Al Skinner was coach of the year in the Atlantic 10 and the Big East, conferences that care about basketball. In 2001, he was the national coach of the year. In 2006, his Boston College Eagles came within a J.J. Redick 3-pointer of beating Duke to win the ACC tournament in their first season in the Tiffany League.
Today Skinner works at Kennesaw State. Therein hangs a tale.
To current events: Last week the Owls beat Atlantic Sun leaders North Florida and Jacksonville by an aggregate 31 points. Not since February 2011 had Kennesaw State won consecutive conference games.
Thursday’s 101-91 upset of North Florida was the Owls’ most stirring victory since Tony Ingle’s team stunned Georgia Tech 80-63 on Nov. 15, 2010. Over the intervening five years, two months and 27 days, the Owls were 35-143. They ran through three coaches and ranked among the dregs of Division I. In April 2015, KSU hired Skinner, who over nine seasons at Rhode Island and 15 at Boston College took nine teams to the NCAA tournament. It would have been seen as a coup for the Cobb County school, except for one thing.
Skinner hadn’t worked as a head coach since being fired by Boston College on March 30, 2010, after a 15-16 season. That day, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe wrote: “Al is the least-hard-working guy in show business … Al works Al hours, arriving around noon, playing some pickup ball and going to a practice that, more than likely, had been planned by an assistant.”
In basketball circles, that’s a criticism almost never leveled. (Even bad coaches work hard.) That it came from Ryan was devastating. Long before becoming an ESPN fixture, Ryan had stamped himself as maybe the best basketball writer ever. Before his column, the national view of Skinner was, “Good coach.” After it ran, the consensus became, “Good but lazy?”
After his team drubbed Jacksonville 90-69 on Saturday at the KSU Convocation Center, Skinner spoke to a visitor for 25 minutes. Half that time was spent discussing what Ryan wrote. Said Skinner: “Obviously, it was exaggerated. You had to give some reason, so what reason could you give? You grab an intangible. My personality, if you watch me, could possibly lead to that (conclusion). At least that’s what I’m told.”
Then: “As a player, that’s what my intangible was — that I played hard. If you watched my teams, my teams competed. We had some good teams and good players, but it wasn’t like we had the top recruiting class in the country, and we competed against the best … You don’t have the success I had without putting in the work. Being sarcastic, what I did tell people was: ‘If I didn’t work hard, then I must be pretty damn smart and you should want to hire me anyway.’”
Then: “The whole thing was so fabricated. I told Bob that I was just very disappointed in him because his article impacted my career. In saying that, I’m really happy to be (at Kennesaw). We’re going to do some good things. But between then and now, it impacted my career. I was really surprised that people making the decisions actually believed it. The truth of the matter is, it wasn’t true.”
Speaking Monday, Ryan said: “I stand by every word of it. I’m flattered if someone thinks I have that much power, but athletic directors do their own homework — or if they don’t, shame on them.”
For three seasons after his firing, the man who won more games than any Boston College coach — a list including Bob Cousy, Chuck Daly, Tom Davis, Gary Williams and Jim O’Brien — didn’t work as a coach. In the fall of 2013, Skinner took a job at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., as an assistant to Tim O’Shea, who’d been his assistant at BC.
As an assistant athletic director at Boston College, Kennesaw State AD Vaughn Williams knew Skinner. But Gene DeFilippo, whom Williams calls his mentor, was the guy who’d fired Skinner, presumably for the reasons voiced by Ryan. (DeFilippo said he wanted a coach whose teams “would play a very exciting brand of basketball.”) For the record, Williams called DeFilippo to tell him he was hiring Skinner but didn’t ask his blessing.
Said Williams: “Al is an unbelievable coach and an unbelievable winner. From what I see, I want Al Skinner. He teaches the game and graduates players. Everyone has his way, and that’s his style.”
Also for the record: Boston College is 74-113 since firing Skinner. Steve Donahue was fired after four seasons. Under Jim Christian, the Eagles are 4-26 in ACC play. DeFilippo retired as AD in 2012.
Skinner’s Owls are 9-18 after starting 3-12. In dissecting Jacksonville, they appeared expertly prepared. (They made 54.2 percent of their shots and had 21 assists on 32 baskets.) Skinner used only one timeout — with 50 seconds left so his seniors could take a bow. He’s among the few college coaches who seems dignified while working, and hooray for that.
“I’m not saying we’re good, but we’re competitive,” he said. “There’s improvement since the beginning of league play to where we are now … This team is starting to kind of get it.”
He’s 63, old enough to have played alongside Julius Erving and Rick Pitino at UMass and with Dr. J again in the ABA. Does Skinner see Kennesaw — of which he’d scarcely heard when he took the job — as a place to prove a final point?
“I know I can do it,” he said. “That’s not really an issue. When it comes to basketball, I understand the business and I understand what I’m capable of. So it wasn’t even that. I just believed I had something to offer some young men. I am who I am. These next few years are not going to change who Al Skinner is. But I think I can bring something to the table that will enhance this environment from a basketball standpoint, to share some experience that I have.”