Written By: Eric Skelly
I’ve been asked quite a few times in my coaching career, “Why did you want to coach in the NAIA?”. The answer isn’t nearly as people would think.
I think deep down I knew I was always going to make my career coaching. Even back in to high school, I taught swimming lessons, helped with the summer league teams and just enjoyed being around the sport. Had no idea I could ever make it a career. Even in college when I was studying and preparing to go to law school, I still coached a YMCA team near my university in the summer. After my 4 years of college and the realization I did not want to be an attorney, I began what would be my career as a swimming coach.
I was first introduced to the NAIA as a kid growing up in Canton, Ohio. We had 2 colleges in my hometown, Walsh College & Malone College. Neither at the time offered swimming as a collegiate sport. Walsh had synchronized swimming and Malone would add it years later. But my mother was a graduate of Walsh and we would go to Soccer & baseball games all the time. I knew they weren’t NCAA but wasn’t exactly sure what the NAIA was. That changed in 1990 when Canton was chosen to host the 1990 NAIA Swimming & Diving Championships at the C.T. Branin Natatorium. Local high school teams were asked to help with timing and I signed up. I saw so many schools that I had never heard of yet had my sport. I made sure to keep a heat sheet to remember them when my high school career came to an end. The NAIA returned in 1992, my junior year, and I once again volunteered to time. This time I muscled up the courage to talk to a swimmer about being recruiting to his school. The swimmers name was Chris Chance and he competed for Fairmont State College, I briefly met his coach who took my name & number. Other coaches were talking to the timers to see if they were junior or seniors looking to swim in college. From Whitworth, to Findley, to Westminster & many more, I was open to various options I had never thought about before.
The summer before my senior year I made my rounds of various Mid Major D1 & D3 schools but it was the NAIA Schools that called me the most. I remember all of them. Drury’s assistant coach called me weekly, Fairmont State got a new head coach, Ed Denny (who just recently retired from coaching) and found my number in a file contacted me regularly and Rob Klamut at Westminster was near relentless. I would see Rob several times after my career was over as a coach and we’d talk about my visits to his campus. The NAIA was ingrained in my head at this point. It would not come to be unfortunately as I decided to attend D2 Ashland University instead. That experience never left my mind however.
Years later I had gone through my career first as an age group and then I began my college career at Valparaiso University as an assistant before moving on to the University of Nevada. I always had the dream of being a “Power 5” D1 coach, but even while I was Nevada, the small school feel never left me. I enjoyed my time at Nevada and cherish the experience but I felt more like a cog in the machine than a coach on the deck. Plus, it was at Nevada where I first saw the effect of budget cuts & furloughs and I wasn’t sure that was for me. After three years, I decided to apply for my first college head coaching position and ironically the 3 jobs I interviewed for were all NAIA.
The NAIA had changed drastically since I was introduced to them in the 1990’s. Almost every school I had seen had transitioned to D2, D3 or dropped the program. The two teams that existed when I was at the meet that still are in the NAIA are Union College Campbellsville University (A 3rd school Asbury University just announced they would be transitioning to D3 was also there). Union & Campbellsville would drop the programs for a short period before brining them back in the early 2000’s The University of the Cumberlands would add swimming in 1993-94, my freshman year of college. When I was interviewing for positions, I “re-educated” myself with the history and rules of the NAIA. The more I studied it, the more I realized this was coaching at its purest form. Not burdened by the massive rule book of the NCAA, the NAIA allowed coaches to recruit & coach athletes. I was fortunate that Cumberlands athletic director Randy Vernon took a chance on me to take over leadership of his swimming program. My predecessor, Garry Nelson, had spent 10 years building the program on a national level and my goal was to not screw that up. And after my 10 years, I hope that I have lived up to that expectations.
The key to my choice to coach at the NAIA was the impact I could have on the student athlete. Mr. Vernon told me when I took the job.“Eric, I want you to provide a positive college athletic experience, graduate your athletes and help keep them out of trouble. I understand you can’t win every competition and you won’t be graded on that. I want Cumberlands swimmers to be successful in the pool and out. “
I felt that the NAIA and all that it offers make this easy. We give our athletes the same opportunities that NCAA schools do plus a national championship that is both competitive and exciting. I remember my first national championships in Oklahoma City in 2012. I was the new guy but several coaches, Eddie Sheppard of Biola, Chris Conlan of SCAD, Alex Keyser of Asbury & Peter Richardson of Fresno Pacific took the time to welcome me to the NAIA. Then the meet only had 21 teams and we were losing several that year (after 5 or 6 had left the year before).
