Eagles' Unlikely Dream Season Also a Triumph for Skinner

Eagles' Unlikely Dream Season Also a Triumph for Skinner

BC's even-keeled hoops mentor was 'the perfect personality' for the job

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Perhaps the best indicator of just how far Coach Al Skinner has brought the Boston College men's basketball program came shortly after 7 p.m. on March 11, when the Eagles had officially learned of their berth in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Following the Eagles' invitation to compete for college basketball's biggest prize, Skinner stood in the Shea Room of Conte Forum trading quips in a live TV interview with ESPN's ebullient hoop impresario, Dick Vitale.

Less than four years earlier, Skinner had stood in that same spot to announce he was taking the job as BC's head basketball coach. More than a few sportswriters wondered why Skinner would want to leave behind his success at the University of Rhode Island, whom he had coached to a surprising run in the 1997 NCAA tourney, to take on the task of rebuilding BC's hoop program.

Men's Basketball Coach Al Skinner (right) and Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo celebrate BC's victory in the Big East Tournament Championship, capping the Eagles' worst-to-first season. (Photo by John Quackenbos)

The road wasn't always easy. Skinner's teams lost more often than they won during his first three years at the helm. But this year's edition of Eagle basketball produced one of the most successful seasons in Boston College sports history.

Among the team's many accomplishments were a school-record 27 victories, a leap from the last-place finish of a year ago to the Big East Conference championship and a lofty No. 7 ranking in the national polls.

The dream season catapulted BC into the national media spotlight by the beginning of the "March Madness" scramble for the coveted NCAA hoop crown. Following a first-round victory over Southern Utah, the Eagles' Cinderella-type run ended on March 17 with a heartbreaking three-point loss to a taller University of Southern California team.

Skinner was the runaway winner of the Big East Coach of the Year Award, and received national Coach of the Year kudos from ESPN's Vitale, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, among others, for engineering the Eagles' remarkable turnaround.

As pleasantly surprising as the Eagles' progress has been, his colleagues and friends say Skinner was absolutely the right coach to oversee such a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Long-time Skinner coaching associate Tim O'Shea, who followed his mentor from Rhode Island to Chestnut Hill in 1997, offered a simple comment: "It's magical."

O'Shea continued, "Al doesn't change at all. He is so even-keeled. He's the perfect personality for a rebuilding job. There's no difference in his day to day temperament from the day he got the job until today. That's a big part of why we are where we are today."

Reflecting recently on the past four seasons, Skinner said he never had doubts that he and his team would reach their goal. "This is where we wanted to be: getting the Boston College program back where it belongs," Skinner said.

Skinner said that there was no secret to the team's resurgence. "We just made sure that we worked hard every day, and we have done that from the very first day.

Coach Al Skinner and his players at the March 11 NCAA "Selection Sunday" reception in the Conte Forum Shea Room. "Al is not a dictator," says a colleague. "It's much more of a collaborative effort, and the kids feel empowered by that approach." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"We knew it would be a marathon," he added, "but we took our time and did it right."

He did it right on the recruiting trail, too, landing Troy Bell, the Big East Co-Player of the Year and Tournament MVP and the first sophomore in BC history to score 1,000 career points, and freshman Ryan Sidney, a sparkplug guard who was one of the league's top rookies.

The return next year of Bell and Sidney, plus the presence of three other experienced lettermen and an impressive incoming class, signals a solid footing for future BC seasons.

"We tried to show [our recruits] that this is a basketball environment where we can win," Skinner said. "We told them about the history of the BC program and how successful it had been in the past.

"We also told them about the success that we had enjoyed as a coaching staff at the University of Rhode Island," he said, "and that if they looked at that dual combination, we believed it would lead us to be successful here."

O'Shea said that the logical strategy for a program seeking to reverse its low basketball rating is initially to work for a winning season and hope for a bid to the lesser post-season tournament, the National Invitation Tournament.

This year's Eagles short-circuited that traditional route. O'Shea notes that BC's Ratings Percentage Index, a computer-based indicator of team strength used widely by sports media, went from 211 in Skinner's first year to 146 last year. When the Eagles' 2000-01 season ended, it stood at 5.

"That's absolutely mind-boggling," O'Shea said. "I don't know if that has ever happened before."

O'Shea feels that Skinner's strength as a coach lies in his consistency. "He's never too high, never too low, sort of like the old UCLA coach John Wooden.

"That makes for an extremely pleasant working environment and I think it is a big part of why our staff has been able to stay together so long," O'Shea said. "We really get along and have a great chemistry. We enjoyed every minute of this past season. Some coaching staffs can't say that."

Skinner prides himself on being a teacher first, according to O'Shea. "He'll be the first one to tell you, 'I'm not a motivator. I'll teach you how to do a certain thing, and if you want to do it, it will come from within.'"

As a result, the coaching staff looks to recruit student-athletes who will flourish in a competitive situation. "Al is not a dictator," O'Shea said. "It's much more of a collaborative effort, and the kids feel empowered by that approach."

Skinner's players agree. One of Skinner's original recruits, senior Kenny Harley, said, "He has been the same ever since I've been here. He was able to get all 12 of us on the same page. It's the same approach he uses with school, with our families, with our academics.

"He took the time to build a foundation," Harley said, "and when he got it in place, we got the results."

Skinner is quick to share that success with his players. "I'm just extremely pleased for these kids, especially the seniors [Harley, Jonathan Beerbohm, Nicolas Dunn, Jon Ekweozor and Xavier Singletary].

"Hard work doesn't always pay off in victories," he added. "Hopefully, the values they have learned in the past four years will be a part of their lives and when they are confronted with problems, they will have the resources to make the right decisions."


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