A very successful tenure simply had run its course
You could see and feel it coming. The Boston College basketball program was heading in the wrong direction, and the ACC is no place for mediocrity to become the norm.
Something was just plain wrong at BC. This year’s team, while no top 20 group, was a woeful underachiever. Mysteriously, there were no first-year recruits whatsoever, which certainly ties an NCAA record. People had a right to ask what was going on up there at The Heights.
Yup, Al Skinner had to go.
He had to go because he wasn’t going to change. Al is 57, and completely set in his ways. His M.O. had been successful for 22 years and 385 wins, the last 247 of which came at BC, which makes him the winningest mentor in BC history. But it was clear that even darker days lay ahead, and director of athletics Gene DeFilippo had to take action.
Al is Al is Al. I had to smile when I saw that St. John’s was interviewing Al. Doesn’t St. John’s understand that Al is the least-hard-working guy in show business, that in the world of Division 1 college basketball, there is absolutely no one like him? In a world of 24/7/365 basketball zealots, Al is Mr. Casual.
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. Don’t they know how infrequently Al is seen on the recruiting trail during the offseason, when games are really won and lost? Don’t they know that if you hire Al, you must supply him with a first-class recruiting assistant, one who totally understands Al’s likes, dislikes, and peculiarities? Don’t they know, that, when it comes to offense, Al is, ahem, inflexible?
Gene DeFilippo knew all this, but he was comfortable with all of it because for the first dozen or so years, it worked. It worked because Bill Coen was able to find the players for Al, just as he had when he worked for him at Rhode Island. It was Bill Coen who provided Al with Cuttino Mobley, Tyson Wheeler, Troy Bell, Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, Sean Marshall, and Tyrese Rice, among others.
It was a great partnership. Coen found these fallen-through-the-cracks guys (which every one of the above was; no McDonald’s All-Americans in this bunch) and Al certainly coached ’em up, which is something Eagles fans should not forget.
As Al Skinner goes out the door, he deserves an enormous amount of gratitude for providing BC fans with the unquestioned Golden Era of Boston College basketball.
■seven 20-win seasons.
■seven NCAA appearances.
■a 20-0 start and a No. 3 ranking, BC’s highest ever, in 2004-05.
■the 2001 Big East tournament championship, with all three victories by double digits.
■more ACC regular-season wins than anyone not named Duke or North Carolina from 2005-09.
BC teams were in the national dialogue. Players such as Bell, Smith, Dudley, and Rice were true college stars. In a very real sense, BC could play with anybody, whether it was defeating then-defending national champion three years in a row (Syracuse, UConn, North Carolina) or becoming that rare ACC team to defeat both Duke and Carolina in the same year. I do believe all of this was taken for granted, if not by the BC fandom, then most certainly by the generic local sports fans, many of whom harbor an irrational dislike of all things BC. (Yeah, I’m BC ’68; what of it?)
Skinner’s teams compiled such gaudy records as 27-5 (’00-01), 25-5 (’04-05), and 28-8 (’05-06). The postseasons were marked by tournament disappointments, as BC was unable to advance into a Sweet 16 until 2006.
But that group, anchored by Smith and Dudley, the two greatest forwards in BC history, put it all together down the stretch, losing a squeaker to Duke in the ACC finals and then getting by Nevada and Montana in Salt Lake City to get themselves into the regional in Minneapolis. That group had mastered Al’s complex and compact “flex’’ offense as no Skinner bunch has, before or since. It was the perfect marriage of Coen’s recruiting to Al’s taste, and Al’s ability to install his beloved flex offense, which, when properly synchronized, allows offensive basketball to be played in a phone booth.
The heartbreak came in the round of 16, when BC got ahead of Villanova by 14 in the first half but wound up losing in overtime on a last-second inbounds play.
How good were those 2004-05 and 2005-06 teams? Let’s put it this way. How many schools in America can say that eight players from a two-year sampling were being paid to play professional basketball somewhere on this planet? BC can.
Luck and pairings have so much to do with NCAA success. How often do people reflect on the fact that in both 2004 (Georgia Tech) and 2007 (Georgetown), BC lost NCAA second-round games to teams that wound up in the Final Four? Or that even if BC had defeated Villanova in 2006, its reward would have been a game with eventual two-time champion Florida? Oh, Al had some great teams, all right.
The beginning of the end came when Bill Coen left to become the head coach at Northeastern following that 2005-06 season. With all due respect to Al’s current staff, none of them are Bill Coen.
A second problem is Al’s offense. There are very few high school players suited to play in the flex. Al is not too big on running, which leads me to ask just what led BC junior-to-be Reggie Jackson to select BC in the first place. This young man could be electrifying if turned loose in an up-tempo offense. He was never going to reach his potential in the flex. The next coach will inherit a tremendous asset, provided, of course, that young Mr. Jackson doesn’t get the transfer itch.
It was a very good run, and there should be no regrets on either side. Al was good for BC, and BC was good for Al.
But if a coach has only one way of doing things, and it’s quite clear that his preferred style is no longer working, then his boss really doesn’t have a choice, does he?