Skinner a cool alternative to Pitino's fire
By Dan Wetzel, Senior Writer, 12/1/2001

YPSILANTI, Mich. -- They both arrived in little Amherst in the fall of 1970, two Long Islanders, one black, one white, different people following the same things: a well-respected coach, a superstar UMass teammate named Julius Erving, a chance at a career in basketball and an education in the process.

Al Skinner was the 6-foot-4 one with the afro, the cool persona and smooth game. Rick Pitino was the scrappy point guard with lots of questions, marginal ability but an endless well of energy.

At Massachusetts they became teammates, they became friends and, after graduation, they both became successful basketball coaches, practicing the same profession in ways as different as their personalities.

Pitino's high-energy, high-profile style is in Louisville now, the intense, colorful, fashionable coach rebuilding a faded dynasty. Skinner, meanwhile, is here relaxing in sweats and sandals Friday in a hotel suite near the University of Michigan, the day before his unbeaten 15th-ranked Boston College Eagles take on the Wolverines.

On the sideline Skinner, 49, is always calm, almost unemotional. In conversations he is extremely thoughtful and completely void of shtick, delivering his honest opinions in a smooth, balanced tone. He is big on recruiting players based on their character, not their national ranking. He works smart, he says, often getting tasks done quickly so he can get home to his family in time for dinner. He rarely puts in the 16-hour days many coaches consider normal.

He doesn't overwhelm you with ambition or intensity, although he has plenty of both. He has all sorts of unique coaching theories, like his take on how to motivate players.

"When I recruit them I tell them I'm not a motivator. That's not what I am about. I teach the game. I'll show them how to play, but I am not here to make them do it," he said.

Whether it is because by saying less the kids listen more, or they respect his NBA background, or the fact he is always straight with them, or maybe it is just because he finds players who can thrive under his guidance, the kids seem to motivate themselves.

Boston College shocked the nation last season, running off a 27-5 campaign. The Eagles (4-0) have now won 31 of their last 36 games and don't look to be slowing down anytime soon. Which is why you'll hear nary a complaint about Skinner's calm demeanor in Chestnut Hill. Eight coach of the year awards last season doesn't hurt either.

"Just because Al's laid back," said Jack Leaman, who coached both Skinner and Pitino at UMass, "don't think he is not demanding. He's a very demanding coach. He is just as competitive as Rick. He just goes about it in his own way."

His own way is a product of his childhood. If Pitino is the yuppie, Wall Street caricature, Skinner is the Shaft-like, soulful child of the late 60s, early 70s. Same New York, different New York.

"I'm a New Yorker," said Skinner, who hails from Hempstead, "but when we were growing up (high-energy) was not the way you acted. Leaning how to be cool was in. Being cool, now that was the way you acted.

"Rick and I have always been different. Rick was always a fanatic for the game. I loved it and I enjoyed it, but there were other things. Basketball wasn't who I was, it was just part of who I was. I still read things he says he's done and I'll say, 'man, I would have never done that.'

"I read in an article that he went and met with a recruit on his honeymoon. Now there ain't no way I'm meeting with a recruit on my honeymoon. I'd tell that young man, 'call me tomorrow, call me next week. I'm on my honeymoon.'"

In a game where Pitino's style is studied and followed by so many young coaches, where there are type-A's on seemingly every bench, where image can often supersede everything, Skinner is unique. And he certainly isn't trying to be critical of Pitino. In fact the two remain close friends and speak regularly.

"Al is a great friend," said Pitino in October. "We were never alike, he does things his way and is very successful at it. We just do things in a different manner. But that's Al and I think that is great."

When they attended UMass it was a tumultuous time on one of America's most liberal campuses. Pitino noticed all the politicos, but spent most of his time in the gym. Skinner, however, ventured into a world of hippies and activists and commies, not to mention ROTC cadets and working class kids just trying to get a degree and a whole big campus full of people with opinions.

He was naturally shy but he fell quickly for the scene in Amherst, the late-night bull sessions where Vietnam was debated, the class discussions that could grow into heated political arguments and the sheer diversity of the place; from the socialists to the capitalists, from the libertarians to the vegetarians. His intellectual curiosity was awakened.

"In college people are more open, more honest," said Skinner. "People don't have an agenda. It gave me an appreciation for different points of view and the patience to learn and take from different people. You meet people willing to express opposing views and once you get out into the real world, you never have that again."

At least until you speak to Skinner. He still craves an open dialogue, isn't afraid to say what's on his mind, and still looks for that old life, both for himself and his players. While most coaches seek more control over their players, Skinner would be fine with less.

He'd rather see his players eat, live and study with regular students, not exist just among themselves in set-apart dorms, training tables and personal tutors that are the rage at many programs today. He wouldn't even fear a kid going out socially on a Saturday night, even misstepping, if only the media didn't make such a big deal about every mistake a kid makes.

"Sometimes we judge too harshly," he said. "If the individual is 19, 20 years old, they shouldn't be drinking but we all know it happens at college. I don't know if the kid should have his face splashed up on television if he makes a minor mistake."

And unlike most coaches, running his program is not a be-all and end-all pursuit. There is no question he wants to win, he demands effort and accountability and he expects tasks to be completed, but he also believes in family, in finding time to read, in being well-rounded.

"For the 40 minutes of the game, we'll be ready," said Skinner, now in his fifth season at BC.

His recruiting philosophy is fairly simple, he wants athletic players who are good kids who want to compete, learn and take advantage of a great university. Then he teaches them basketball by rarely raising his voice to instruct.

"It's the way I'm comfortable, the way I want people to treat me," he said. "If you come at me aggressively, I'll come back at you aggressively. And then I'm not sure either one of us is listening. When I tell them something to help them, I want them to hear it. I'm trying to teach."

None of this is a surprise to those who have known him longest. In college Skinner's nickname was "Silk" for his propensity to slide through practice but turn it on when wearing a silk game jersey.

"He was not a great practice player because he didn't waste a whole lot of energy," said Leaman. "He just got out of it what he needed."

It was enough to become an honorable mention All-American and spend six seasons in the NBA and ABA.

"People have always questioned how hard I work, how motivated I am," he said. "I guess that is because I don't show it. But ask anyone who has competed against me and they'll say I work as hard as anybody. I just don't wear it.

"I work as hard as I have to. I work as hard as needed to get it done. And I'll stay with it until it gets done. But once I've got it done, it's done."

And then there really isn't much else to say. This is not a coach who seeks media attention or, like his classmate, writes books about how he succeeds.

"I'm not going to write a book," said Skinner. "I don't think I have anything to say that has any use."

Said Leaman: "Al is very assured of what he is and what he can be. He doesn't need to go around telling people he can coach. And he doesn't need people to tell him he can coach."

Skinner is optimistic about his current group of Eagles, which return stars Troy Bell, Ryan Sidney and Kenny Walls from a year ago. But he isn't into comparing teams and really has no expectations for the program other than having each player, from star to benchwarmer, maximize their ability.

Which is maybe why his teams are often deep -- this group has nine players averaging double figure minutes. His practices are said to be crisp, direct and effective. Not surprisingly, there isn't a lot of wasted time, energy or emotion.

"It's the results that are important," he said.

And there is something Skinner and Pitino, two old college friends, two hugely successful coaches and two very different people, would agree on.

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