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Ex-BC coach Al Skinner still hurt by way he was fired

Former BC head coach Al Skinner is back in the game as an assistant at Division 1 Bryant University.

GRETCHEN ERTL FOR THE GLOBE

Former BC head coach Al Skinner is back in the game as an assistant at Division 1 Bryant University.

The winningest coach in Boston College basketball history was out of the game for nearly three solid years.

He managed to keep himself busy.

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Every so often, he’d pop up at someone’s practice. He’d check in on Ed Cooley’s team down in Providence or Bill Coen’s team at Northeastern. Doc Rivers — and later Brad Stevens — brought him in to peek at the Celtics.

They all welcomed his help, and didn’t understand why he didn’t have a program of his own.

“For Al Skinner not to be a head coach is a travesty to college basketball,” Cooley said. “It is crazy how he’s not a head coach somewhere.”

Skinner did television work for NESN and ESPNU. He had lived so many basketball lives that talking about basketball on camera was easy. The hardest part, he said, was being a “personality.”

He even took up tennis, a game new to him, to keep his mind sharp and his 61-year-old body tuned.

But the itch to coach was always there. Cooley would check in with Skinner on a weekly basis, and he could sense it.

“You could tell he missed it,” Cooley said. “He’s dying to coach again.”

He kept an eye on vacancies, but not many of them piqued his interest. He even interviewed for a handful of jobs. But whenever Skinner walked into an office, the 385 career wins he carried with him seemed to suddenly shrink.

So did the two Big East Coach of the Year awards in 2001 and 2005, the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year honor he picked up in 1992, and the National Coach of the Year award he won in 2001.

His record got smaller and all the noise that surrounded his messy split with BC in 2010 got louder.

On his way out, Skinner was hammered for running a no-frills offense (even though at its best that offense led the Big East in scoring), scrutinized for missing the NCAA Tournament in two of his last three seasons (even though he had made it five of the last seven and reached it more than any other coach in BC history), and criticized for not recruiting (even though he had a small army of former players in the NBA).

But the label that stuck the most was that, for all he had done at BC, he was considered lazy.

That was the undercurrent of the news conference held by BC athletic director Gene DiFilippo. In a column, the Globe’s Bob Ryan called Skinner “the least-hard-working man in show business.”

As someone who had worked beside Skinner for years, it ate at Cooley.

“I think the stigma that has been pegged on Al is 1 million percent wrong,” Cooley said. “I can stand by that statement. It hurt me to see the label that was put on him, and it’s unfortunate.”

It clearly stung Skinner, too.

“The main thing is that I’m just disappointed that people out there believe that I didn’t do my job and that I wasn’t responsible for the success that I had accomplished,” Skinner said. “If you look at my résumé, yes, there’s been plenty of failure, but there’s also been a lot of success. As much success as failure. That’s in every coach’s career.

“Things happen, but as you move forward, it’s disappointing that it wasn’t better recognized what I had accomplished.”

Now the winningest head coach in BC history is an assistant at a small private university in Smithfield, R.I., that only five years ago made the transition to Division 1.

Explaining how he got there is, well, it’s complicated.

Welcomed at Bryant

Eventually, Skinner had to be on a sideline. When his longtime friend and former assistant Tim O’Shea called late last summer about an opening on his coaching staff at Bryant, Skinner figured it made sense.

They had spent 14 years together between Skinner’s runs as head coach at the University of Rhode Island and BC. Skinner trusted O’Shea. And Skinner was already making the hourlong drive from Wellesley once a week as it was, checking on practices.

O’Shea knew the value Skinner added.

“We’re still very much at the very beginning stages of developing a Division 1 identity as a basketball program,” O’Shea said. “So when you have somebody of Al’s stature on the bench, it says to the outside world that maybe there’s something good going on at Bryant.”

When word got to senior forward Alex Francis that Skinner was joining the staff, he braced himself.

“I’m not going to even lie to you, I was scared kind of,” Francis said. “I heard from people saying he was strict. I’m like, ‘Is he going to be strict to the point that you can’t talk to him? Is he going to be one of those yellers?’ ”

Francis had come to Bryant with some rough edges. When O’Shea was on the fence about bringing him in, Skinner persuaded O’Shea that he had to.

“He was a kid that just had a lot of growing up to do, some maturing to do,” O’Shea said.

In his own quiet way, Skinner sanded those edges down.

And Francis knew he could learn from Skinner.

“Come on now, Al Skinner? He’s been at BC, he’s coached NBA players,” Francis said. “He knows everybody. He’s a great coach, and I want that. I want as much help from him as possible because you don’t come by coaches like Al Skinner. So what he thinks, I want to know.”

Francis, who is averaging 18.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, is a large reason why the Bulldogs are off to a 9-8 start, and he’ll be the first to say it’s because he has Skinner over his shoulder.

“Al was a guy that Alex would immediately listen to,” O’Shea said. “It wasn’t a basketball thing, it was more a mentoring thing. I think he’s had a real influence.”

