the team good luck. That’s just not normal. This is abnormal in a great way, an exciting way. There’s no other place like this in the country.” – Coach Lipsitz
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