Skinner steps into spotlight
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 12/24/2000

When he coached at the University of Rhode Island, Al Skinner would duti-fully appear on the weekly Atlantic 10 men's basketball teleconference call, ready to do his 10 minutes in the most unenviable time slot of all.

Skinner's turn followed that of John Calipari, who was attracting national interest at Skinner's alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. Major media figures with little interest in the league, but plenty in Coach Cal, would hang up the minute Calipari signed off.

Listening on the open phone line, Skinner could hear all the click-offs as reporters bailed out of the call, rather than listen to him.

Skinner has always understood when the attention has gone elsewhere, which it almost always has.

"I'm not sure if I've ever been 7-0 as a coach," said Skinner, 48, whose Boston College Eagles are 8-0 after yesterday's 88-55 win over Quinnipiac. "Last year, we relied on (guard) Troy Bell. This year we're spreading it around."

For someone with his stellar reputation, Skinner has rarely, if ever, been the first choice or the center of attention. But the former UMass star who some people still consider the second-best player in school history may not be playing second fiddle much longer.

Al Skinner guided his BC Eagles to their first Classic win on the 17th.
"Remember, we were 13th in the Big East last year," Skinner said humbly. But claiming the Commonwealth Cup with last week's 74-65 win over UMass did more than strip the Minutemen of perhaps their last tangible vestige of dominance from Calipari's years.

It put a spotlight on Skinner, who could do Avis commercials after living life as a worthy No. 2.

At Rhode Island, he reached two NCAA tournaments and two NITs, yet was overshadowed by Calipari. He got the BC job only after the Eagles couldn't land Mike Jarvis, and he followed the popular Jim O'Brien, who won the Big East tournament in his final year.

After he left Rhode Island, Jim Harrick's whirlwind success there pushed him aside. And his BC teams couldn't beat UMass until his fourth try, leaving him with the role of runner-up in his own state, and to his own former school.

Even when he played for UMass from 1971-74, Skinner lived in the shadow of Julius Erving, the greatest UMass player of them all. Erving left a year early in 1971, a few months before Skinner's debut.

"When the three of us get together, we always wonder what would have happened had Julius stayed his last year, and he and Al had had a year together," said Jack Leaman, their coach.

"Al's nickname was Silky, and he wasn't a great practice player," Leaman said. "But the other players told me not to worry, because once the uniform went on, Al would be ready."

In three years, Skinner scored 1,235 points, fifth all-time at UMass when he left, and still 16th. He went on to the ABA and NBA, something no other UMass player would do for the next two decades.

Skinner, circa 1973
Skinner has been inducted into halls of fame at both Rhode Island and UMass, and plenty of people, including former UMass teammate Rick Pitino, think his number 30 should be retired at UMass. But it figures that Pitino, a good player but nothing like Skinner, has also overshadowed his pal Al.

Even now, after its first 8-0 start in 16 years and two straight wins over UMass, the highest compliment paid the Eagles is that they're better than they were, which isn't saying a lot.

"I don't think Al's team is overly talented this year, but he has a great temperament," Leaman said. "The kids love playing for him."

Skinner will probably be overlooked for a while longer. BC's football team is in the Aloha Bowl.

A man of Job-like patience, Skinner is in no rush for acclaim.

"We are trying to do this in steps," he said. Maybe the next step will be giving the coach a little more elbow room on center stage.

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