With Skinner, O’Shea said, the contributions may be subtle brush strokes, but they always make an impact.

“I brought a voice into the locker room that players respected right away,” O’Shea said.

The kind of relationship Skinner nurtured with Francis is part of what got lost in the abrupt ending at BC.

But O’Shea knew why so many of Skinner’s players — from Troy Bell, to Jared Dudley, to Sean Williams, to Craig Smith, to Tyrese Rice, to Reggie Sanders — went from obscurity to stardom, and why so many of them came back to campus to check in with him.

“Al had the ability to allow kids to reach their potential,” O’Shea said. “He didn’t over-coach. He wasn’t trying to micromanage every dribble like some coaches seem to do. He allowed enough freedom for kids to really flourish.”

A sudden stop

In his 13 years at BC, Skinner said, he never got an end-of-the-year evaluation. So when DeFilippo let him go in March 2010, Skinner felt blindsided.

“It was extremely surprising and very unexpected,” Skinner said. “No real warning. No saying, ‘You’ve got to pay attention to this or that.’ ”

That laundry list eventually became clear at DeFilippo’s news conference. He said he wanted a coach that would “play a very exciting brand of basketball” and “relate to our student body, to our faculty, to our staff, to our alumni and our fans.”

For Skinner, the implication was obvious.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t do those things, because I did,” Skinner said. “But by him saying that, it implied to the student body that we didn’t play an exciting brand of basketball, that I didn’t relate to the faculty and alumni and fans. That was his take.”

Above all, though, DeFilippo simply wanted someone different.

“Change is good sometimes,” he said at the time. “How many basketball coaches have been in the same position for 13 years? Very, very few.”

Coming off a 15-16 season, he may have felt the time was opportune.

“I was disappointed and hurt to see that,” Cooley said. “It all just points to there’s something that BC just didn’t want with Al and needed to come up with an excuse.”

DeFilippo saw the program growing stagnant. Skinner saw a team with 10 players returning, including Reggie Jackson, who would go on to be an NBA first-round draft pick.

Skinner said, “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Do you realize how close we are?’ ”

When reached for comment for this story, DeFilippo said only, “I have the utmost respect for Al as a person and as a coach.”

DeFilippo replaced Skinner with Steve Donahue, who was fresh off taking Cornell to the Sweet 16 with one of the best offenses in the Ivy League.

What could be looked at as the usual attrition that comes with a coaching change felt more to Skinner like watching a tournament team dissolve right in front of him.

Rakim Sanders transferred to Fairfield to play for Cooley. He averaged 16.6 points and shot 50 percent from the floor for a team that won 22 games and finished third in the Metro Atlantic Conference.

Evan Ravenel transferred to Ohio State and after sitting out the 2010-11 season, he spent two years with the Buckeyes, reaching the Final Four with them in 2012.

Brady Heslip and Kevin Noreen, who had committed to BC in 2009, asked to be released from their commitments after Skinner was fired. Heslip landed at Baylor and immediately made an impact, knocking down 100 3-pointers as a freshman (second in the Big 12) and helping the Bears to the Elite Eight in 2012. Noreen ended up at West Virginia, where he has gone to the tournament two out of his first three seasons and now serves as a veteran big man valued for his defensive presence.

“At the end of my last year, I had a meeting with my team and they knew that’s what the goal was — ACC championship or bust, basically,” said Skinner. “It was just that cut and dried. I thought we had the ability to do that. That’s why I was really excited about the upcoming year.”

Even with so much turnover, the Eagles team that Skinner left behind won 21 games.

Recruiting paradigm

Back in his days at BC, whenever he was laying the groundwork on a recruit, Cooley would tell Skinner not to call the player first. The way he figured it, his top priority as an assistant was to convince the player and his family how great the head coach was.

“I would tell him, ‘Don’t call him yet. Let me build your brand so when you walk in the room, you light the room up,’ ” said Cooley. “I’m going to build up the boss to where everybody thinks they’re meeting Jesus.”

The way Skinner ran things, his assistants never felt as though they worked for him. They worked with him. And because Cooley, Coen, and Pat Duquette were so good at laying that recruiting groundwork, developing relationships with players, the perception was that they were the ones responsible for keeping the shelves stocked with talent, not Skinner.

Cooley never understood it.

“I don’t know why Al wasn’t given the credit for getting all those players,” he said, “because at the end of the day, they weren’t coming to play for Ed Cooley, they weren’t playing for Tim O’Shea, they weren’t playing for Bill Coen, they weren’t playing for Boston College. They came to play for Al Skinner.”

The irony now is that the branches on the Al Skinner coaching tree are flourishing, even if the trunk is being ignored.

Cooley is in his third season at Providence. Coen’s Northeastern team narrowly missed an NCAA berth last spring. O’Shea has turned Bryant into one of the better teams in the Northeast Conference five years after its jump to Division 1. And Duquette is at the helm of his own Division 1 transition at UMass-Lowell.