The NAIA had been a roller coaster in terms of their numbers. All of the Coaches had a common goal, to see the NAIA grow. Now, especially in a time of uncertainty, we in the NAIA are seeing unprecedented growth where as the NCAA is seeing programs dropped. The NAIA will have its largest number of schools offering swimming since the early 90’s when I was a high school student. Being a part of an organization that wants to grow the sport is definitely an exciting thing. So, when I get asked “Why the NAIA?”, I can simply say it’s because of the opportunities they provide for the sport when others look to cut those opportunities.
Eric Skelly is entering his eighth season as head coach of the University of the Cumberlands Swimming programs. During his time with the Patriots, Skelly has earned numerous conference and national recognitions including six Mid-South Conference Championships and top-ten finishes at the NAIA National Championships for both the men’s and women’s program in each of the previous seven years. Over the past seven years the UC women’s swim team has seen tremendous success at the national level. The Patriots have produced 58 All-Americans, two NAIA National Champions, and have set 20 new school records. UC has earned four top-five finishes at the national championships, including a third place finish in 2013 and 2018, which is tied for the best finish in program history. In 2013, Skelly guided the program to their first #1 ranking in the NAIA Coaches Poll and was named the NAIA National Coach of the Year. Skelly notched his second NAIA Coach of the Year Award in 2018 after his third place finish at Nationals. The UC men’s swimming is coming off a sixth place finish at the 2018 NAIA National Championships. Under Coach Skelly, the men’s team has had two NAIA National Champions, 42 NAIA All-Americans, the 2018 NAIA Diver of the Year, and have set 16 new school records. Since swimming became an official Mid-South Conference sport in 2015, Skelly has guided his women’s team to four straight MSC Titles, 38 first team all-conference selections, 54 second team all-conference selections, four MSC Swimmers of the year, and three MSC freshman of the year honors. The UC men’s team won the inaugural MSC Championships and finished runner-up in each of the past three seasons. Over the past three years the Patriots have produced 25 first team all-conference and 32 second team all-conference selection, as well as one MSC swimmer of the year and one MSC freshman of the year. In addition to that Skelly was named the Mid-South Conference Coach of the Year in 2016 for both men’s swimming and women’s swimming. In addition to the success that the program has had in the water, they have also excelled in the classroom. Over the past seven years the UC swim team has had 26 swimmers earn NAIA Scholar All-American Honors, 38 earn MSC Academic All-Conference Honors, and both the men’s and women’s team were named CSCAA Scholar Teams in each of the past three seasons. Skelly was previously an assistant coach for the University of Nevada for the past three years. Before coaching the Wolf Pack, Skelly was an assistant coach at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind. where he worked with the women and men's swim teams. He was the primary recruiter during his tenure at Valparaiso where he worked with the distance swimmers and individual medley specialists. In addition to coaching and recruiting he helped develop a comprehensive weight and dry land conditioning program. Before coaching at Valparaiso, he spent three years as the assistant aquatics director and head age group coach at the Crawford Aquatic Center in Crawfordsville, Ind. where he worked with the Sugar Creek Swim Club. He coached several state champions and nationally ranked athletes of which 12 broke 17 team records. His coaching resume includes four years as the head age group coach for the Decatur Swim Club in Decatur, Illinois, a year as a volunteer assistant coach at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and a year as the head swimming coach and assistant aquatics director at the Shelby "Y" Community Center in Shelby, Ohio. As a collegiate swimmer, Skelly competed for Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio from 1994-97. He helped Ashland reach NCAA Division II Championships four times during his career, earning top 10 finishes three times in 1995, 1996 and 1997. He is certified American Swimming Coaches Association. Skelly received a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Phoenix in 2005 and completed work on a master degree in sports administration in 2007 at Valparaiso. Eric and his wife Jennifer have two sons, Drake and Connor.