“I’m not in the position I’m in, Tim O’Shea’s not in the position that he’s in, Bill Coen’s not in the position he’s in, Pat Duquette’s not in the position he’s in had we not been mentored by Al,” Cooley said. “If he’s that bad of a head coach — or what he’s been stigmatized as — how are we doing what we’re doing?

“It really bothers me because Al did an unbelievable job preparing his assistant coaches. To Al’s fault, he would never take credit for anything and put all the credit on his staff. That’s where all those stories would come from.”

Point, counterpoint

The morning after the news conference announcing Skinner’s firing, the Globe’s Bob Ryan was at Terminal A at Logan Airport, waiting for his Delta flight to the Final Four in Indianapolis. His column that morning was about Skinner — the one that referred to him as “the least-hard-working guy in show business.”

As it turned out, Skinner was on his way to the Final Four, too. On the same flight.

“I said to myself, ‘Let’s get it over with,’ ” recalled Ryan.

They hashed it out for nearly 20 minutes. Skinner picked apart Ryan’s column. Ryan defended what he wrote, and to this day he still does.

“I said, ‘Al, that’s the universal perception of you, I was just writing it down,’ ” Ryan said. “All it did was reiterate what everybody’s been saying privately. All the heads were nodding because everybody knew the story.”

Skinner’s question was, “Who is ‘everybody’?”

“The details were not correct,” Skinner said. “And whose perception is it?”

But the words were out there, always just a Google search away.

“The stigma really, really put him behind the 8-ball in the eyes of other colleges and universities and presidents and athletic directors,” Cooley said. “That’s wrong.”

“I’m not sitting on the other side of the table, so I don’t know what the criteria is for what they need,” Skinner said. “All I know is what I bring to the table and the successes I’ve had, and if that’s what you want for your program, then I become, I think, an ideal candidate.”

Not giving up

Whenever O’Shea thinks about the “circle of life” in college coaching, he can’t help but to think about “Cats.”

It opened in 1982, and over the next 18 years, there were 7,485 performances. The show was synonymous with Broadway. It won seven Tonys and a Grammy. The only show that ran longer was “Phantom of the Opera.” It was on every tourist’s to-do list.

“Everybody said that was going to run forever,” O’Shea said. “It was the most popular show on Broadway. Well, eventually it didn’t. It went for a long time, but at some point it stopped because the cycle had run its course. I think that’s what happens in coaching sometimes.”

Skinner’s program was the longest-running show in the history of BC basketball. His 13-year run was two years longer than that of his predecessor, Jim O’Brien, five years longer than Al McClellan’s reign in the 1940s and ’50s, and longer than the tenures of Bob Cousy (six years) and Gary Williams (four) combined.

Seven of BC’s 18 NCAA Tournament appearances came under Skinner.

But every coach has a life expectancy, and in this era, it’s getting shorter and shorter.

“I think the hardest thing for any coach that gets let go, very few coaches retire on their own terms from coaching,” said O’Shea. “Al was successful enough and young enough that it was only logical that he wanted to keep going.

“Here’s the bottom line. I think if you last 13 years at a place, you’ve had a hell of a career and you’ve done a lot of great things. You probably should be in the school Hall of Fame if you last 13 years.

“I think the important thing though for Al, is just to move on. Whatever happened happened. Now it’s time to move on.”

Jobs have come along that Skinner has passed on. He interviewed at Hofstra and Rhode Island, schools he has deep ties with. He talked to Stevens about a job as a Celtics assistant. (“He would’ve been an excellent coach in the NBA,” said Ryan.)

“He’s been trying really hard to get back into coaching,” said Gary O’Hagan, Skinner’s agent and a BC alumnus. “I think he’s going to overcome any obstacles he has going forward and he’ll be a head coach again.”

Skinner has been back to BC only once. It was for a football game the fall after he was let go. There’s disappointment that, for all the time he spent there, his accomplishments seemed to get buried once it was over. At the same time, he said, if the door were ever to reopen, he would coach there again.

At the moment, the winningest coach in BC history is hiding in plain sight on Bryant’s bench, breathing the basketball air again and taking his first steps forward.

“My hope is the Bryant job will certainly get his profile up,” O’Shea said. “It shows people he wants to coach, it shows that he’s willing to go to a place like Bryant and be an assistant. It sends the right message that this guy isn’t a prima donna. He’s a guy that wants to coach.

“I think that Al deserves a better ending, and hopefully this is just the next chapter. The final chapter has yet to be written.”

Leading the way

Al Skinner posted a school-record 247 victories in his 13 seasons as coach of the Boston College men’s basketball team. A look at the all-time records:

CoachYearsRecord Win pct.
Al Skinner1997-2010247-165.600
Jim O’Brien1986-97168-166.503
Bob Cousy1963-69117-38.755
Don Martin1953-62111-103.519
Tom Davis1977-82100-47.680
Al McClellan1945-5394-79.543
Bob Zuffelato1971-7783-80.509
Gary Williams1982-8676-45.628
Steve Donahue2010-present50-63.442
Chuck Daly1969-7126-24.520
Frank Power1962-6310-16.384

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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